The Deepening Racial Chasm in America

Professor Glaude discusses themes in his book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Democracy in Black. That’s the title of Princeton University Professor Eddie Glaude’s important exploration of how race enslaves the American soul. Chair of the Department for African-American studies, Glaude argues that racial inequality is institutionalized within the present democratic rule. One democracy for blacks, one for everyone else. We exchanged notes in a 2011 interview for The Root magazine, in which Glaude echoed my guest, Baratunde Thurston’s insight that “post-racial or post-racist,” while lovely concepts, is not the outcome of the Obama presidency. Instead, it’s precipitated, perhaps unwittingly, a deepened racial chasm. Glaude contends that economic inequality among black Americans underlies the new civil rights imperative. Of course, I’ll ask Glaude to weigh in on the police-on-black violence plaguing communities of color, the activism of Black Lives Matter, and the political debate ensnaring his own campus about removing President Wilson’s name from the School of Public Affairs.

But first, Glaude concludes his book with the point that unrequited is the economic justice for which Dr. King preached. So, metaphorically, when you climb into Democracy in Black and walk around, Eddie, how does it feel?

GLAUDE: Part of what I want to do is to set the stage, right? And, and, and setting the stage involves, uh, a basic claim. We talk about the achievement gap, we talk about the wealth gap, but at the heart of, uh, the problem that continues to plague this country is what I’m calling the “value gap.” And the value gap is that, uh, no matter our stated principles, uh, no matter what we take ourselves to, to, to be committed to, that in this country that is so-called committed to democracy, white people are valued more than others.

And to the extent to which that belief obtains, it’s true, no matter what the inputs are, the outputs are going to be the same. Because it over-determines how we think about democracy, right? So, in those moments of breakthrough, uh, whether it’s our refusal to, uh, submit to the tyranny of King George, we reconcile, uh, our demands for freedom with the institution of slavery. In the context of the Civil War, where we fight a battle over the scourge of slavery, right? Uh, uh, we reconcile ourselves, redemption with the South, we reconcile ourselves to, uh, uh, white supremacy and convict leasing emerges. It’s not un…, undone until the 1940s.

Uh, we can begin to think about the emergence of Jim and Jane Crow. At each moment of advance there’s an assertion of the value gap. And what Democracy in Black has always been about is a challenge to the idea that the problem is just simply a gap between our ideals and our practices, right? And to me, that stretches the notion of what agency is all about, right? This idea that we are a “shining city on the hill,” as Ronald Reagan would say, that we’re the redeemer nation, and the only thing we need to do is live up to our ideals, and everything will be better. When in fact, what I want to suggest, right, is that the value gap is baked into the very idea of who we take ourselves to be. It’s baked into American exceptionalism. And what Democracy in Black has always been about is trying to disentangle democratic principles of faith in everyday, ordinary people from the idea that, because you have white skin, you are valued more than others. And to the extent that’s true, right, Democracy in Black has always been on the, at the center of advancing the cause of democracy in this country. Not just for black people, for all the, all the most vulnerable people in the country.

HEFFNER: In a very real application, Eddie.

GLAUDE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Democracy in Black has been disenfranchised in disenfranchising people of color.

GLAUDE: Right, so, I mean, we, we don’t, you know, it’s, it’s, we think about 2008, and we think about it as this kind of extraordinary moment of triumph, right? It’s, it’s the kind of, uh, culmination of, of that standard story of the black freedom struggle, from Rosa Parks sitting in, in ’55 or the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in ’63. Uh, his untimely murder in ’68, to Obama’s election in 2008. That’s the story.

But what’s so fascinating about 2008, is that at the moment which people were celebrating, uh, his election, so many people were receiving pink slips on their doors, or at their offices, right? Eviction notices on their doors, or pink, pink slips at, at their jobs. Uh, people were losing their homes. Uh, folks found themselves, um, caught up in, in, in, you know, this extraordinary, uh, carceral state, um, wondering about whether or not their children will have a better future than they, than they themselves had.

Um, and, and so, and then you combine that with a kind of public culture, a kind of political environment, Alexander, where, uh, Republicans wrap their patriotism in the flag of bigotry. Right, you know, bigotry, uh, gets kind of concealed by patriotism. And so we see in places like North Carolina, places like Florida, places like Pennsylvania, folks putting on the ballot, right, efforts to disenfranchise folk. If we’re a true democracy, it seems like we want everybody to vote. We want to try to get everybody to get out and participate in the electoral process.

But, you know, we have to kind of conc…, we have to concede this claim. And this is something that we have to put our minds, wrap our minds around. The last major piece of legislation, coming out of the 1960s, was 1968, the Fair Housing Act. Just 12 years later, just 12 years later, Ronald Reagan was elected. So, between ’65 and 1980, we’re going to resolve generations of problems, uh, generations of, of racism, of, of the value gap? Because, we know that, by 1980, right, there’s a systematic attempt to undo, to, to dismantle, uh, the gains of the black freedom struggle, right?

So, we’re living in these extraordinary times. They’re, they’re, they’re complicated.

HEFFNER: It seems like, Eddie, the, a prerequisite for the disenfranchisement at the polling station is an economic status that is, like we said before, inferior to, to that of, of white people, or other people who have the means to be able to defend their rights, and have polling stations that will honor their rights. So, when you talk about economic devastation, you’re really extending that view beyond the 1980s. You’re saying, here, that that is embedded in the tradition ever since, and we’re last year celebrating the 150th anniversary of abolition of slavery, that at that critical moment—and you’re a historian, so I want you to weigh in on this—when … people of color, formerly enslaved people could have been empowered in this democracy with the right to own land, and in fact, it was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachussetts who wanted to repatriate in that way, so that he would admit the Confederate territories if the land that had been occupied by the Confederacy was divvied up so that this new class of free people would actually have something of value. It, it goes back that far.

GLAUDE: Right.

HEFFNER: Do people have a memory?

GLAUDE: Ha. This is, I mean, that’s a great question. I mean, we’re. we are, uh, uh, as a nation, we are very good at “dis-remembering.” Right, to take up a word from uh, Toni Morrison’s classic novel, Beloved, uh, there’s a way in which we, uh, uh, kind of think about the past, Alexander, … that is always in a way that is a confirmation of our inherent goodness. Uh, the ugliness of our actions, uh, don’t, uh, occasion an opportunity for us to engage in self-reflection, … as a nation. … instead, we say, we’re always on a road to a more perfect union. … the formula is, is, is, is efficient, is, in its ability to absolve us of any wrongdoing. I like to say that America, uh, kind of lives in a kind of perpetual state of adolescence. It’s, it’s, it feels like Peter Pan’s Never-Neverland. We don’t have to be responsible for anything.

But the interesting thing about this, though, is that, just as, uh, in the aftermath of emancipation and African-Americans engaged in, uh, uh, picking themselves up in the, in, in the aftermath of the failed promises, began to save, began to imagine a future for their children, the Freedmen, Freedmen’s Bank collapsed. And W.E.B. Dubois talks about this in his classic text, The Souls of Black Folk and what that meant for the economic well-being of this community. Just as that moment was a catastrophe in the economic lives of black folk, 2008 and the housing crisis, right, can only be, uh, considered as something that’s, uh, similar in its effect and consequence.

Most African-Americans, their wealth resides in their homes. Uh, and we see, or we saw in 2008, just simply a devastation, all the wealth of the ‘90s. All of the gains in the ‘90s, completely wiped out. We saw the wealth gap, you know, uh, between white and black expand over the course of President Obama’s presidency, right. We see so many young black families falling below the poverty line. So many black children growing up in poverty. So many black children and brown children going to schools that are not preparing them. Not only preparing them such that they can imagine a bright future, but preparing them so that they can work in places other than cleaning up buildings, right. ‘Cause they’re being tracked, in some ways, to particular parts of the labor market.

So, while people were talking about recovery, and this is, this is where the book begins, while people were talking about recovery, I was talking to people like Christine Frasier. I was talking to people like Patricia. Christine lost her home in, in Atlanta, Georgia. Patricia, who spent her life as a police officer, public servant, lost her home. Uh, thinking about, uh, uh, uh, everyday, ordinary people, trying to piece their lives together. And so, this isn’t just simply about, uh, uh, uh, a civil rights, uh, uh, agenda item of economic justice, Alexander.

What I’m trying to figure out is the paradox: what does it means for the nation to talk about “we’ve recovered,” and black communities and black people are suffering in the way that they’re suffering? The only thing one can conclude from that is that some people just don’t care.

HEFFNER: Well, evidently they did not care about, sort of the disappearance of black folks until police misconduct cases.

GLAUDE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that police misconduct in Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore …

GLAUDE: Right.

HEFFNER: Here, in Staten Island.

GLAUDE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Re-exposed the plight of urban America? It had just been, plain-and-simple, forgotten, hadn’t it?

GLAUDE: Right, it had been out-of-view, right. I mean, you know, this is the one thing, uh, that we’ve been, so, we’ve become so good at, as well, is blaming, uh, people who are on the margins for their circumstance, right. The most vulnerable are most vulnerable because they’ve, they have failed, in some way, not that we as a community have failed, in any sort of way. Uh, and so, what you saw with uh, uh, the case of Eric Garner, what you saw with the case of Mike Brown, uh, or Rekia Boyd, I mean we can—Sandra Bland, uh, we—Laquan McDonald—I mean, we can just, I mean, the list goes on, and, and on, and on.

These are, these were just wicks, these were just tied to the powder-keg, right, and what you see are these young people who have this amazing skill-set, uh tied to technology, um, who have just simply had enough. They’ve been burdened, overburdened with debt. They don’t see any future in front of them. They’re over-policed. Public schools are failing them, and they’re harassed day-in and day-out. Stop-and-frisk, we know about that, here in New York, right? Um, what that meant for them, in their daily living.

And so, and then you have, right, uh, unrestrained state power. Right, I mean they left Michael Brown’s body, whether you agree with how they accounted for it or not, his body was left in the middle of the street for four-and-a-half hours. And it’s an apartment complex. The streets aren’t wide like Fifth Avenue, right? It’s an apartment complex, so you could look out your back window and see his dead body. So what are, what’s the trauma for the kids in that space? And so what you saw is this, this, this rally around police brutality, right, becoming the point-of-entry to speak to unimaginable misery, to catastrophe.

But that’s just one example. We also saw, in North Carolina, with the Moral Mondays movement, the forward, Forward Together movement, Reverend Barber. People are organizing to speak to a wide range of issues, as the mean-spirited nature of American public life has devastated the lives of so many people.

HEFFNER: You write here, in “The Resurrection,” “We have to change the terms of political debate. This involves changing our view of government, our view of black and white people, and our view of what matters to us as Americans.” You go on to say, “The idea of politics I’m suggesting here assumes a different kind of leadership. It insists on the capacities and responsibilities of everyday, ordinary black people, and urges them to reach for a higher self, even in opportunity deserts.”

GLAUDE: Right. Right. So, part of what I’m calling for is a “revolution of value.” It’s my echo of Dr. King. That, if we’re going to fundamentally change, uh, if we’re going to save American democracy, uh, we’re going to have to engage in a fundamental transformation of how we orient ourselves, uh, to, to the circumstances in front of us. And that change, that revolution of value has to take place at three levels. We have to change how we view government. And we change how we view government by way of what we demand of government. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that government is bad, big government is bad, it’s wasteful, that it has no real, substantive role, it’s oppressive, right? It’s only function is for the defense, or to ensure to the efficient workings of the market. The social safety net has eroded. What is the role of government in securing the public good?

Instead of buying into this old notion, this notion that has been around since the 1970s, and of course, we can trace it back much earlier, uh, that government, big government is bad. Uh, what we need to do is to offer a conception of government that’s tied to a fundamental affirmation of the dignity and standing of everyday, ordinary people. That they deserve a decent wage, that they deserve a roof over their, uh, a roof over their heads, that they deserve, right, the opportunity to dream dreams and make those dreams a reality. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that we have to change our view of black people, which means we have to change our view of white people. At the heart of this, I begin to, I’m arguing, is the value gap. The value gap is the belief that white people are valued more than others. And that’s not simply, uh, a view held by loud racists, like Donald Trump, or others. That view is evidenced in our racial habits, Alexander. It’s evidenced in the very spaces we occupy, right? There’s a reason why we know about the black side of town and the white side of town. There’s a reason why know about Spanish neighborhoods, as opposed to white neighborhoods, or Irish.

The very built space, the built environment of the United States reflects the value gap. We learn whether or not we’re worthy or not in our schools, in our workplaces, right, in our neighborhoods, right. So we have to change our view of black people. That we’re not disposable. That no population’s disposable. And just because you’re white doesn’t mean something, that you deserve something more.

And then the last thing we have to do is change what matters to us. It speaks to what Occupy was talking about, that speaks to a broad kind of critique of the deep and corrosive materialism that I think, uh, that distorts and disfigures the American soul. We’ve got to, we’ve got to start valuing human beings. We’ve got to start valuing these babies.

HEFFNER: And how does that value gap play out, as I mentioned in the intro, on your own campus?

GLAUDE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I, I was very interested in your initial response to the Wilson re-naming. This is the former President of the University, former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a bona fide racist.

GLAUDE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: The students pushed for his removal, um, in the name of a school on campus. Um, and … I think that the, there are elements there that speak to values.

GLAUDE: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Now, there are many monuments and memorials and universities, but to what extent do you equate naming a school in this, in this discussion of values, with adulation?

GLAUDE: Right. You know, I’m so proud of those students. Um, you know, before, uh, they sat-in the president’s office, uh, there was a kind of uncritical embrace of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. Uh, they forced a conversation, a conversation that is ongoing at Princeton, a conversation that has now widened, uh, to the nation broadly. Um, and, I think, um, what’s important is that symbols represent—certain symbols, I believe, represent our national collective aspiration. Uh, and, uh, we can’t, uh, whitewash, uh, uh, our past. We can’t deny it. Uh, but we have to confront it. We can’t dis-remember.

And what the students have for-, have forced Princeton to do is to kind of look at what does it mean to represent Princeton through the image of Woodrow Wilson. Not just simply because he segregated, right, uh, Washington, D.C. and the federal bureaucracy, uh, or not simply because his foreign policy, uh, uh, even with regards to the League of Nations, but in terms of Puerto Rico, the Philippines reflected a commitment to white supremacy, even though he’s the founder of modern liberalism, in some ways, one of the key architects of modern liberalism.

And it’s much more than just simply being complex here, Alex. When the Soviet Union failed, they attacked the symbol of Lenin. Why? Because Lenin, according to those folk, didn’t represent the best of their aspirations. So as we’re trying to re-imagine what Princeton will be in the 21st century, the students are forcing a reck-, forcing a reckoning with the central image of the institution. And that’s the conversation that we’re having, and I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m so proud of them, and I’m so proud of Princeton for engaging in it.

HEFFNER: I, I think there are two sides to the coin in this situation, in the sense that being ahistorical can be counterproductive, ultimately, if you are mis-remembering, dis-remembering. Uh, how concerned are you, if at all, that … um, removing his name would actually have the opposite effect?

GLAUDE: Right, right, so, I think there’s different kinds of claims. I think, you know, uh, when, it’s, it’s like removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn.

HEFFNER: Right.

GLAUDE: Right, that, that’s, I don’t think that’s the same kind of claim that’s being made here. I think, when we choose our symbols, uh, symbols that supposedly represent the best of our collective aspirations, um, uh, it, it is important for us, uh, to be honest, and genuine, and unflinching in our confrontation of the complexity of those symbols, and make a choice.

HEFFNER: Right.

GLAUDE: And what we’ve done in the past is that we’ve just simply whitewashed that complexity.

HEFFNER: I think what you’re bringing to the attention of the general public is that racism was not a footnote. I mean, the way that it has been taught is that, he gave a standing ovation to Birth of a Nation, and therefore, he was a racist.

GLAUDE: Right.

HEFFNER: But his racism is more deeply rooted than that.

GLAUDE: Right, and it’s in, and, you know, and it’s, for us, it’s harder, because he’s a national treasure. It would be easier for the nation to, to, to cast Woodrow Wilson aside if he was solely a product, only a product of the South. Even though he was Virginia—you know, where he’s from, if he was just the South. Because, the South, often, as the region, bears the burden of our racist past. But Woodrow Wilson belongs to the nation, not just to the South. And because, so to con-, so to indict him is to indict America. That’s why, that’s why they’ve touched a nerve, and that’s why it’s so important for us to honestly confront it.

HEFFNER: Let’s finish with one more passage: “White fear requires that we make white people feel comfortable about race.” You go on to say, “If we are angry, we have to express that anger in a way that white people find politically acceptable.” I couldn’t find a sentiment that more clearly conveyed what was your early, uh, observation that the President was afraid of appearing as that stereotypical …

GLAUDE: Yeah, “angry black man.”

HEFFNER: Angry black man.

GLAUDE: Right.

HEFFNER: And so, when you prescribe here, the issue can’t be all about black people, we have to lift all boats, um. “All of this happens because of one unmistakable fact. If we talk directly about black suffering in this country, we risk alienating large segments of white America, and jumpstarting their fears.”

GLAUDE: And, and people, people don’t see the irony of that. Right, to say that, to talk about black suffering directly, uh, risks alienating white people.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s going to chance as they see black people the victims of a kind of new millennium lynching?

GLAUDE: I don’t know. ‘Cause when we look at the data around the different perceptions, around Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Rekia Boyd and, uh, Sandra Bland, and all the folks we know, uh, the data is very clear. There’s just a clear racial divide in the perception of, of, around those murders, and the level of empathy around those deaths. Um, so, my thinking is this: we can no longer dance the dance, Alex. If my concern in, in, in talking about the suffering of black folk, is worrying about whether or not I’m going to trigger, trigger the fears of white folks, so I have to temper how I speak about that suffering, how I advocate on behalf of that suffering, then we are going to reproduce the value gap, and the habits that keep us in this dance, that keep us going around and ‘round and ‘round.

HEFFNER: It’s been said that the President is going to speak his mind when he leaves office.

GLAUDE: Yeah, I, that, and, to me, if he does, it’ll indict him even more. By every statistical measure, black folk are catching hell. And we should be shouting from the rooftops. Uh, um, uh, but, um, trying to protect him, trying to resist, uh, the kind of viciousness of the, of an ideological right, um, many of us have not been as vocal as we should have been.

HEFFNER: I don’t think we should conclude this powerful segment without saying why he may not have. Because this is a bigoted country, and he doesn’t want to be assassinated.

GLAUDE: Right, I mean …

HEFFNER: Is that …

GLAUDE: More death threats than any president in the history of the country, uh, and, and, and, I mean, this is real. And see, until we confront that, with love, right, until we confront the fact that, in our daily lives, white people are valued more than others, which rig, that belief then rigs our social practices, our political practices, our economic practices, such that, no matter what we do, the outcomes will still be, uh, reflect, uh, um, uh, the value gap. Until we, until we get to that, until we concede that, right, uh, we’ll still be in this quagmire. And so, for me, in the best of the black freedom tradition, we have to do “Democracy in Black” again. And if we don’t succeed this time, I’m afraid, uh, for what, what the future holds for our country.

HEFFNER: Eddie, thank you for joining me today.

GLAUDE: Thank you. This was a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again, next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.

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  1. 'The Making of the Modern Black Diaspora' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Joshua Guild 35:17
  2. 'The Pulse of Black Life in the Long 19th Century' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Autumn Womack 30:42
  3. 'Rethinking Empire and Democracy' Reena N. Goldthree, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. 44:49
  4. 'The Formation of Religio-Racial Identity' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Judith Weisenfeld 47:32
  5. 'What Was African American Marriage?' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Tera Hunter 44:59
  6. 'Before Cornel West, After Cornel West' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Cornel West 52:46
  7. 'An Insistence on Not Being Discouraged' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Chika Okeke-Agulu 55:19
  8. 'A Through Line for African American Studies' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Imani Perry 44:07
  9. 'Activism and Risk in the Face of Trump' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Asanni York, Destiny Crockett 43:02
  10. 'Langston Hughes, Religious Thinker' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Wallace Best 45:50
  11. 'Convergences and Dissonance' Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, Naomi Murakawa, & Imani Perry 60:08