This is the second installment of Freedom Education, a seven-part series of conversations between graduate students and luminary scholars. Presented in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, this series considers reading, learning, and writing as politics. Read series editors Stuart Schrader and Nathan Connolly’s introduction here.
Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a professor in the African-American Studies Department at Princeton University. She studies racial inequality in public policy as well as Black social movements and community organizing. She is the author of the award-winning books Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership and From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and editor of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. In addition, she is a contributing writer and columnist for the New Yorker.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to discuss her journey through academia and the political moment we’re experiencing as a nation. While the country is struggling with incoherent and inadequate responses to the COVID-19 crisis, far-right terrorism, and an ever-growing housing crisis, local organizers and activists are building networks of community care to meet the needs created by decades of neoliberal policies that have abandoned cities. We talked about what it would take to extrapolate from these local efforts, rebuild public engagement and cooperation on the left, and move toward the kind of “social transformation” we need.
Raychel Gadson (RG): What brought you into a doctoral program and set you on your current trajectory that led to Race for Profit? What were you doing before entering graduate school?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (KT): I was working in Chicago, political organizing first, and then organizing with tenants. I worked for the Illinois Tenants Union as a tenant advocate. This meant that I went to court with people to try to stall or completely subvert their eviction.
I really loved that job. For a long time, I was just organizing and hanging out, doing things that people in their 20s do. I found this job, and I really liked it.
My boss, a lawyer, was so racist. Brazenly. Sometimes, it’s ambiguous racism. You’d ask yourself, was that racist? We went to court one day in DuPage County, a rich white county in the Chicagoland area. It’s a white suburb, and it’s the kind of place where all the Black people are at the courthouse. And my boss got into some altercation with a Black man in the courthouse. When we were driving back to Chicago—and this is a white guy who fashioned himself as a “liberal”—he said to me, “One day I’ll tell you the difference between niggers and Black people.” He says this to me while we’re just driving down the highway!
I’m sitting in the car, barreling down the highway, asking myself, “What happened in my life that has put me in this position where I have to like listen to this fucking nonsense?”
I needed to leave. But like most people, I needed the health insurance that this job provided, the pay that this job provided.
Also, I didn’t have a degree. I didn’t have a BA. I’d gone to school early on and dropped out a few times. First, I was interested in modernism and poetics, modernism and American letters, and then I had gone back for history. At the City College of New York, I took every history class. I think I took 35 history classes. Finally, they said, “Okay, you have to take some other classes. You have to do something else. You can’t just keep taking history classes.” So I left. I didn’t have a degree.
RG: So when did you go back for your BA?
KT: I ended up entering a returning-adult program at Northeastern Illinois University, which is a working-class commuter school in Chicago. I went there because it was the cheapest school by far. It was also a mile away from my workplace.
For 16 months, I went to class from 8:00 to 8:50 a.m., which gave me 10 minutes to get to work. And then, I went back for lunch from 12:00 to 12:50 p.m., which gave me time to get back. And then I took classes from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. for about 16 months because I wanted to go to school, to get out of this job.
But, more importantly, I wanted to understand why Chicago was as segregated as it was. That was the question that I was trying to figure out. I was singularly focused on this question and finding a graduate program where I could examine it. I applied to three programs. I got rejected from two and then got into one, Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies.
I began in the fall of 2007. The crisis in housing for Black people had already begun in 2006 and 2007. And then the financial crisis occurred in 2008. It was a good time to be in graduate school and be protected from the vicissitudes of the US economy.
But it was also an interesting time, given that I was working on segregation and housing. The specific thing that I was interested in researching was this issue of contract buying in Chicago: where Black people couldn’t get conventional mortgages and had to buy their homes on installment plans. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The Case for Reparations” came out in 2014, and it was organized around this guy Clyde Ross, who was a Black homeowner on the West Side of Chicago and North Lawndale.
I had interviewed Clyde Ross for my first-year research-methods paper in 2008. That paper won the History Department’s Best First-Year Paper prize and my home department’s Best First-Year Paper prize. And then, Beryl Satter’s book, Family Properties, which is all about contract buying in Chicago, came out the following year. I had to change tracks, but that was how I began my trajectory.
RG: COVID-19 has exacerbated the national housing crisis. We already had major housing shortages and exorbitantly high rents, stagnant wages, and now we’ve added massive unemployment and the risk of increasing evictions. Where do you think we’re going to see movement in housing justice? Have you seen anything promising at the local or state level?
KT: Quite a bit is happening on different fronts. In the immediate term, eviction moratoria are important. Even though they have many loopholes and landlords are continuing to evict, I think it’s clear that without these measures intact, things would be much worse.
So there is some protection. It is insufficient, but it exists because there was pressure early on from organizers, from activists and some of their public-policy allies, to get the federal government to intervene. Even the horrible Trump administration was forced to have some measures implemented.
Still, I think it’s probably been most dynamic on the local level. In Philadelphia, where I live, there has been a contingent of members of the city council who have battled relentlessly against the local landlord lobby to not only create more eviction moratoria but also to extend them and try to widen the number of people actually covered. All of that would be difficult to imagine without some of the dynamic grassroots organizing around housing issues.
Housing activists here in Philadelphia used the momentum generated by the Black Lives Matter protests last summer to bring attention to the issue of homelessness in the city. They began a 90-day or longer occupation of public properties in this somewhat rich district of Philadelphia. They won significant reforms from the city, including placing homeless people who were involved in the occupation in actual homes. Also, there were mothers who had seized Philadelphia Housing Authority properties that were empty, because the Authority had been sitting on them in order to flip them to developers. The Housing Authority let those families stay in those homes and agreed to some low-income housing for others.
That’s a very local example, but we’ve seen similar activities by Moms for Housing in Oakland, as well as by a group of immigrant women in Los Angeles. Kansas City Tenants has been extremely active and innovative in trying to cope with the constraints created by the pandemic and this insatiable need for landlords in Kansas City to evict people via teleconference. They’re jamming up the teleconferences and the digital eviction process. There are lots of different kinds of local examples that I think show some of the dynamism that exists within the housing-justice movement right now.
Those efforts are connected to the bigger political questions about what we do right now. In the same way that the Bernie Sanders campaign helped to open up a space to talk about the possibilities of universal healthcare, the cancellation of public student-loan debt, and a revitalized public sector made possible through the redistribution of wealth back toward public institutions including schools, hospitals, and libraries. And part of that discussion has necessarily included de-commodified housing.
We are seeing activists bringing public housing back into this discussion. How do we deal with the dearth of safe, sound, and affordable housing for people? From the Kansas City Tenant Organization, their Homes Guarantee has become a kind of model for the housing movement; it is basically explaining how we can build tens of millions of new units of public housing. We can retrofit existing units of public housing—it’s like the Green New Deal for housing. It’s a vibrant time within the housing movement right now.
RG: For a lot of families, wealth, which gets passed down generationally, is tied to homeownership. But, like you illustrated in Race for Profit, Black people have been systemically excluded from equal participation in the housing market, and this has had a huge impact on perpetuating the Black/white wealth gap. Do you think there’s a way for housing policy to address this gap now?
KT: One problem with framing the racial wealth gap in terms of housing alone is that it can lead to the perpetual celebration of homeownership. This really misunderstands how homeownership functions for Black people and how that is different from the ways that it functions for white people.
Black property is devalued in comparison to white property. Andre M. Perry’s coauthored study shows that homes in Black-majority neighborhoods, compared to homes in white-majority neighborhoods, are valued at 156 billion dollars less. When everything else is controlled for, except race, the value of these properties drops. We’ve seen the anecdotal stories of appraisals where the appraiser comes in and there are Black people in the house, then all of a sudden, the property is dramatically worth less. If they remove the pictures of their family and have a white friend stand in for them, the value rises.
The reality is that Black property and Black communities are valued in different ways. That means—even if we are successful in turning everyone into a homeowner or, at least, raising homeownership to the same level that it is for white people—it still doesn’t function in the same way as for white people.
Other issues having to do with inequalities in wages and healthcare are crucial to consider as well. For example, Medicare for All would mean you don’t actually need a house to weather a healthcare crisis if it arises. We have to decouple the economic benefits of homeownership from access to the bounty of social goods it currently guarantees for some.
What if, as a society, everyone was guaranteed a dignified retirement so that one’s capacity to stop working at a certain age wasn’t contingent on equity they’ve built up in a house? Making college available and accessible so that you don’t need to draw on the equity of a house in order to afford higher education is another shift to consider. If the spoils of homeownership, including security to gain education or to retire, existed unto themselves, then it wouldn’t make the purchase as consequential as it is now.
RG: You mention the way the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 were symbiotic with new forms of dynamic activism in areas like housing justice. Given some of your earlier work in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, in a country that has prided itself for so many years on being “post-racial,” and thus not talking about race, is the increased public recognition of Black Lives Matter useful?
KT: I think there are two things to consider. Yes, it is definitely good to see this recognition. It is important because it legitimizes the demands of Black protesters, Black communities, and people who abhor racism and want to do something about it. In a country that forever has tried to blame the conditions of poverty and inequality found in Black communities on the people who live in those communities, this is an important shift.
The reemerging framework of systemic racism is an important change. Even when no one says what the system is, or is able to describe it, it is important to recognize that the problems that we are seeing—whether it is police terrorism and abuse or the inequities that have been exposed by COVID-19—come from somewhere. They are a part of something other than the family, culture, or behavior of Black people.
That is a positive development that people should press on and use as an opportunity to make further demands. And people certainly have done. It does serve as a foundation for demanding substantive policy interventions.
This was the power of the civil rights and Black Power insurgency of the 1960s. When Stokely Carmichael coined the term “institutional racism” in his book Black Power in 1967, he was essentially saying that because racism is embedded in the governing institutions, as well as the private institutions of capital, we have a right to demand redress and restitution from those institutions and structures. We have a right to demand a roster of programs to funnel money and resources into these communities to do something.
To admit that structures and institutions are responsible for the conditions of deprivation in Black communities is to confront the major problem of repair: it is an expensive problem to solve. It is expensive to deal with public schools that mostly serve Black and Brown kids, that have been neglected for decades, and that now, in the midst of a public health crisis, are health hazards themselves. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars to fix the broken infrastructure of public schools, and the broken infrastructure in communities across this country, whether it’s public hospitals, public libraries, public schools, or just the public sphere in general. And these people in power don’t want to pay for this, partly because they are funds that would go disproportionately to Black and Latinx families and partly because it upends their entire political model of small government when it comes to social spending.
We have organized a system of politics where every locality is on its own. They have to create the conditions by which they are responsible for raising their own money and attracting their own businesses. At the same time, they want to get rid of, to whatever extent they can, people who absorb taxes and don’t pay taxes. And so, this reverse migration of Black people from, you know, northern urban centers back either to suburbs or back to the South is a reflection of that. It is about people being pushed out of where they’re not wanted because municipalities want big tax-spending individuals and families, plus corporations that they promised won’t have to pay taxes, to come and fill the funding gap that the federal government used to be responsible for. And so, that lack of income-based tax revenue is part of the problem.
When you talk about institutional racism, systemic racism, that then requires a systemic response. That’s expensive, and someone’s going to have to pay for that.
That’s why the resistance to structural analyses like Carmichael’s was sharply focused on issues of personal responsibility and redirecting the conversation away from institutions and structures back to families, behavior, and culture.
RG: In contrast to this affirmation of individual responsibility and refusal of social responsibility or commitment to community that we’ve seen cement itself in the American ethos over the past few decades, it’s interesting that right now, particularly because of the pandemic, incredible mutual-aid systems have emerged. People really are trying to take care of each other. We don’t have any sense of that on a national level at all but in some places, at the local level, there’s amazing work being done. How do we extrapolate from this work and think about expanding these efforts at the national level?
KT: That’s a really good point. Scale questions are hugely important. The corrosive national focus on promoting individualism and selfishness has disproportionate impact at the local level. Part of the reason why the discussion is so muddled and not as sharp as it should be is because the right coalesces around this horrible party and the left doesn’t have any cohesion. Instead, there’s the Democratic Party, which is a halfway house of some progressive people, some of the democratic socialists, corporate lackeys, and so forth. It’s got all of these different factions within this big tent. As a way to manage those different sets of politics, you come up with muddled, garbled, nothingness, right?
What’s the campaign about? They respond, “Well, we’re trying to find the soul of America.” What are we going to do about these existential, generational crises? “Unity.” There’s no there there. It means nothing. There are consequences to this emptiness because the left lacks a vehicle to shape political ideas—to shape the important political questions. If we think about the way that the right has done that in the most reactionary and regressive ways, their ideas have become a part of the common sense, they are at the root of the problem: “Personal responsibility. You decide if you wear a mask or not.”
These ideas have become hegemonic because they have a party that has united around those politics. And the other side, the opposition, has no such mouthpiece.
You saw the beginnings of how that could shift or transform with the Sanders campaign giving some focus to opposition. But within the constraints of a party that has no particular commitment to social justice or social transformation, this figuring it out on the fly creates half measures and inconsistencies. These then fuel the cynicism about politics and elected officials that sharpen the polarization, because you feel like the government, the political parties, can’t actually fix the problems that you and I experience.
That frustration may turn into a riot, and burning things down because you feel like that is the only way that you can draw attention to these problems. And that, by the way, turned out to be true.
Or, you get on the other side, the riot at the Capitol on January 6 and the growth of the reactionary right. And people jump up and down and say, “Oh, Trump support has nothing to do with economics.” This is a ridiculous idea in the United States, a capitalist country. It doesn’t mean that all those people are in the unemployment line, that they’ve got their hat in their hands, and they’re about to jump off a building. But it does mean that there is intense insecurity in this country. Social dislocation means people don’t know where they fit. Immigration gets the blame. It’s totally racist and it is about class and economics. It is both at the same time. Race and class are entwined in this country, and the constant efforts to separate the two create confusion.
But that’s why we need a fucking political party that can challenge that way of thinking. A party that can argue with this framework. Instead, the argument is just ceded to the right.
And instead we have this sacrosanct approach to politics: “Well, that’s not my job. I’m not getting paid enough to tell you about what racism is.”
You can take that stance. But as the country disintegrates and the right is marching, and the right is growing, and attacking, and trying to kill people, somebody’s going to have to say something. There’s a vacuum and a political problem with attitude, approach, strategy, and tactics that have left us ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of this political moment.
RG: You’re extending the argument you made in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, where you talked about the need for a movement that shows stronger national coordination, clearer demands, and solidarity with other oppressed peoples and the working class. What do you think the 2020 protests meant for establishing a stronger political engine, specifically when we talk about the left? Are we moving closer?
KT: We got closer. You can see the constitutive elements of that. They are there. They’ve been there.
But we don’t have a party. That doesn’t mean we need one big organization. We may need a few big organizations. But we need organizations!
There’s a proliferation of little groups, and NGOs, and foundation-based organizations. That’s all fine, but they are not necessarily in touch with each other. There’s very little generalization that goes on in our movement. We have no publications, which is a way that you influence debate. Even within the movement, everyone just says, “Oh, you’re preaching to the choir.” This is nonsense! Within the left in the United States there are a million fucking different ideas about what we should be doing! “Elections!” “To hell with elections!” “Let’s throw everything into the Democratic Party.” These positions are real. But debates that exist in the left have no space to be deliberated upon. People get on social media to either ignore or insult each other’s political ideas and opinions, but I’m saying if we want to be impactful in building a mass movement, to shape and direct politics in this country, then something radically different needs to happen.
You can see it with some of these political debates. Any number of polls will tell you that close to 75 percent of Americans want some kind of nationalized healthcare. You go to Congress and it’s like you’ve asked them for full communism. It’s like you’re a Maoist guerilla from the hillside if you ask for that. There’s a mismatch.
And how could there not be?! Our Congress is dominated by millionaires. I think 50 percent of the people in Congress are millionaires. In the Senate, almost everybody is a millionaire. There might be one billionaire. Joe Biden’s a millionaire, even though he’s from Scranton.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the median income is what, $70,000? And that’s skewed! That’s white people! Black people? $47,000. The idea that this is the richest, most powerful country on the planet—and people are trying to live on $47,000 a year? Or even $70,000?
That’s what’s crazy with the white-privilege claim. They’ve arranged it so that you have these millionaires and billionaires running the government, and then everyone’s talking about how privileged these people making $70,000 a year are!
Is there racism? Absolutely. Does it mean that all these white people have advantages over Black people? Sure. No doubt. But if you think that is the extent of the fucking problem, then get a clue. These clowns in Congress are laughing all the way to the bank as they do the bidding for, to be crass, the capitalist class that is running things!
We’re at a point where that kind of sharp, crass intervention, along the lines of what Sanders has talked about, is ready for a hearing. There is an opening because you have a Congress that has no idea what it is like for regular people in this country. They have no idea what it’s like to live check to check. They have no idea what it is like to make these disgusting choices between prescriptions or food. They don’t have a clue. They have no idea what it is like to be shackled with debt and to have it follow you around for the rest of your life after you’ve assumed this debt. Because these are the people who told you that taking on debt is the way to get out of the vicissitudes of life in this country.
So they have no clue about the deep wells of bitterness and disgust and the hatred of themselves. Congress rarely polls higher than lice and cockroaches when people are asked. And yet, there’s very little way to direct that anger and frustration because the Democratic Party, which is also a party of millionaires, can’t direct that. They can misdirect it and tell us that the most important thing that we need to do is vote. But they can’t direct it in such a way that can deal with the existential challenges that our species faces right now.
We need a political expression, organizations that can do that. And we can’t be tethered to a party that accepts the status quo, other than saying we just need to integrate a few more dark faces into it so that everyone feels like they belong.
RG: Earlier you talked about how we lack a publication to engage in these political conversations and debates and share ideas—particularly on the left—in a way that can help us coalesce around sharper policy demands. Have you thought about starting a publication? Or do you think there is potential for support for that kind of work in the academy?
KT: I’m a writer. I’m not a publisher. There is a bigger discussion to be had about writing and publishing and neoliberalism and the kind of self-promotion and monetization of the self that has pulled us away from a collaborative writing project. And I see myself, unfortunately, as part of that dynamic. In an earlier version of the left, we would be writing for each other—I think about the National Guardian of the 1960s and 1970s—where there was a common left project, where you’re writing because you’re trying to shape politics, not because you’re trying to make money. We don’t do that now. We’re all trying to get published in the New Yorker and the New York Times and all of these private spaces, to be seen.
So many things pull us away from a mutual project of the left. Even the monetization of speaking and the racket of the honorarium, which are unique distortions of the American academy. The lack of security and stability in income for people leaves everyone in a scramble to try to make it up. In the academy, the proliferation of contingency, the lack of security in tenure-track jobs, and now the weaponization of fiscal crisis as an excuse to undermine tenure is not a new development, but it’s new to this particular context.
I can imagine public money made available to augment people’s livelihoods, which could allow for more of these kinds of collective projects. I don’t know exactly what that looks like. It really is about rethinking the roles that the federal government and federal money can play in loosening up resources, so that people can think about these ideas and don’t have to engage in self exploitation to express them. I definitely think that there is the possibility for that and that this is something that we should be advocating for.
RG: I saw your recent tweet about writing more than 70,000 words last year for public outlets, and I thought that was awesome. It’s so important to make the academic work that we do and the knowledge that we generate from research, and these resources we have at our disposal, accessible. Most people don’t have access to academic journals. I am wondering, though, how do you balance the expectations of a faculty position with your commitment to public writing?
KT: I have no balance.
I think you have to be able to do some aspect of the academic regime well, so I wrote an academic book, Race for Profit. I still wrote it the way that I wanted to write it. I didn’t write it in a way that was not true to me. It checked off those boxes, and that has allowed me to continue doing things the way that I want to do them, which is that I write for the public.
Of course, academics are a part of the public. The world in which we work is wracked by racism, elitism, class dynamics, sexism, austerity, and a global pandemic. I think sometimes those of us in the academy, or some fraction of academics, like to imagine that their academic world exists separate and apart from these real-world problems. But the pandemic and our utter lack of control over our lives as individual educators, researchers, teachers has proven otherwise. No administration anywhere, from the most enlightened to the most reactionary, has asked nary a professor, graduate student, undergraduate, staff, or campus worker what they think about working in person or remote, vaccinations or no vaccinations, masks or no masks. We are given dictates to accept or to go without pay or, in some cases, to risk losing a job. There are better or worse jobs, some with more resources than others, but the pandemic has been leveling. We are workers and our employers do not care what we think, what we fear, or how we get through the day. So, we are very much like the public—without real advocates and in desperate need of ideas, politics, organization, and solidarity. I and others write about these things for ourselves as much as for an imagined public.