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Hosted in partnership with Harvard Book Store, on July 12 we welcomed celebrated scholars Elizabeth Hinton, Robin D. G. Kelley, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Brandon M. Terry, and Cornel West for a fundraiser and online panel discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just under $10,000 was raised, and all proceeds were divided equally and distributed to three organizations selected by our panelists: Critical Resistance, National Bail Out, and The Owl Movement Inc.
Touching on everything from police violence to the ongoing work of dismantling white supremacy in America, this panel of nationally renowned academics, authors, and cultural critics discussed not only where we are and how we got here, but where we must go to secure a racially just future.
Watch a recording of the event here.
Brandon M. Terry: Welcome everybody to “Where Do We Go From Here?”—a discussion and debate on the future for the Movement for Black Lives and the struggle to build a just society. The panelists are all authors of some of the most important works ever written on race and the American experience. I strongly encourage you to purchase their texts and other works that you’re interested in from Harvard Book Store and other individual booksellers. I also want to thank our other host, the incredible Boston Review, and its lead editors: Deb Chasman and Josh Cohen. All of us have been proud contributors to the rich intellectual tradition curated by Boston Review. I think that it’s important to say that—before our country’s more famous publications were willing to run pieces on police and prison abolition, racial capitalism, Black radical thought, and the ethics of resistance to state and market violence—Boston Review really provided one of the major forums for these ideas to be debated with seriousness and subtlety, and it still does. There are not many publications that can match Boston Review’s commitment to publishing Black thinkers, giving space to debates about Black liberation from across the political spectrum, or insisting on the significance of race in broader questions of justice, democracy, and citizenship. It’s a real honor to be here at a panel co-hosted by Boston Review.
“This vision of abolition is not simply about tweaking the Constitution. It’s not about better jails, or policing, or training, but about a new means of remaking justice as a whole.”
I’ve been excited about this for weeks. This is an amazing group, and without any further ado, let’s dive into what they have to say. So let me begin with Robin Kelley, who in a recent interview with The Intercept pressed an argument that I thought could orient our discussion today. Robin, you drew on Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, who is one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, in saying that we’re living through a Third Reconstruction, or at least an attempted Third Reconstruction. I’m curious as to what you mean by that phrase, and how you think it helps us understand what’s at stake in the present.
Robin D. G. Kelley: Thank you, it’s great to be with this amazing group of people. First, of course, Reverend William Barber uses that term in his book, The Third Reconstruction. I would also give credit to Angela Davis, because when Angela published the book Abolition Democracy, in some ways she was recognizing both the First Reconstruction and what W. E. B. Du Bois had identified as abolition democracy, and then proposing [that vision] for a Third Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction was an attempt by formerly enslaved people to expand social democracy to include everyone, and it was crushed under Jim Crow, racial terror, and disenfranchisement. The Second Reconstruction, again, was an attempt to expand democracy for everyone. Both were based on an understanding that somehow the promise of America hadn’t been fulfilled. There’s this fundamental constitutional claim that we have to tweak to provide those kinds of rights that weren’t provided before. And part of that includes economic justice. The Second Reconstruction—the Civil Rights movement—dealt with issues of housing, police violence, and that sort of thing.
The Third Reconstruction, I would argue, is not simply about ending poverty. It is an attempt to remake not just the United States, but the whole world, while recognizing that this country was founded on dispossession, white supremacy, and gendered violence. This vision of abolition is not simply about tweaking the Constitution. It’s not about better jails, or policing, or training, but about a new means of remaking justice as a whole. And by justice, we don’t just mean overturning criminalization, but creating a kind of affirmative form of justice based on restorative justice. This means reparations for 500 years of oppression, and also new possibilities for life—to deal with the catastrophe of the environment, to free the body from all the constraints of gender and sexual norms. This is a much wider vision of freedom based on a kind of abolitionist project.
But like every Reconstruction, there’s also the backlash. The First and Second Reconstructions didn’t simply fail, they were overthrown, completely overthrown. What we’re witnessing now has the potential to reverse that. But we’re facing a future that could be either liberatory or fascist—or something else in between—and this opportunity is really unprecedented in some ways.
BT: In the last few weeks, ideas about prison and police abolition have been more central to debate than at any time in my memory—than at any time, it seems, in American history. But even with the insurgence of that line of critique in the public sphere, it’s still no secret that large segments of Black communities are—to put the point kind of politely—ambivalent, or at least afraid of the implications of the demands for defunding or abolishing the police. They know the history, Elizabeth, that you’ve written a lot about, of selective hearing, of calls for reform, and they’re worried that people are only going to hear “defund the police,” not “invest in” anything else. They don’t have the luxury of treating community violence as an abstract question. We know in the four weeks following George Floyd’s killing, murders in Chicago rose by 139 percent. And I think one thing that concerns people who live in these communities is that the violence seems in some ways different than the violence that a lot of you have written about from the 1990s, which was more tightly tied to the drug economy. They’re concerned about what to do with the possibility of abandonment in a time of austerity, and what to do with crime in the midst of these demands for abolition.
Elizabeth and Keeanga, could you speak to the account of community crime and violence that these people calling for defunding the police or abolition might give to persuade more members of working-class Black communities to adopt their views, and support the Third Reconstruction that Robin outlined?
Elizabeth Hinton: I’m not entirely convinced that there isn’t widespread support for exactly what Robin is talking about in low income urban communities. For example, the organization that I’m fundraising for here, the OWL movement, provides aftercare and services to families affected by violence in Stockton. Stockton is a place that has higher rates of poverty and gun violence than places that we often think of, like Chicago.
And many of the families who have lost their loved ones to violence—especially in murders labeled as gang-related—are completely denied any kind of crime compensation benefits. That’s where the OWL movement stepped in—to fill thisvoid of funding for fundamental services—offering memorial services, empowerment workshops, healing circles, and prayer as a way to deal with many of these community problems in a place where the state has not. In the five years since the OWL Movement’s been operating, there’s been $25 million spent on fighting gang violence. I think that we’re already seeing a shift. This is why I think the OWL Movement and organizations like it are the future. We’re seeing this shift from things being premised on violence to being premised on care. That kind of reimagining what justice really means, premised on care of our communities, is the future. I think that’s what abolition is all about.
The fact that we’re having these conversations about social harm in Black communities within this larger context of police and incarceration is really important. It’s not as if this kind of social harm exists in a vacuum, or that it’s disentangled from police and incarceration. There is a cycle of state sanctioned and collective community violence, and people who harm others have very often been harmed themselves.
We need to be asking why people of color are more likely to die prematurely in communities where police, surveillance, and incarceration loom large. This process really began when police forces militarized and the war on crime unfolded in the 1960s. Then, we got thousands of rebellions directed against external state forces. And not just during the long hot summers of the 1960s. And not just in big cities.
Even in these conversations about social harm and violence in more recent years, we need to be asking a hard question: How did this collective violence that was once directed against state forces turn inward? There’s a three-pronged war that emerges when the federal government begins to wage war on communities of color. There’s a struggle against state forces, and there’s also a struggle that emerges within Black communities. These conversations can’t be separated from those around police and incarceration, especially since incarceration is the root of many of these informal economies. The circumstances of collective confinement provided the means through which many of these groups could organize. And who facilitates the informal economies in prisons? It’s not the visitors—it’s the guards, it’s the police. What we need to be asking is how this state violence precipitates the conditions that lead to what we’re seeing in places like Chicago and Baltimore today.
BT: Keeanga, do you want to follow up on that?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Yeah, there’s a lot to say about this. First of all, crime is a real problem in the lives and communities of poor and working class Black people, and there’s no point in trying to evade that, or to sugarcoat it, or to try to describe it as something other than what it is.
But I do think it’s important to say that this debate emerges out of the failure of what preceded it. In terms of police reform, for example, part of the reason why people have so quickly gravitated toward “defund the police” is due to the failures of the reforms from 2014 and 2015. Those failures are so new that they’re hard to just explain away and dismiss, as elected officials typically try to do over time, to distort the history of their reform efforts. We all remember the emergence of body cameras, the rhetoric that they were going to solve the problem. You know—more Black police officers, better community relations, the same recycled arguments since the Kerner Commission, and a few new ones sprinkled in during the first iteration of Black Lives Matter. We’ve all heard them. We’ve seen them. And they continue to fail.
Secondly, we spend a grotesque amount of money on police, yet we are still talking about the wave of crime and its ebb and flow. In Chicago they spend 40 percent of the operating budget on police, and here we are talking about a rise in crime over the last few weekends. Clearly, investing exclusively in policing has not solved the problem. I think this lack of resolution has opened up the possibility for new formulations and ideas.
We have spent the last generation defunding public education, public hospitals, public libraries, the entire public infrastructure that makes cities operate, and that hasn’t worked. In the second decade of the twentieth century, it has produced the same kinds of issues that we were dealing with for three-quarters of the nineteenth century. We need to do something else, something different. And I think that there’s a lot of space for support, deliberation, and conversation around this issue. But the immediate response of the political class is to ridicule the idea, to dismiss it out of hand, and to bring us back to this narrow framework of police or no police. When you’re talking to ordinary people who are dealing with crime on a daily basis in their neighborhoods, and the options are only police or no police, then you automatically foreclose a different kind of conversation.
We’re saying that we want to redirect the tens of billions of dollars that go to police so that we can live in cities where public health workers are not dressed in garbage bags and reusing masks during a pandemic, while police officers look like they have just stepped out of some Hollywood feature film about futuristic policing a hundred years from now. We need to change the calculus so that schools are getting the funding—so that there’s investment in jobs, in healthcare, and in a completely different quality of life. I guarantee that if you frame the discussion around whether we should be paying the police to kick people’s asses all over the neighborhood or whether we should be investing in and transforming the institutions that make up public life in cities, it’s a no-brainer. There’s no contest.
“We need to change the calculus so that schools are getting the funding—so that there’s investment in jobs, in healthcare, and in a completely different quality of life.”
But we haven’t framed the debate that way, and that’s part of the urgency of these kinds of conversations. There’s an ideological battle. We’ve been told that there’s not enough money. We’ve been told that budgets have to be cut. But somehow that never applies to the police. It only applies to everything else. We’re saying we have to change that. Let’s change the discussion. Let’s have the ideological debate because I’m confident in our side. I don’t know about theirs.
BT: This raises the next crucial point. The picture you’re painting, Keeanga, is one that sounds a lot like the democratic socialist vision that’s animated much of the resurgent left over the last few years—that which anchored a certain wing of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the most successful Democratic Socialist presidential campaign in U.S. history. But it leads us back to a crucial problem. When those ideas were on the table in an electoral arena, they lost, in no small part, because Black working-class voters instead voted for Joe Biden. Brother West, you put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the Sanders campaign. You’ve been on the board of DSA for decades. You’ve been making this case in churches and communities. What is your autopsy of the Sanders defeat and its prospects for a rejuvenated Democratic Socialist vision? How do you overcome the resistance, even if it’s just a strategic resistance and not an ideological one (I think Keeanga’s point is really crucial there)? How do you overcome the strategic resistance of a voting bloc, on your account, that would be better served by this vision of politics, when they instead seem to more fully trust the judgment of Congressman James Clyburn?
Cornel West: Well first I want to just begin by saluting you, my dear brother, as I anxiously await your masterpiece on the tragic vision of the civil rights movement, and am in dialogue with my brothers and sisters here, each one of them just such a profound source of inspiration for me—not just their magisterial scholarship, but who they are as human beings. And I salute Sister Deb, and Brother Josh, and Sister Serena as well.
I think what we’re dealing with in part, brother, is the massive failure of Black leadership and the Black intelligentsia to intervene in a way that convinces our brothers and sisters of all colors, but disproportionately chocolate, that the vision, analysis, and work we need (to put poor and working people at the center) remains on the fringes. So instead we got neoliberal Black leadership, with neoliberal Black intellectuals as their cheerleaders, that don’t allow that kind of vision and analysis. Then when the social movements hit, they want to act as if they’re at the center of it, rather than in fact having been on the other side. We have to be able to tell our brothers and sisters of all colors the truth, and the truth is always very painful. The truth is that we’re living in an undeniably decaying, declining American empire with a militarized nation state that’s militaristic abroad—in Africa, dropping bombs in the Middle East, in Latin America—800 military units, 53 percent for every dollar goes to the military. We have to talk about defunding the Pentagon.
“The truth is always very painful. The truth is that we’re living in an undeniably decaying, declining American empire.”
At the same time, we’ve got a Wall Street-centered economy tied to wealth inequality, which Brother Bernie was talking about. That Wall Street domination is a precondition of most of our neoliberal Black leadership, so we can’t even get at the fundamental source, you see? Then we’ve got a commodified culture where everybody and everything’s for sale, including the media and education. Therefore, notions of integrity, of honesty, of taking a risk, of cutting against the grain are gonna push you to the margins. Culture, now, is about money, spectacle, and image, which is a spiritual crisis. We have to be honest enough to tell our fellow citizens that this is the larger context, this is the great legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois, CLR James, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Ida B. Wells, and many others. That’s the tradition from which we come. And, given this particular moment, it means that we have to be willing to say, lo and behold, we’ve got too many leaders, intellectuals, artists, actors, and entertainers who are not open to this kind of vision and analysis—what brother Robin called “freedom dreams,” using our imagination to authorize an alternative vision of the nightmarish present.
For me, Sister Keeanga has written the two best pieces addressing what I’m talking about. I want folks to go out and read them. In the New Yorker, “How Do We Change America?” and then “The End of Black Politics” in the New York Times. Now, how you got into those neoliberal venues, I’m praying for you, it’s a beautiful thing. But your voice, your voice is Socratic and prophetic in that way. We need more of those voices as a cacophony of voices, rooted in truth telling, integrity, and honesty. We need to convince folks that if Black people, for example, are the most progressive voting bloc in the American empire, but they cannot support the most progressive candidate in the history of the empire when it comes to president, Brother Bernie Sanders, then something is happening. That’s a Keith Sweat moment, something just ain’t right. The neoliberal hegemony of our leadership and our intelligentsia, in many ways, is getting in the way, and we have to be honest about that and critical with each other—in a loving way but in a very tenacious way.
BT: Well, if you had Keith Sweat on your Black intellectual bingo card, you are the winner today. But this is a great transition, because I really want to talk about Keeanga’s piece in the New York Times. You say something there that really struck me, you say that “class tensions among African Americans have produced new fault lines that the romance of racial solidarity simply cannot overcome.” You call for a new era of Black politics.
I want to press two questions that I hope you can clarify here. The first is, if this class fracture is so profound that the romance of racial solidarity can’t overcome it, why call for any new Black politics at all? Why not just pronounce the whole edifice of Black solidarity dead once and for all? You might think, for example, that the whole rhetoric of our shared, universal racial vulnerability to police violence, and the appeal to Black solidarity that that kind of framing engenders, is not just analytically misguided—it obscures the number of white brothers and sisters that are killed by police, Native American brothers and sisters who are killed by police, Latinx brothers and sisters killed by police. You might think it’s not just analytically misguided, but it’s politically dangerous.
You think of Adolph Reed, Political Science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who would say that these frames allow for Black elites to redirect the moral revulsion at police violence toward diversifying corporate board seats and affirmative action in elite education—things that don’t redress the fundamental problems of economic democracy that you’re laying out so artfully. Why don’t we just give up the language of Black politics altogether so that when you speak out in the New York Times, everybody can see more clearly what’s at stake when you criticize something like the congressional Black Caucus?
KYT: Well, because I think that Black politics still has resonance. And it’s not because of something that I say, or something that some talking head says. It’s because Black people continue to be an oppressed minority in the United States. Even when there are inter-class tensions among Black people—among the Black political class, or the Black elite—there is still a vulnerability to racism that class position cannot fully mitigate.
I can be extremely critical of someone like the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser. But her politics are neoliberal, and she’s still viciously attacked by Donald Trump and the Republican Party; that’s racism and sexism at play. Because of that, she has resonance among ordinary Black people. That possibility of what Michael Dawson describes as “linked fate,” it still exists. It’s of course much different than it was in the pre-Jim Crow, or the pre-Civil Rights era. Of course there have always been class tensions among African Americans. But Jim Crow compressed the Black community into singular spaces, where there had to be some means of coexistence.
Though that doesn’t exist today to that degree, there is still sympathy among Black people. That’s why Barack Obama—despite his benign presidency when it came to actually improving the condition of Black people—is still incredibly popular among African Americans. That’s why Michelle Obama is incredibly popular among African Americans. That being said, I do think that the further that we get away from the period of Civil Rights, and the political insurgency that erupted during that period, the more that class lines in Black communities become entrenched.
I started thinking about that article probably three weeks before it came out. I originally was going to begin with the mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, who was in the midst of using imprisoned Black laborers to break a strike of Black garbage workers who were asking for an increase in pay and hazard pay because their lives had been put at risk because of COVID-19. I chart an end to Black politics, and some of it is a provocation. I don’t think we’re at the end of Black politics.
I think that over the last fifty years at least, there’s been a Black politics from above and a Black politics from below. If anything, we’re seeing the reemergence of a Black politics from below—the development and emergence of a Black political left with the movement for Black lives and the proliferation of organizations that have begun to form over the last five or six years. Which points to a tension that has always existed but is becoming more ingrained as you have Black political leaders managing the crisis within cities and suburban areas where Black people live by putting working class Black people in direct confrontation with Black municipal managers. That’s the dynamic that we have to look into, which creates the possibility for new alliances.
“White people call it ‘deaths by despair’: opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. Whatever you want to call it, it represents a crisis in what this country used to stand for. The Black movement, as it has always done, shows a potential way out of that.”
I think that part of the reason that we are seeing so many white people participating in these BLM protests is because Black Lives Matter has actually successfully convinced a layer of white people that Black lives do matter, and that white silence cannot continue to prevail. But I also think it speaks to the fact that white millennials have come to realize that their lives don’t matter in this country, either—that they have been consigned to a life of debt, they have been marooned in jobs that will never allow them to pay off that debt, and that the whole premise of the American dream has been lost. And it’s been lost for a generation of white people as well. White people call it “deaths by despair”: opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. Whatever you want to call it, it represents a crisis in what this country used to stand for. The Black movement, as it has always done, shows a potential way out of that. That is what has attracted young white people to Black protest, because that seems like a more viable alternative than, perhaps, Joe Biden.
BT: That’s a really incisive point to make about the fragmentation of Black politics in the post-Civil Rights era, and the ways in which these new movements have drawn new lines of solidarity amidst these broader socioeconomic changes. Your point about racial ideology’s failure to fracture solidarity along normal lines is really well taken. And, in a way, it kind of takes me back to the earliest moment of the post-Civil Rights era—the Black Power moment. That’s the moment when a lot of the dynamics that you’re laying out, Keeanga, were crystallized. This was the first time that Black municipal leaders got to take power, this was the first time where people had to rethink the relationship between Black politics from below and Black elected officials in a sustained, systematic fashion.
I don’t actually see a lot of reflection on the Black Power era in this moment’s organs of debate, and I thought it would be a good thing for us to discuss. Robin, I was hoping that you might say a little about two questions that have been on my mind. In the wake of Black Power, there were two kinds of criticisms from the left that had real force for intellectuals. One was that the emphasis on cultural politics and symbolic politics was too easily commodified and turned into just another consumer capitalist lifestyle. Today, you might think that we are in a similar moment when PetSmart is sending me notes about how much Black lives matter, and Amazon is telling me Black lives matter while maintaining awful policies toward its Black workers. And that also leads me to something that I think Keeanga dramatized quite well in that anecdote about New Orleans—where does labor fit in to all of this?
The left has always pressed the Black Power era on the fight between the different organizing models. If the Black Power activists that pushed for labor unions to be the major vehicle of Black struggle in this moment didn’t lose in that moment, they certainly have lost in the public imaginary coming out of it. I’m curious to get your sense of those critiques, and whether we’ve learned the right lessons from Black Power for now.
RK: Those are great questions. Part of my answer is a response to Keeanga’s point. Clairol sponsored one of the first Black Power conferences in 1967, along with fifty other U.S. corporations, okay? So, of course, corporations are very quick to seize the language of Black struggle, Black movement—Black Lives Matter for Petco, for example. That happens all the time. But I want to go back to a couple other examples.
“Black capitalists became the ones to claim the mantle of Black liberation.”
Keeanga talked about the sanitation workers’ strike. I just want to remind us that in Atlanta in 1977, Mayor Maynard Jackson broke the sanitation workers’ strike there. He would not negotiate. He used strike-breakers. He fired all the strikers. He was the model for Ronald Reagan’s attack on the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. So, in some respects, part of what I think Keeanga’s talking about in terms of today’s neoliberal class divide, in terms of Black politics, is reflected in that period of Black Power. Going back even earlier, we see not just class tensions, but a real struggle over who should represent Black liberation. Black capitalists became the ones to claim the mantle of Black liberation. At the New Politics conference in Chicago in 1967, Dr. King was in some ways shot down because he actually presented a class analysis against those Black Power leaders who pushed a more corporate line.
And then, because King pushed an anti-war position alongside positions that were far more radical, more reflective of the politics that you described before—Democratic Socialist politics—King was shot down by a segment of Black Power. But let me focus on two specific things.
First, I don’t think we have done enough homework to know the relationship between those people who identify with Black Power in the labor movement. There is ample evidence, particularly in Detroit, of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers who came out of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. The Black Workers’ Congress also came out of the League, where they built the most revolutionary program of any trade union movement in history. It was socialist, internationalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist. They focused on workers’ control. They built alliances with the Arab-American workers, with Latinx workers, and even with white workers. The Black Workers’ Congress came out of that. They didn’t agree on everything, but they pushed the strategy demanding reparations as a way to build a revolutionary Black working class insurgency. It wasn’t just about people having Cadillacs; it was about weakening capital and the state’s legitimacy, and building with alliances with other progressive movements. And what happened? They were defeated firstly because of the failure of white workers to actually support a revolutionary program (not all white workers, some actually supported them). And then they were also defeated by a kind of neoliberal rainbow coalition of junior partners. Many of them were Black and brown newly elected officials who, in the 1970s, did not push that program. We could talk about Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, and his experiment there. They were defeated by a Black mayor and Black members of the city council. Even then, you begin to see those tensions.
July 20 was the date marked for the Strike for Black Lives. It was an attempt to build union movement, to fight for fifteen, to highlight the fact that essential workers are not getting support and protection, and to push back against this idea that corporations could claim Black Lives Matter as a mantle while oppressing and exploiting and undermining Black workers, and putting not just Black workers, but all workers into danger.
Having said that, I want to focus on the National Welfare Rights Organization— the most important labor union movement of the 1960s and ‘70s—to help define “essential workers.” The essential workers label includes those doing reproductive labor. The National Welfare Rights Organization, which still exists in some respects, has been fighting this fight to recognize reproductive labor as essential work. In fact, I would argue that Reverend Barber and Liz Theoharis’s Poor People’s movement is much closer to the National Welfare Rights Organization than SCLC’s campaign in that they’ve been pushing for this.
“There’s a long history, even in the era of Black Power, of Black working-class organizations trying to push a radical agenda, an abolitionist agenda, a socialist agenda in some respects, but they end up being pushed out.”
One last example: under the leadership of Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization fought for twenty-five years against water shutoffs in Detroit. They need to be held up because this is why labor’s fighting. They’re fighting for environmental justice. They’re fighting for people’s ability to reproduce themselves as families, as human beings—for basic, basic needs.
There’s a long history, even in the era of Black Power, of Black working class organizations trying to push a radical agenda, an abolitionist agenda, a Socialist agenda in some respects, but they end up being pushed out. We are not just now starting to see a divide. That divide was there, and it’s a divide that we have to pay attention to. Just like Cornel said, if we have a group of neoliberal politicians who are gonna claim the mantles of speaking on behalf of oppressed peoples, that plays a role in crushing the insurgent movement that has been around for a long time. And that insurgent movement continues to push for an agenda that is liberatory for all, rather than one that still imagines this slow progression within a kind of multicultural, neoliberal framework.
BT: I’m about to open it up to questions, but I want to ask Elizabeth one more question to follow Robin’s point. One way to see that era of experimentation is as a failure of federal policy to support grassroots organizations and create democratic space for, what we in political theory would call, an “agonistic democratic public.” That would have meant all of these grassroots organizations being able to contest things happening with welfare bureaucracies, public parks departments, and police of course.
You’ve written a lot about the demise of that project. For you, is this a moment to turn back toward federal support for that kind of investment? And is that a reason to try to persuade activists who have no interest in working alongside the state to give up that purist stance and experiment with the ideas of maximum feasible participation that you talk relatively fondly about in your book and in the New York Times?
EH: Well, I think part of it is that people have lost faith in the state for many of the reasons that we’ve been talking about—because the state has not worked for them. There was this moment where the outcome could have been different. Mass incarceration was not predetermined in the 1960s. That’s one of the real tragedies of that era; there was this window where the federal government was granting autonomous, local organizations directly. As Robin pointed out, every time there has been an extension of citizenship rights, or any kind of abolitionist tendency, from slavery to Jim Crow, this insidious disease that’s rooted in racism and capitalism takes hold. Then new criminal laws, new forms of incarceration, new surveillance, new segregationist regimes take hold. That was the failure of the First and Second Reconstruction—even though the federal government was instrumental in securing some of the most successful aspects of the Reconstruction program, from independent Black schools to the building of Black institutions.
“Mass incarceration was not predetermined in the 1960s. That’s one of the real tragedies of that era.”
So the federal government has been a difficult, or troubled, ally in terms of bringing about racial justice, but it has played a role. We’ve been talking about the need to move away from these neoliberal forms of governance that have restricted all of us. With this new progressive surge of candidates, and these new conversations within the party, one hopes that we can bring about a new vision of governance: full employment, guaranteed income, universal healthcare, rising to address the climate crisis. We can then begin to envision how the federal government could fund local efforts, like the OWL Movement. If we’re going to reimagine society in the ways that we’ve been talking about, and address racial injustice in a new way, we have to cede power to people. We have to begin to facilitate wealth redistribution by empowering local people to solve their problems on their own terms. And, in doing that, we have to be prepared to give something up and to imagine a different way that federalism and government can be structured.
BT: Well, thank you all for this, we’re getting a ton of questions. One is a pushback at this description of BLM as a movement from below. The question asks whether that’s the appropriate description. What would make it a movement from below? Is it the class identity of its participants? Obviously, the candidates that many of its leaders supported haven’t been picked up. There’s another question of how to even think about legitimacy given the new structure of movement politics.
I always remember that New Yorker piece about Alicia Garza being stuck in traffic on the bridge because there was a protest from a Black Lives Matter organization that she didn’t know about. Yet if there are awards or funding given, she’s gonna be one of the people put forward to receive them. So how do we think about the legitimacy questions of the new movement structure, and whether it’s appropriate to describe it as a movement from below?
CW: I think that there’s a danger in simply looking at place and quantity as opposed to the quality of analysis, vision, and how we’re able to move from one point to the next. The masses of Black people will never be free in a predatory capitalist civilization with imperial links around the world, high levels of wealth inequality, and most of the money in militaristic and policing activity, rather than in fulfilling social needs. That is a vision and analysis that is crucial no matter who’s out there. You could have the masses out there supporting fascism, you see that in the Trump rallies. It ain’t a question of just numbers here, you see?
“If white supremacy were to disappear tomorrow (I would break down for about three days), America would remain predatory, capitalist, and imperialist.”
Part of the problem in the struggle of Black freedom is that we’re losing our sense of morality tied to integrity, honesty, decency, and spirituality, tied to empathy and imagination. Now we think it’s just a matter of who’s out there—our particular identity, vis-a-vis the people, rather than the quality of what people see, analyze, and are courageously willing to sacrifice for. It’s like what Brother Robin said in his text on Thelonious Monk: you got to play yourself, you got to learn how to be non-conformist, you’ve got to learn how to follow through on what you understand in relation to your love for poor and working people, and disproportionately Black people. Because we have to be honest; if white supremacy were to disappear tomorrow (I would break down for about three days), America would remain predatory, capitalist, and imperialist. Then I’m with Brother Ajamu Baraka and Black Alliance for Peace. I’m with Black Agenda Radio with Margaret Kimberley and Glen Ford. It’s still an exploitative society. We know those are all tied together and it’s complicated, but we have to be honest about that. That’s the lens through which we need to look, as opposed to simply quantity and placement.
KYT: There are two things. First, any movement is more than its structures, its leadership. If you go out to these demonstrations—which the New York Times tells us have involved up to 26 million people—ordinary people are at these protests. These are people who have been locked out of power. We had a month of uprising in the United States. This is a movement from outside and from below.
“Every social movement has to wrestle with those questions: how its political agenda is formed and the constant dialectic of membership and leadership.”
Even within Black Lives Matter itself, regardless of the class positions of individuals in the organization, the movement is trying to transform basic aspects of U.S. society and who stands outside the realms of power. Of course, within any movement there are questions about democracy, accountability, and who speaks for whom. In some ways, these questions were unresolved in the first iteration of Black Lives Matter. Though they remain unresolved in this current manifestation of protests, I would say every social movement has to wrestle with those questions: how its political agenda is formed and the constant dialectic of membership and leadership. We know that there are always leaders, but there are leaders who are accountable and there are leaders who are not. Every movement has to figure that out. But those questions don’t diminish or transform the way that we can understand and characterize this as a bottom-up movement that is trying to transform fundamental aspects of the United States.
BT: That’s great. Now I’m gonna try to tie two questions together. There’s a question about the framing of the Third Reconstruction. They’re asking about the momentum around the left wing of the Democratic Party and the New Deal as an anchoring frame for policy: the Green New Deal, a New New Deal. What’s the distinction? What’s the benefit of framing things around the idea of Reconstruction, rather than the idea of the New Deal? And just a little addendum: is reparations a part of that discussion, and is that a central piece of why it matters to take that alternative framing?
CW: I mean, the New Deal was not about fundamental reconstruction and revolution. It was about managing a capitalist crisis and transferring wealth to poor and working-class people without placing them in leadership positions. This is very important. So, when we talk about Reconstruction, and Brother Dr. Eddie Glaude, professor at Princeton, talked about the “third founding,” it means we’ve got to be revolutionary in calling for fundamental transition. That’s Martin, too, that Brother Robin talked about. Fundamental transformation was about a transfer of power, wealth, resources, and respect. Right now, we have the neoliberal wing of the ruling class, which is a Democratic Party establishment, and then the neofascist wing of the ruling class, which is Trump and his folk, who do not want to talk about fundamental transformation. They’re still talking about managing the system. They don’t want to allow poor and working people to hold positions of power where their voices can shape their destinies and have some significant control. We missed that distinction in the ‘60s. Cold War liberalism was not about social programs. It was about siding with the flag and supporting the Vietnam War, rather than decolonization around the world, full employment, worker’s power, people’s power, all power to the people. That’s not just the Chi-Lites, that’s the Black Panther Party.
BT: Robin, do you want to jump in? Or can I ask you another question?
RK: Oh, ask another question. Cornel said it better than anyone.
KYT: We’ve got Chi-Lites, Keith Sweat. I wonder who’s next?
BT: Check your bingo card. So, there’s a question regarding the role of internationalism in this moment. What should be the movement for Black lives’ orientation toward internationalism and geopolitics? I think those of us who study the Civil Rights and Black Power eras have a certain understanding of Black internationalism that operates within a Cold War perspective.
The Soviet Union and many of the anti-colonial struggles of that moment were aspiring to a kind of egalitarian ideal. Right now, the geopolitics are really different. They’re anchored by states that do not openly espouse egalitarian ideals. China is not engaged in an egalitarian or democratic project. Much of the Middle East is not engaged in egalitarian or democratic projects. There are fascist movements all over Europe clamoring for power. It’s a completely different political realm. So, I’m curious—as someone who’s thought a lot about internationalism—is there anything that we can do beyond just showing moral solidarity? Is there any real power game to the international realm in the present?
RK: Well to return to one thing, I would make a distinction between the movement for Black lives and Black Lives Matter. The movement for Black lives, as everyone knows, represents a coalition of more than 150 different organizations, many of which are actually engaged in international relationships and solidarity.
“The Third Reconstruction ideal cannot be reduced to a national vision. It is a global vision because it’s a global economy. And it is also a global regime of oppression.”
For example, it’s hard to understand mobilizing around post-Katrina New Orleans without seeing the role that these organizations on the ground had in the relationship with Venezuela or Cuba. Even right now—whether we’re talking about Brazil, France, England—all over the globe, the murder of George Floyd and all the other surmounting murders have hit a nerve. That is why these demonstrations have been international. But there is preexisting organizing work from those same organizations involved in Strike for Black Lives, those that have been doing cross-border organizing, that have been trying to build labor relationships across the board and deal with sweatshop labor. Even the No Sweat campaign, against sweatshop labor in Vietnam, in China, in Haiti, these are the kinds of alliances and solidarities that were built ahead of time. That’s why I say the Third Reconstruction ideal cannot be reduced to a national vision. It is a global vision because it’s a global economy. And it is also a global regime of oppression.
Cornel perfectly voiced the distinction between a movement for revolutionary transformation and a political party. The Republican Party in the 1860s and ‘70s was not Reconstruction, it embodied aspects of it. The Democratic Party definitely was not the Reconstruction movement. To reconstruct this story, we need to look at organizations and movements whose vision, like Cornel says, is one that’s profoundly international, profoundly radical—one that’s not moving toward an improved state but dismantling the nation state as we know it.
Let me draw attention to this great book that everyone should read, Keeanga’s wonderful collection of interviews around the Combahee River Collective, one of the organizations that, in the 1970s, really embodied all dimensions of a revolutionary abolitionist project. Their vision was international and focused on race, class, and gender. They refused to accept anything less than a kind of socialist alternative to oppression. They paid attention to forms of state violence and state-sanctioned violence that most were ignoring.
BT: Keeanga, following up on Robin’s point, one of your remarks in this conversation that struck me the most was that we have “U.S. hospital workers dressed in garbage bags and shredded Yankees jerseys, while the police are looking like they stepped out of a Michael Bay movie.” I think it’s a time of deep humility for a lot of us in the United States. Robin’s ahead of everyone on that, but a lot of us hadn’t gotten there and are in a moment of real self-inventory and self-reflection.
I’m wondering, for someone like you who’s thought so much about the contemporary movements, is there something that we could learn from struggles elsewhere around the world? From the global South? What can we and these movements learn, from a place of humility, about what’s working in other countries in order to change this country?
KYT: One of the things that is different now—aside from the collapse of national liberation movements which really shaped the third-world solidarity of the previous period—is the way that globalization has bound countries’ ruling elite together. They have cohered around a set of political and economic principles that then get diffused across the world. There are several different examples that I think we can look to.
“The future is now. It’s here. There is an airborne pandemic and there is no end in sight, no matter the amount of happy talk from the Trump administration.”
There are movements for housing rights in Berlin, for example. After a very long campaign, activists in Berlin were able to get the city government to impose a five-year rent freeze that barred landlords from imposing or raising rents. There are movements for housing rights across Europe. There are struggles around abortion rights and gender violence in Chile and throughout South America that have turned into mass movements. I think some of the struggle around what Robin talked about is the politics of reproduction. Reproduction politics, social production, have gained currency across the global South, but also in Europe. There, the Women’s International Day protests have been real political strikes, with mass movements and demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people.
I think that we can look to these for inspiration regarding the size and influence of our movements and as a way to actually transform politics. But it also speaks to historic issues that we have in this country that involve the labor movement and the institutionalization of social democracy and socialist organization in the first place. How does one develop and cohere a political left with the relentless assault of the American state? It’s not necessarily that other places have figured this out, but they have different histories and traditions that may mean that their organizing is more advanced. We can learn from that; it highlights some of the deficits that we suffer from and have to fix.
What we’re seeing now is that we don’t have forever to figure it out. Some of the things that we thought were somewhere off in the distance are here now. The future is now. It’s here. There is an airborne pandemic and there is no end in sight, no matter the amount of happy talk from the Trump administration. The reality is that we don’t know where this is going. So, there’s an urgency to think seriously about these questions. There are particular points of struggle that we can look at, but that will not be enough to overcome the deficits in this country. We who are trying to reconstitute a left, who see ourselves as part of a left, have to take these deficits on head-on.
BT: Elizabeth, I know you’ve been looking at prison reform and abolition movements globally. Do you want to add anything to Keeanga’s important admonition to think about particularity, even as we take on lessons from other places?
EH: I think one of the things that COVID-19 has unmasked is the seedbed that mass incarceration has wrought for inequality and health disparities. The transition to mass incarceration as this mechanism for social control has been a massive failure. Prisons are the hotspots through which COVID-19 is spreading. You have tens of thousands of people who are stuck behind bars. Many were sentenced at very young ages, don’t pose a harm to society, and are now older men and women. They are in prison getting COVID-19. So, as we’re thinking about reimagining society, and reimagining what public safety means—as we’re thinking about it in terms of defunding the police—we need to also think about incarceration.
Incarceration is the anchor of so many of these systems that we’re talking about. The idea of cutting police forces in half as an immediate necessity should be paired with cutting the prison population in half. This has been a discussion that we’ve been having for a while.
We need a new way to approach issues of justice and safety, one that is based on care and not violence. The prison is an institution of continued violence. I think what we’re seeing with the pandemic is really underscoring that.
BT: I just saw that piece the other day that says that prisoners are 550 percent more likely to contract COVID-19 and are dying at 300 percent the rate of others at comparable ages and backgrounds. Again, back to Keeanga’s point, there’s no way to segregate these social problems in the way that a lot of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century social policy tried to. Now is the time to dramatically wrestle with the questions that confront us.
As has come up many times throughout the discussion, right now people are really excited, but also a bit wary, about the enormous enthusiasm among millions of non-Black people, particularly young white people, for protest, for supporting the demands of BLM, for having a radical reckoning with the catastrophic, ignoble past of this nation.
And there’s a question that always comes up about what white allies, what non-Black allies, can do in this moment. What kinds of practices should allies, or people engaged in solidarity, be wary of? Many things are being marketed or championed under the name of authentic allyship. Now’s an important time to signal to people, particularly people who haven’t thought as much as we have about these questions, what is and is not a self-undermining use of their time, effort, and emotional energy. So, Brother West, I was hoping that you might speak to that, and then let everyone else say their final piece.
CW: I mean number one; we’ve got to go back to the history. You look at the lives of John Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Myles Horton, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Anne Braden, and we can go down. There’s a whole lot of vanilla brothers and sisters who have been part of the Black freedom struggle.
But they didn’t have a discourse about white fragility. They had a discourse about integrity. They had a discourse about what it means to have solidarity. And that’s very important, because white supremacist civilization has this genius way of making every issue revolve around white fears, insecurities, and anxieties, rather than Black suffering, indigenous people’s suffering, trans suffering—no-matter-what-color, gay and lesbian struggling. It’s that self-indulgent, narcissistic move, no matter how sophisticated or progressive. And so, in that regard, we’re talking about solidarity across the board.
When I’m in solidarity with my gay and lesbian sisters and brothers as a straight man, I’m not talking straight fragility. I’m talking about my solidarity. I want to be a decent human being. I want to make sure their lives have the same dignity and respect as anybody else’s life.
And this is what I want to end on—the issue of despair. We have the pandemic, a fascist gangster in the White House, depression-like levels of massive unemployment, underemployment, the collapse of our educational systems and so forth. We have been living in a failed social experiment on every front: the economy, the nation-state, our educational system, most of our religious institutions. They have failed to actually generate what a democracy ought to, which is a healthy public life in which people are not poor, they don’t have to deal with inadequate housing, they have access to healthcare, they have access to quality education. When it comes to 40 percent of our population, it’s failed.
But we got to try again, fail again—fail better. How do you fail better? You have to have spiritual resources to deal with despair, and that’s what we learn from our brothers and sisters on the West Bank under vicious Israeli occupation. Or it could be Jews in Russia, the Dalit in India, the Roma in Europe.
They have a despair that they’re wrestling with, but they’re without defeat in their determination to be decent human beings with integrity, before the worms get their body. If you miss out on that spiritual resource, you’re gonna miss out on the greatness of Black folk. That’s what Monk was about. That’s what John Coltrane was about. That’s what Aretha Franklin was about. An integrity and a quest for excellence to get beyond what they had been exposed to and then to pass it on to the younger generation, given what was inside of their souls. If we miss out on that, then a lot of this is just sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
RK: I say Amen.
KYT: I just think this whole ally thing has to go, I’m sorry. I’m not interested in allies. “Allies” makes it seem like “while over here in our America everything’s great, we just need to improve your America.” But no, have you looked at what is happening in their America? I talked about it before. The life expectancy of ordinary white men and women has gone into reverse. This does not happen in the developed world, and it is driven by alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide.
CW: That’s right. That’s right.
KYT: That is not white privilege, that is white pathos. We all need to be figuring out what the hell to do to change this clusterfuck of a country. Because I will tell you that racism is Black people’s burden, but it’s all of our problem. And you can look at what is happening now with COVID-19.
“We have to move this conversation beyond allyship to talk about what is actually happening in the U.S., and the strategies, tactics, politics, and understandings of history that are necessary to transform the country so that all of our lives can improve.”
Because the Democratic Party and the Republicans were so adept at using racism to undermine and ultimately destroy our social welfare system, it means now, some years later during a pandemic, it is completely broken. That means that we get $1,200 checks (if we’re lucky), and that’s it. That’s what social welfare produces in the United States. And why is it like that? Because they used racism to undermine the whole system of social welfare by convincing white people that Black people were freeloaders trying to get something from nothing.
Racism is all of our problem. The 1 percent don’t care, convincing white people that they’re making a dime and Black people are making a nickel.
We have to move this conversation beyond allyship to talk about what is actually happening in the United States, and the strategies, tactics, politics, and understandings of history that are necessary to transform the country so that all of our lives can improve. And saying that doesn’t mean that we’re all suffering the same. Clearly—when we see how this pandemic is affecting African Americans and what is happening on the border of this country—we can see that certain people are suffering more than others.
But the United States is a country of suffering. What we’re saying is that there are other resources—this suffering doesn’t have to exist. This country gives the Pentagon almost a trillion dollars a year. We have to fight to change the political dynamics to end suffering, period. And you don’t do that with liberal discourse about allyship.
BT: Well, I think it’s hard to imagine a more powerful and searing way to end this conversation. Where do we go from here? I encourage all of you to do a couple of things. One, live with integrity like Brother West says. Join the movement. Find the way that you can contribute.
But also support these independent bookstores, support the organizations that we’ve listed to fundraise for. Again, they are National Bail Out, Critical Resistance, and OWL, out of Stockton, California. And I just want to thank Robin D. G. Kelley, Elizabeth Hinton, Cornel West, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for their brilliance and their devotion. They’ve committed a life of study to these issues and it shows. I love you guys. Thank you all for coming.
CW: Love you right back, brother. Love you right back.
RK: Thank you, Brandon. Everybody.
CW: Each and every one of you. Wonderful.
Brandon M. Terry is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies at Harvard University. He is coeditor, with Tommie Shelby, of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. He has published over twenty books, but is is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
Elizabeth Hinton is the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
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Robin D. G. Kelley and Bongani Madondo honor the writer’s life, work, and legacy.
The militarization of gun culture among both civilians and police reflects an increasingly energetic defense of white rule in the United States. This has been facilitated in part by an NRA-led reinterpretation of what the Second Amendment meant by “militia”.