Fighting racism with a racist in the White House

February 5, 2019

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and editor of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, talked to Socialist Worker about the state of Black America and the next steps in the anti-racist struggle in the era of Trump.

TEN YEARS ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first Black president in the history of the U.S. Most people believed this was a sign that racism in America had at least receded. But today, we live under Trump, whose presidency is driven by open bigotry and nationalist fervor. Was the seeming change 10 years ago real? What happened to land us in Trump times?

THE ELECTION of Obama did two important things. One, it actually helped to spark interest in Black life and conditions in Black communities for really the first time outside of some social catastrophe.

Typically, the portrayal of what was happening with African Americans was based around the Katrina disaster or the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or some other horrible thing. But with Obama’s administration, there was the sense that you might need to know something about what racism actually looked like in everyday life.

Protesters take a knee during the March for Racial Justice in Washington, D.C.
Protesters take a knee during the March for Racial Justice in Washington, D.C. (Stephen Melkisethian | flickr)

The other feature was just what it meant socially for Black people, having been treated as marginal and invisible for so long, to have a Black family in the White House. Even with the frustrations with the Obama administration, that created some kind of relationship to politics and the governing institutions of this country that otherwise didn’t exist.

Clearly, that’s changed drastically. I think there’s one remaining African American in the Trump administration, and that’s Ben Carson. With the outward displays of racism by the administration, there’s no kind of relationship or connection to governing institutions — in fact, they’re overtly hostile now.

I think the same phenomenon exists when we talk about the economy. Part of the mobilization of Black voters for Obama was related to the ways that the previous administration of George W. Bush had extremely negative impacts on Black lives.

There was the Hurricane Katrina disaster and then the economic crisis of 2008, and we know now that by 2010, 240,000 Black households had lost a home to foreclosure. Official Black unemployment reached as high as 16.8 percent. That was part of the context for why African Americans rallied to support Obama.

I think it’s important to say that it wasn’t just because he was a Black candidate. When Obama first announced he was running for president, he actually wasn’t a popular choice for Black voters. The political theorist Corey Robin recently pointed out that Obama’s message of economic populism as the main way to confront racism makes him a “total Bernie Bro.”

But over time, that populism, in combination with demands for political change, resonated in particular with Black voters because they were bearing the brunt of the unraveling of the American economy.

Today, the situation is different because, for one thing, Black unemployment is low, as Donald Trump likes to remind everyone. This just shows how illusory official unemployment numbers can be, because at the same time, Black home ownership levels have continued to stagnate or creep lower, which means the wealth disparity between Black people and white people continues to grow.

There are other indicators. Most people don’t know that Black students and former students carry a greater proportion of student loan debt than their white peers — or that Black students are targeted more often by for-profit colleges, and even when they’re not scams, they’re more expensive with fewer results from obtaining a degree.

Things are probably not as bad for the Black community as they were in 2008 coming out of the economic crisis. But the problems that emerged in 2007-08 were never resolved during the Obama administration, which, of course, was the bridge to Trump.

Black people were enthralled by Obama’s populist “Yes we can” message, but so were many working-class white voters. And the inability to transform those popular campaign slogans into tangible economic policies that transformed conditions in the lives of working class people, whether Black, white or Latino, cast a pall over the 2016 presidential election.

Turnout among African American voters was depressed, and a number of working-class white voters either sat out the election, too, or cast their lot with Donald Trump.

So the economic, social and political situation in Black lives is exacerbated by the lack of resolution to the problems of the 2008 crisis. And of course, those have been made worse under a Trump administration, where there is no pretense to try to alleviate any pressure on the lives of working-class Black people.

What this means in terms of formal politics remains to be seen. There’s no longer a Black president, but the Congressional Black Caucus is the largest it’s ever been, and with the wave of women voters elected in the 2018 midterm election, there are more Black women in the caucus now.

But we know from the experience of Barack Obama that it isn’t always the case that Black faces in high places lead to a positive outcome for ordinary Black people. There’s a political tension between economic deprivation in Black poor and working-class communities and an ever-expanding Black political class. Whether those political leaders are able to produce something positive is what creates the conditions for a potentially explosive character to Black politics outside the formal governing bodies.

MORE AND more mainstream analysis is pointing toward the inevitability of an economic recession in the near term. What impact do you think that will have on the economics and politics of the Black community?

AS I said before, official unemployment for Blacks is very low. But that statistic doesn’t say anything about the quality or kinds of jobs that people have, and it doesn’t say much about the fragile situation of the Black middle class.

There are all sorts of signs of frustration. The rebellion in Ferguson and then in Baltimore didn’t happen generations ago. We’re talking about 2014 in Ferguson and 2015 in Baltimore. And the issues that set off those rebellions have yet to be resolved either.

Part of the political dynamic is how a whole range of grassroots activist organizations that emerged in this period got deluged with what I would call foundation-based professionalization.

This turned them inward and away from the street protests that created the conditions for their rise in the first place. A lot of the money that came with professionalization was connected to crafting policy platforms and initiatives that were “real solutions.” There have been a number of initiatives that are aimed at purportedly pragmatic solutions.

But that dynamic is undermined by the steady drumbeat of news about continued police killings, continued police brutality and the state’s continued inability or unwillingness to do anything about it.

The most egregious recent example, of course, comes out of Chicago, where the three police officers who helped Jason Van Dyke cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald were completely exonerated — and Jason Van Dyke, while he was convicted, was given a slap on the wrist for a murder conviction.

This again creates the situation that gave rise to Ferguson and Baltimore: If the formal routes to solving a public problem — putting people on trial, imposing consent decrees on police departments — don’t work, then you create the conditions where people feel they have no choice but to rebel.

It’s always impossible to predict when and how that will happen. But we can look at the historical patterns and know that people won’t just suffer violence forever. That sets up the conditions for some type of confrontation.

When Ferguson and Baltimore happened under Obama, because of the looming 2016 presidential race and the pressures on the Democratic Party, the Obama administration felt compelled by the public protest and urban uprisings to have some response.

The Obama administration perfected the strategy of creating the impression that something was happening — forming some committees, inviting activists to the White House every couple of months.

When you look at what is happening tangibly on the ground, not much actually is — but there’s a sense that you’re being effective, you’re having some kind of impact, you have the ability to influence politics.

With the Trump administration, there’s no pretense of that. They literally encourage the police to beat people up. One of Jeff Sessions’ last acts as attorney general before he was fired was to announce that the Justice Department isn’t going to enforce any consent decrees imposed on police departments. The federal government literally rebuked its own authority to interfere in local policing.

And add to that the threat of a future economic crisis, which always hits Black communities much harder than anyone else, when it really begins to tighten around individuals and families.

We saw some hint of this with the furlough of federal workers during the government shutdown, because Black workers are disproportionately represented among the federal workforce, and so they bore a greater brunt of the impact. That gives you some sense of what a future crisis would look like.

And, of course, the government’s response to economic hardship in Black communities is never to devote public resources — it’s always a police response.

If Black people have no redress through the courts, through City Hall, through the presidency or through other formal means to register complaints and be heard, then it’s a matter of when, not if, that will boil over into larger, more destructive and, frankly, more impactful protests.

SO HOW do you translate anger at the conditions you described into action and into ongoing organization? What can the left today, and the growing socialist left specifically, do to advance the anti-racist cause?

I THINK one of the questions that came up with Black Lives Matter, but that certainly spills over into the political mobilizations today, was: Is this a moment or movement? This has been a recurring question: How do we go from mobilization to movement?

I wrote an article recently about the Women’s March controversy, and one of the issues beyond what people consider to be controversial is this question of the utility of having one mass march a year.

Now on the one hand, there is a utility. I think mass marches are important, especially at a time when people feel isolated and atomized. They are a way of bringing individuals from their separate spheres of life into a collective force — a way to develop confidence in the idea that we are many, and they are few.

So that’s important about mobilizations, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to show up in January, and then we’ll see you next January — or during Black Lives Matter, to only have mobilizations in response to a police murder.

The question is really how we transform these mobilizations into social movements. A big part of that is there has to be more places where people are able to convene to try to come to grips with the nature of what’s happening today and what that means. I don’t think there are enough of those places — opportunities to just talk about politics.

This doesn’t happen enough under the organizing model I referenced earlier, where you have a professionalization of activism. There’s an executive director, a paid staff and an executive board that comes together and decides on a political issue or a particular campaign, and then uses its mailing list to mobilize people to show up to do something.

The people who are being mobilized don’t have any role to play in determining what an action should be or the overall objectives of a mobilization or social movement. You have the paid professionals as the most active agents in thinking and debating about what it is to be done, and the mass of people are seen passively as bodies that show up to something.

That dynamic has to be changed. And that’s difficult. It’s a very pervasive model right now.

I think there has to be a discussion about what grassroots organizing actually means — what it looks like. And then more importantly, what does it mean to have a democratic movement that actually reflects the opinions and experiences and input of the broadest number of people who are either impacted or involved in a particular struggle.

That’s one aspect of this. I think another is the question of solidarity: How do you have individual mobilizations around particular issues and complement them with ways of bringing them together so people see these mobilizations as interrelated?

There are distinct questions we can mobilize around, whether it’s women’s rights or anti-racism or climate change. But we also need to recognize the way that these issues are connected to each other, and that raises the question of the need for a mass movement that isn’t oriented around individual issues, but sees a relationship between the different expressions of oppression and exploitation in this society, and tried to confront that.

The third aspect is that we have to start talking about how to connect movements that deal with the social sphere with the labor movement.

The most effective protest or political action of the last calendar year has been the mobilization of teachers using their social weight as workers to transform a political situation. That began with the teachers’ rebellion in West Virginia last spring, but it’s continued to spread, and most recently, it expressed itself in Los Angeles where the LA teachers won an enormous victory.

So not only is the involvement of working-class people paramount, but the working class movement itself is central to go beyond protests and demonstrations, and move toward what we talk about as social transformation. The teachers’ strikes showed the ability for working-class people to flex their muscle and transform the situation.

Those are three critical issues that I think have to be brought together in discussing how we can have a movement that isn’t just reactive, but that can advance its own ideas and demands — that doesn’t limit itself to particular reforms.

That’s not to say that the reforms aren’t important, but we’re starting to get to the point, especially with the climate change discussion, where we have to think bigger than just stopping the bleeding. We have to think about how we change the situation we’re in collectively.

It’s a good time to think about that, too, because of the increasing number of people who are sympathetic to the ideas of socialism, which creates some urgency for the left broadly speaking, and certainly for people who consider themselves radicals within that.

One last point, which is always a question in the U.S.: How do we make sure in those three aspects — building social movements, the politics of solidarity and the role of the working class — that issues related to racism, whether it’s anti-Black racism or anti-immigrant racism or Islamophobia or other forms, are brought into the center of those struggles?

We know that in a multiracial, multiethnic society like the U.S., if you don’t place the fight against racism in its many manifestations at the center of the struggle, then you continue to reflect the fractures and divisions that already exist in society.

Our movement has to tell the racially oppressed that the struggle against racism is always at the center. Confronting racism is morally important, but it’s also the only way that we will build a successful multiracial mass movement that can actually transform the United States.

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