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Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on race, class, and socialism in the United States

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August 2019

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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Photo: Don Usner

Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is one of the most well-known African-Americans intellectuals today. The author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and columnist at Jacobin Magazine regularly speaks and writes about the black freedom struggle, economic equality, and contemporary social movements, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers and proving to be a decisive influence on the growing socialist movement in the United States. She visited the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in June 2019 to give a Luxemburg Lecture at Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt jointly hosted by the Humboldt University’s W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Lecture series. After the event she sat down with Loren Balhorn to discuss the US under President Trump, the state of the Black Lives Matter movement, and challenges facing the nascent American Left.

Donald Trump has now been president for over two years. Despite some impressive showings of opposition like the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter appears to have dwindled while Trump’s demagoguery, open racism and sexism are increasingly normalized. What have the effects been on US public life since his election? Why hasn’t the resistance been bigger?

Trump has been the disaster that everyone thought he would be. Every day there is a new scandal, a new law, some new horrible thing that comes out of the White House. That kept people off balance for the first year, but then it started to lapse into the normalization of the absurd.

It’s important to say that there have been enormous protests in the last couple of years, beginning with the Women’s March on the day after his inauguration that brought out four million people—the largest set of demonstrations in US history. There have been all kinds of actions for immigrants’ rights, against Islamophobia, etc., but it doesn’t feel like a social movement yet because it’s not. These disparate movements stay isolated; they haven’t cohered around a universal set of demands bringing people together across movements. People are aware of this and are trying to figure out how to address it, but the 2020 election is looming in the background and because Trump is so disastrous many naturally think that the main thing we have to do is get him out of office.

To some degree that’s true, but I think that it matters who replaces him. I support Bernie Sanders and his efforts to become the Democratic nominee because there are 240 million eligible voters in the US, but in 2016 only 100 million voted. There are some problems with voter suppression, but for the vast majority of people there is a feeling that who they vote for doesn’t matter.

If you look at a place like Alabama, which has some of the highest levels of poverty in the developed world, those people have stayed poor through the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Why should they go out and vote? That is really the issue—is there a candidate that doesn’t just talk about how dysfunctional and evil Donald Trump is, but can also provide a vision for a different way to live?

For Black Lives Matter specifically, or the groups that constituted that movement, they were expecting Clinton to win and really struggled in the wake of Trump’s victory to figure out how to go beyond mobilization to something more long-term. Do we focus on immediate, small reforms like body cameras, or on bigger questions like abolishing prisons? There is a movement underway to make radical changes to the criminal injustice system, but without the spaces and structures to discuss these questions the movement kind of hit a wall.

On a related note, it seems to me like we have witnessed numerous, albeit brief mobilizations of public outrage that fail to consolidate into something long-term—Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and so on. The one exception appears to be the Bernie Sanders campaign and the revival of democratic socialism in the US more generally. Would you agree with that assessment? Does it represent a point of condensation for these movements, or something separate?

The Democratic Socialists of America have probably been the central beneficiaries of the political radicalization, evidenced by their enormous growth since the election from an organization of around 2,000 to 60,000. But talking about an organization is a bit different than talking about a social movement because there’s less pressure to deliver on a measurable outcome as an organization; there are different markers of success.

Social movements depend on momentum around political events, and if there’s not something that can be deemed a “success” that momentum is threatened. How they organize thus matters a lot more. One of the problems with Black Lives Matter was a reluctance early on to create easily identifiable entry points into the general movement, meaning that there were organizations—whether #BlackLivesMatter, the Black Youth Project, or others—but if you went to one of the big Black Lives Matter demonstrations it wasn’t easy to figure out how to “plug in”. That disconnect between the thousands of people who were radicalized by Black Lives Matter and the feeling that it wasn’t under their control, that they couldn’t contribute, is a big reason why it lost its momentum.  Figuring out how to change that will be key to regaining it.

You mentioned the absence of a “universal set of demands” in the resistance to Trump. In Germany, the notion of a conflict or opposition between “class” and “identity” politics has been a prominent part of strategic debates in recent years. As not only a scholar and activist but also a self-proclaimed socialist, do you think that an overemphasis on “identity” issues can become divisive or weaken a broader movement for social transformation?

Definitely not. At least in the US, but probably everywhere, you can’t fundamentally address social injustices and economic inequality without taking identity-based oppression into account. This is particularly clear when you look at “universal” welfare state programmes, specifically retirement. Americans are eligible to retire at age 65 and receive pension payments from the Social Security programme. Social Security was created in the 1930s but most black people were banned from receiving it or paying into it until 1954. Moreover, because of racism African-Americans often occupy the lowest rungs of the employment latter. They earn less money and are overrepresented in the ranks of the poor, so even when we get to Social Security black people get less because they’ve earned less over time. Just having a universal programme doesn’t mean there’s universal access. You have to take up the issue of race to ensure equitable access.

Sanders’s socialism may not be “radical” in global terms but it is in the US, and that’s why mainstream media and politics try to bury and ignore him even though tens of thousands of people show up to his campaign events.

Any time you talk about racism in the US it’s going to be divisive. But without specific programmes aimed at improving the quality of life for black and Latino people, it just doesn’t happen. The debate is unnecessarily polarized, and I think it’s always the case that there is a dynamic between race and class in American politics that you can’t escape by arguing for “the universal”.

You were very critical of Barack Obama during his presidency. Now that Donald Trump is in power Obama seems to be viewed as a hero, lots of people want to return to that era. How do you evaluate his record and the role he played in American society, looking forward to the 2020 election?

There are two ways to think about Obama. Everyone knows he was subjected to unprecedented racist attacks because he was black. He probably had big ideas, but he was unable to pursue much of anything because of the recalcitrance of the Republican Party. I think most black people recognize that.

But then there are the discussions black people have among themselves when white people aren’t around, and that’s how you get the lowest turnout among black voters in twenty years in 2016. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was seen as a referendum on Obama’s presidency and black people didn’t show up like they did in 2008 and 2012. Following the big expectations around his presidency, almost nothing was fulfilled except for the symbolic value of a black president—that gets old.

But what does that have to do with 2020? Trump could win again; that’s not difficult to imagine if the Democratic Party puts up someone like Joe Biden or another middle-of-the-road, mushy mouthed, dithering Democrat. What we can take from the Obama years is that the middle-of-the-road civility approach to politics is on its way out. That’s how you can understand the rapid ascension and equally rapid destruction of Beto O’Rourke. If you’re running against a ghoul—someone like Ted Cruz—then it’s easy to make vague, vacuous statements and just not be him. But in a general election where you have people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders running on substantive issues you have to have something to say other than “this is not us as Americans” and other vague nonsense. His campaign collapsed very quickly, he’s already a nobody. I think the centre has been crushed, at least for now. It’s much more polarized and people want politicians who will pick a side.

What does that mean exactly?

Defeating Trump will require more than just vague campaign talk. American politicians speak at a third-grade level. They come up with these phrases and slogans that don’t really mean anything, rather than make substantive promises and risk getting into office and failing to deliver. I think that will be the demand this time around if you want to mobilize people to vote—to convince them that it actually matters who gets elected. Sanders and Warren recognize that you have to say something else, and in Sanders’s case I don’t think it’s a political trick, I think he has a totally different idea of how the state should function in society. Sanders’s socialism may not be “radical” in global terms but it is in the US, and that’s why mainstream media and politics try to bury and ignore him even though tens of thousands of people show up to his campaign events.

Ta-Nehesi Coates published an essay in The Atlantic in 2014 calling for reparations for black Americans that really brought the debate back to life in American society. But rather than focusing on the legacy of slavery he addressed the 1920s and 1930s, as if the New Deal was partially responsible for black poverty. What is your position, given that you have also worked on redlining and housing issues?

I think what Coates is trying to do on reparations is important in at least one respect. Most people talk about reparations in the sense of African-Americans as the descendants of slaves. When slavery ended African-Americans weren’t given any money or property but were just “free”, so part of reparations is dealing with that issue. In that context, you get this weird debate in the US where white people say “I didn’t own slaves; my parents didn’t own slaves; that was a long time ago.” And Coates responds by saying “OK, then let’s talk about how black people were robbed in the twentieth century. We don’t have to go back to slavery to find instances of racially motivated exploitation of black people.”

He focuses on cases like Chicago and the way black people could not buy homes through conventional methods. Black people had to buy their homes on “instalment”, meaning they paid 20 percent interest on predatory, highly exploitative contracts. Earlier this year a group of researchers calculated the costs of black people having to use these contracts. They estimated that in Chicago alone it cost African-Americans 70 billion dollars. That’s a good example of what Coates is talking about.

More generally, the US federal government had a discriminatory mortgage insurance policy. The government promised to cover banks’ losses when homebuyers failed to pay back their mortgage, but there were two preconditions: the homes had to be new and the population had to be “homogenous”, i.e. white. So the government would insure your home if you were white and lived in the suburbs, but not if you were black and lived in the city. That was the policy from 1934 until 1967.

There is practically no welfare state in the US, so buying a house serves as your personal welfare state—an asset that accrues value over time, finances family emergencies, your kids’ university education, and your retirement. Seventy-two percent of white people in the US own their own home, whereas only 43 percent of African-Americans do. This constitutes a gross wealth disparity: the average white family is worth 114,000 US dollars, the average black family is worth 11,000. Because the ability to own a home determines so much of quality of life in the US, for most black people the inability to do so has been incredibly negative. That’s a big part of what Coates is talking about.

I wrote an article on reparations for Jacobin about a month ago. I’ve always been a proponent and I don’t think it should be controversial, it strikes me as a very basic thing. First, the majority of black people support reparations and they support cash payments. We’re not talking about something symbolic—black people want some money. The US is the richest country in the world, it spends almost a trillion dollars on its military every year. It can afford to pay for some of the damage its policies have caused.

The second thing is how a struggle around reparations could educate the general American public about the extent to which racism is a constitutive part of American history, and how the institution of slavery forever altered the history of black people in that country and is at the root of the savage inequalities that define much of black life in the US. The failure of white people in particular to understand this fact means that the whole notion that black people are overrepresented in the ranks of the poor because of something intrinsic to black culture is actively promoted by the American state and taken up in a popular way. Part of changing that, I think, has to involve a struggle around understanding the centrality of slavery in American history. Without understanding that, people can’t fully understand the ways that racism fundamentally shapes life for black and white people in the US. Moreover, for the Left, this idea that reparations is divisive misses what is necessary to build a coalition of people that can actually fight for programmes on everyone’s behalf.

What I mean by that is Bernie Sanders could get elected tomorrow, but if there is no movement on the ground in the US it won’t matter—or at least will seriously limit his ability to get anything done. He will be facing a white supremacist Republican Party and a neoliberal Democratic Party, neither of which is interested in expanding social welfare programmes. So we need a social movement, and how can we build that? Not by telling people that we just need to focus on universal issues. That’s not how you build a mass, multi-racial movement. Part of the way that we can build the type of movements that can fight for these programmes that would benefit everyone is by also taking up issues of oppression in their programmatic form: immigrant rights, disempowering the criminal injustice system, and reparations.

How can we think about how racism functions for White America? After Trump’s election the narrative of “whitelash”—that his victory was white people’s revenge for eight years of a black president—was quite popular. You pushed back against this, pointing out that the data just doesn’t back it up. Nonetheless, if you look at the way at least a segment of the white population supports Trump’s policies, it does come across as pretty ugly and racist. If whitelash is too simple, how can we theorize these dynamics? What motivates people to join in this spectacle?

One thing that’s important to understand is who is being discussed. After Trump was elected the general assumption in the media was that Trump’s base was poor and working-class. But in reality his voters are not poor or working-class; they earn over 100,000 dollars a year on average, which is a lot of money in the US. The average family income is about 67,000 dollars, so people earning over 100,000 are not working-class. Then people talk about how some of his base is not university educated, but less than a quarter of Americans have university degrees. That’s not really a testament to anything.

Trump’s base earns over 100,000 a year, is overwhelmingly white and male, and rabidly racist. No one should deny that. I think some of them are reacting to a sense of loss—they feel their social position may be threatened by people who are not white. They think of the US as a white nation and as theirs, and when they talk about “Making America Great Again” they look back to a period when white supremacy, authority, etc. was unquestioned. So for these people there is a sense that the presidency of Barack Obama represented the potential beginning of the end, and that’s why they freak out about abortion for white women. Steve King, a congressional representative from Iowa, said “you can’t rebuild our civilization with other people’s babies”—that’s the white supremacist fantasy about “white genocide”.  They care about these things, and they look at census reports that the US is going to become a “majority minority” nation in 30 years, and that scares them.

We’ve had multiracial police forces for 50 years, we have community policing, but it doesn’t matter because the police are there to respond to the status quo, to keep people in their place and respond to the crises provoked by the impacts of austerity and neoliberal governing.

More broadly, there are the white voters in the Upper Midwestern states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Some of them voted for Trump in 2016. They voted for Obama for eight years and nothing changed. Hillary Clinton ignored that area completely. I live in a swing state, meaning that sometimes it goes Republican and sometimes it goes Democrat, and Hillary’s ads basically said “Do you want Trump as a role model for your kids?” Donald Trump’s commercials were all about corporate greed, how the rich have destroyed people’s lives in small towns across Pennsylvania, and “we’re going to take our country back” …from the rich! The choice was between “a good role model” or an economic plan—I think that was part of the appeal for some people.

And lastly, just naked racism in a very classic sense: the ruling elites who have more money than they know what to do with but say that the real problems are the “illegals” crossing the border, black people committing crimes in the cities, “the Muslims”. Trump managed to blame the economic woes of white working-class people on these minorities. That appeals to some people.

It’s also worth pointing out that the US has had a one-sided immigration debate for years, with Trump demonizing immigrants as rapists, drug dealers, etc., while the Democrats respond with empty slogans like “we need a comprehensive immigration plan”. The debate is shifting more and more to the right, and in that kind of situation racism not only becomes normalized but begins to enter people’s common sense. If you don’t combat that kind of thinking, it can easily become a normal part of the discussion.

As Bernie Sanders becomes more popular, some sections of the Left have argued that the job of socialist should be to “pull him to the Left” by focusing on building movements as opposed to campaigning for Bernie directly. Where do you stand on that debate? Can we do both?

I do think it’s necessary to have a social movement, to organize a social movement that can fight and create the pressure to win the programmes that are at the heart of Sanders’s campaign. That’s necessary not because Sanders is like every other politician who makes promises with no intention to follow through, but because the US government was essentially designed to fail. In the US it’s called “checks and balances”, but what that really means is it’s nearly impossible for the government to enact reforms unless you get all three chambers of the government to align. They all must agree to pass legislation, which makes it exceedingly difficult. One thing that can break through all this is the pressure brought to bear by a social movement.

But I do think it matters what party is in power, or what president we have. It matters if Bernie Sanders supports universal health care—that matters as opposed to someone who doesn’t support it. But just saying he wants it is not enough.

Are you saying the political horizon should be concrete, welfare-state reforms? What about deeper social transformation, how do we organize to get there?

Reforms are in some sense never enough, but it matters where your starting point is. In the US we have 50 million people without health insurance. Getting them health insurance is important and shouldn’t be dismissed as “just a reform”. Struggles around reforms are also important in terms of how we get from where we are to raising the possibility of a greater social transformation. What I mean is that reformism as a political orientation is different than the need to fight around certain reforms that improve people’s everyday lives.

A lot of us we have concluded that there are many aspects of society that cannot be reformed. The police are one of them. The discussion around police reform is very complicated, it’s been going on for over 50 years with people calling for more black police officers, more “community policing”. We’ve had multiracial police forces for 50 years, we have community policing, but it doesn’t matter because the police are there to respond to the status quo, to keep people in their place and respond to the crises provoked by the impacts of austerity and neoliberal governing.

One of the things that movements like Black Lives Matter have focused on are called “civilian review boards”, which look at police brutality cases to determine what police’s actions were. I think those are the wrong targets. One of the main focuses of activists should be police union contracts. All police are unionized, and their contracts in many ways codify their illegal behaviour. In Chicago, for example, because of police contracts an officer cannot issue a written complaint against another officer unless he gives his name. You can’t make an anonymous complaint. If a cop kills someone, it’s a rule that they have two days before they have to speak to officers or officials. These rules place them above the law, and should be the focus of activism. Not body cameras or civilian review boards, but the actual legal rules that allow them to act the way they do.

There are questions about how groups should organize, what are the most effective means of organizing to bring in the largest number of people in ways that people feel like they have some democratic input and control over the direction of organizing against police brutality. People talk about the Black Panthers and their community-based programmes, some of which were effective and some of which weren’t. It takes up a lot of resources and it’s not clear what the end objective of that type of organizing actually is. There are still unanswered questions in terms of what that social movement should be, could be, and will actually be.

Going back to the spectacle of US politics today, why do you think Trump can get away with so much that previous presidents couldn’t?

With Trump, part of the thing is he has always been a liar, a cheat, a scumbag. That is his image. Naomi Klein writes about this in her book No Is Not Enough: this is the Trump “brand”—a conniving, crooked con man. That’s why none of this stuff sticks to him, because that’s who he is! Whereas if most traditional politicians were to say the kinds of things Trump says, their careers would end. What I ask myself is whether these questions will only apply to Trump because this is who he has always been, or if he's opening a new era in American politics where you can be an openly racist buffoon and that’s OK.

Obama crafted his image around intelligence, civility, and good manners, but really was doing some of the same nefarious things. But whether deporting more immigrants than any president in history, creating these fake “commissions” that give the appearance of doing something while doing nothing at all, or continuing a vicious drone war in Central Asia, he did it with this kind of overwrought “this is so hard, I’m thinking so deeply as I continue the status quo” affect.

In terms of how this relates to African-Americans, one thing I thought was interesting about Michelle Obama’s book was the way that her respectability politics are different from previous historical phenomena. This is an idea that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, namely that if black people look and act a certain way they will be protected from the racist violence of American society. But back then it was part of what we refer to as “linked fate”—you did this for the race as a whole, there was a still a collective sense of responsibility to everyone. If you chastised black people it was to raise them up, to advance black people as a whole.

With Michelle Obama it’s much more individual. The respectability is about how you navigate racism in the United States so that you can be successful, and its connection to other black people is that you show them how to embody those qualities so they too can be successful. There’s no sense of a collective, there’s no sense of responsibility other than to imbue these lessons of grit and determination that you have as an individual and demonstrate as the reasons for your own individual success. It’s very neoliberal in that sense, a continued fetish of individualism masquerades as group politics. That’s something that Michelle Obama very skilfully demonstrates in the book, and certainly something that Barack Obama talked about at great lengths. He focuses a lot on mentorship and role models as ways that you show or demonstrate to other wayward black people in order to be successful. There is no sense of struggling or fighting against racism, it just becomes naturalized as an intrinsic feature of our society, and so black people have to learn to engage with the world as a mode of survival. It’s a weird departure.

Looking forward to 2020 and beyond, how can the Left combine anti-racist demands with economic struggle?

Like I said before, universal demands don’t mean universal access. The struggle against racism is political, not just formal. The formal “we are against racism” is fine, but there still has to be a political struggle by which people come to understand how racism functions. That’s why the struggle for reparations in the US is important, that’s why talking about the issue of immigration and the history of the country’s role in Mexico, Central and Latin America is so crucial—we have to go beyond just the formal positions against racism to really get white people in the US to understand how racism functions and how it contorts the lives of black people and brown people, and also what it means in the lives of white people. The US federal government spends 80 billion dollars a year to maintain a criminal injustice system, and racist ideas that black people are criminal allow it to keep going. The government spends one trillion dollars a year on the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, all justified by racist ideas of Muslim terrorists. That comes at great expense!

When people ask “how can we pay for the Green New Deal?”, the answer is “we could stop paying for so many wars”. But racism deludes people into thinking these things don’t affect them, aren’t a problem for them. That’s where the political struggle comes in. It’s good to have a formally principled anti-racist position, but only campaigning and political struggle will really show people how and why these issues affect all of us and what meaningful solidarity is.

Do you think Black Lives Matter could make a comeback?

I talked about the fragmentation of the movement in my Luxemburg Lecture. That’s real, as is the “NGO-ization” of movements driving a wedge between paid staffers and regular people who see themselves as part of the movement, affecting who gets to really contribute and discuss who is part of a movement. When these discussions about where Black Lives Matter should go started kicking off, they were held among small groups of professional organizers behind closed doors. There was one attempt in Cleveland in June 2015 that didn’t go well, and that was really the last effort. These types of issues continue. To me, the end of a particular phase of Black Lives Matter is exemplified by the fact that two weeks ago in Houston a black woman lying on the ground while screaming “I’m pregnant!” was shot five times by a police officer, and there was no public response. A local response, yes, but no national response by anything called “Black Lives Matter”.

The need for a movement is still present. There is still an objective need for organization, exemplified by the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America in the last few years and the large numbers of demonstrations that continue to take place. But how do you channel this into a lasting movement for both immediate reforms and deeper social transformation? That is the question and the challenge.

Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor of African-American Studies and the Charles H. McIlwain University Preceptor at Princeton University, and the author of several books including From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket, 2016) and Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).