Adam Shatz: Our guest today on the LRB podcast is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Taylor is a professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. As a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and a columnist for thenewyorker.com she has emerged in the last few years as one of our most important commentators on the political economy of race, class, and gender in America. She’s an activist intellectual, an academic who hasn’t forgotten her background as an organiser, which gives her work not only its analytic power, but a rare urgency. When I see her byline, I put everything down because I want to know what she’s thinking. Keeanga has been kind enough to take time out of her very packed schedule to discuss the extraordinary events in America and the world of the last few weeks, the uprising against police brutality and other forms of injustice that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We’re also going to talk about the history that preceded this moment, a history to which her own work has been an acutely illuminating guide. Keeanga, welcome to the LRB podcast. Thanks so much for joining us.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Thank you. Very glad to be here.
AS: You’re in Philadelphia. And I just read that Daniel Outlaw, the police commissioner in the city where you live, has announced a moratorium on the use of tear gas and apologised for its use in a protest in early June.
KYT: That’s Danielle Outlaw, and she is the new police chief. I think she just got here in January. She and the mayor, Jim Kenney had a press conference yesterday. It was a very curious affair because they essentially admitted to lying weeks earlier. The police in Philadelphia shot tear gas at a peaceful demonstration that had taken over a highway, but it was an act of civil disobedience. And the police lied and said that people threw rocks at them and were threatening officers. And not only were there witnesses, also members of the clergy, also reporters who denied this, but there was also, as has been the case across the country, videotape – lots of visual evidence that this wasn’t the case. And so the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer today is that Outlaw – which is, of course, a brilliant last name for a police chief – says that it was unjustifiable to use tear gas, even though one would think that she and the mayor were involved in the decision-making process to decide to use tear gas, but that there also is a legacy of that kind of deflection in Philadelphia politics as well. Mayor Wilson Goode in 1985 was the first black mayor of Philadelphia when a bombing device was dropped on a house of an organisation called Move, which was a black counter-cultural group based in West Philadelphia. And the bombing killed 11 members of Move, including several children, and it destroyed four city blocks, and Wilson Goode also says he was not involved in the decision to drop a bomb there.
AS: I remember when the Move bombing took place because my mother is originally from Philadelphia, and Wilson Goode like Danielle Outlaw is African American, and this was of course held up as a sign that America was making enormous progress. There were all these black mayors who’d been elected starting in the 1970s, and yet the same kinds of brutality took place under their watch.
KYT: Absolutely. But Goode recently came out in an op-ed published in the Guardian and apologised yet again for this act that he also says he had nothing to do with. So in Philly people in charge apparently have nothing to do with the police acting in an outrageous, illegal and brutal fashion, but they have been forced to account publicly for that, I think because of the ferocity of the movement right now.
AS: Of the protests, yes, absolutely. And actually, when you mentioned this incident of tear gassing it reminds me of a quote from From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by the social psychologist Kenneth Clark, when he writes of urban revolts and says that we have to understand that the supposed lawlessness of these events is a response in fact to the lawlessness of the police.
KYT: Well, it’s the lawlessness of the police, it’s the dysfunction in effectiveness, unwillingness, or inability of the state in general to respond in meaningful ways to the sense of desperation, of hopelessness, of loss. And I think what is interesting about these uprisings and protests is that it’s not confined just to African Americans, but it actually is representative of the feeling and the mood of a much broader and wider swath of the population, which makes it so dangerous to the political status quo.
AS: And we’re going to talk about this, about the broad multi-racial dimension of the protest movement. But I want to start by quoting from a piece that you published in the New York Times on April 13th, a month into the Covid-19 crisis. And the piece appeared under the headline ‘Do we need a new protest movement?’ And you wrote:
Tens of millions of citizens sit at home awaiting meagre checks that may reach them by August. Countless people under the bewilderment of navigating call centres that often fail to connect them to unemployment benefits. Donations to food banks have fallen while need rises. The inept federal response slows the arrival of aid, forcing people to defy the social distancing necessary to keep the virus at bay. Under normal circumstances, such wanton disregard from the government might prompt protests, but these are far from normal circumstances. Instead, public demonstrations are almost impossible. So what can we do when it seems there is nothing we can do?
Now six weeks later, of course, everything changes. And the idea that mass demonstrations were obsolete because of Covid, which was an idea, actually, that was encouraged and promulgated by people like Bill Gates, was shattered. And so here you are. You’ve written extensively on questions of racism, class oppression, injustice for years, but it’s not every day that anger over oppression explodes into a mass upheaval, particularly in the midst of a pandemic where people are afraid to be physically proximate to one another. So suddenly we’re looking at the prospect of Trump unravelling, the racist-in-chief whose entire presidency was inspired by his hatred of the black president Barack Obama. So I’m wondering, this is a month before, this is in April. We were all wondering, will we ever be in the streets again? Were you surprised? Did the scale take you by surprise?
KYT: Oh, I was shocked. I’m still shocked. There was a march of hundreds of people in Philadelphia two days ago, to protest this racist Columbus discovering America. A statue in South Philly has become a flashpoint because the police, while they were tear gassing and attacking Black Lives Matter protesters, have coddled and supported these white thugs in South Philly armed with baseball bats, hammers and golf clubs who were poised to attack Black Lives Matter protesters. And so hundreds of people organised themselves to march on this statue to denounce racist vigilantism. And so, yes, I continue to be stunned by the longevity of the protest. This has been going on for a month now, and it is a welcome development. And I think that in some ways it’s driven by the kind of ineptitude that I was describing in April. And I’ve heard several times now from young people who are at the centre of these protests that if we’re going to die anyway from this pandemic, then I’d rather die fighting than die in my apartment alone. And I think the ineptitude from the state on the one hand, and then the brutality of the state on the other has left people feeling that there actually is no other alternative. There’s nothing that we can really do, because even in some of the local elections we’ve seen people who identify with the movement, progressives challenging establishment Democrats, at least on the democratic side of these races.
AS: Look at Eliot Engel being defeated.
KYT: Oh, god,I know.
AS: Or my state senator Jabari Brisport, who is black, gay and a democratic socialist.
KYT: So there’s that, but on the national level Joe Biden’s response to the uprising was $300 million for the cops to do diversity training, cameras. And if that’s the response at the top of the Democratic Party ticket, then of course you have to keep protesting! The political establishment has yet to catch up or fully comprehend the mood that is in the streets, so it still lags behind. The movement is talking about defund the police, right? It’s not talking about train the police. And part of that is because 2015 is so recent, so the same people have lived through the piecemeal reforms. They’ve lived through body cameras as some breakthrough innovation that would compel the police to stop brutalising people. They’ve lived through policing commissions. They’ve lived through all of the reforms that the Democratic Party tries to now uphold as somehow original, innovative, as the solution to the problems with policing. And it’s not good enough.
AS: And for them, it’s too little too late.
AS: And in a way, it’s a reminder of what we saw in the 1960s with the Kerner Commission and how little follow-up there was.
KYT: It’s the same solutions they’ve been recycling for fifty years, and no one’s interested in that.
AS: I spoke recently to the poet and novelist Thulani Davis, who’s herself a veteran of the movement of the sixties and seventies. And she told me that what had moved her about the protests was the intensity of the sorrow and the rage.
And she said that it made people of her generation able to cry again, that they’d somehow almost forgotten. They could no longer do it. And to see these young people responding, not just with horror, but with action was tremendously inspiring for people of her generation. Is that part of what you’re feeling? You have a background as an organiser. You’ve been involved in politics for some time. Is that something that really impresses you?
KYT: Oh, I get asked all the time, do you have hope? Because it feels like we’re just repeating the same things over and over again. And the rebellion is the most hopeful thing that… it was pretty hopeful in 2014.
AS: With the emergence of Black Lives Matter?
KYT: Yeah. But it didn’t break out, you know? There were revolts in Ferguson and Baltimore, and then elsewhere there were solidarity protests, but the protests weren’t centred at or focused on what was happening in that particular locality. And so I think the breadth of this emergent movement or the reemergence of this movement is absolutely inspiring. And the maturity of the politics because of the experiences in 2014 and 2015 is also hopeful, because the dynamics were different then because you had a politically skilled White House that understood that part of politics is creating the illusion of progress. And so you can put together a commission, you can put activists on the commission, you can do all these things that look busy, and create the appearance that something is happening, when not much really is happening. But it makes people feel like they’re being effective. And the White House essentially then had an open door policy for activists, you know? And so none of that exists now, so the methods of co-optation are much more convoluted and difficult.
AS: Would you say also that when Black Lives Matter first emerged, you had in the White House a man who was perceived at least to be sympathetic to its demands, the nation’s first black president, and so on? And so Obama, in part by virtue of just who he was, in part by virtue of his tremendous oratorical skills, had what you might call soft power. But people might have been disappointed with him. They might have felt betrayed. They might have felt abandoned. They might have thought, why can’t he address our concerns? Why does he retreat from engaging with questions of anti-black oppression? And yet, because he had that soft power, it was enough perhaps to if not neutralise the movement, but to contain its spread and contain its force. Now you have someone in the office who is perceived, rightly, not just as someone who isn’t sympathetic, but as an enemy.
KYT: Well, he’s a white supremacist who has described Black Lives Matter, the movement, as terrorism.
AS: Exactly. So doesn’t the fact that he’s in power also partly explain why we see this eruptive force, and why it’s spread and why it’s acquired such momentum?
KYT: Oh, for certain, I think that Trump has been a provocateur in this sense. And also the actions of the Justice Department. I think some of the first decisions that were made initially under Jeff Sessions were to tear up all of the consent decrees that have been made between Eric Holder’s Justice Department and police departments across the country. And so we can debate as to whether consent decrees actually lead to the reformation of the police. But to essentially say that you won’t engage even in the fiction of trying to respond to this overwhelming desire to stop police brutality, and in several cases where Trump has either joked about the police beating up people or suggested that the police beat up people, then you’ve really been left with no other means except to protest. And so obviously the demonstrations that we saw at the end of May and the beginning of June were something more than just typical protests against police brutality. I think that it was an expression of a kind of pent-up rage at the way that almost... the George Floyd video, of course, is so disturbing because of the casualness with which Derek Chauvin just kills George Floyd as if he were killing a cockroach. It barely seems to be apparent.
AS: He’s got his hand in his pocket.
KYT: He’s just kind of hanging out on this guy’s neck as he’s begging for his life. And so there’s something about the casualness, the white supremacist in the White House, within the context of this overwhelming black death because of Covid and the federal government’s casual…well, you could call it inept, and part of it has been inept.
AS: A kind of a combination of ineptitude and callousness.
KYT: Yeah. And so between the two of those, I think that it was fuelling not only the sense that, well, if we don’t do something ourselves, nothing will happen, but it literally feels like black lives actually do not matter in this country, and that’s infuriating! And I think that’s what people have reacted to.
AS: One of the really extraordinary things about the movement is the expansion of the sense of the possible, the imaginative aspect of the movement. You’ve written that no movement begins with the sense of what is possible, right? You begin with a vision of the impossible, in a sense, and this movement is no exception. So what yesterday would have seemed laughable, today is on the table. Defunding the police, abolition of prisons. Some of the demands are structural and others are more symbolic, like the tearing down of statues or the call for ‘black’ to be capitalised, or various other symbolic measures.
What do you see as really at the core, though, of the movement? I understand that it’s a protest wave that’s still gaining a sense of cohesion as a political and intellectual movement, but what to you are really the central demands, aside from an end to police brutality and so on? What do you think defines this movement?
KYT: I think people are trying to build out what it would mean for black lives to matter. And that is a combination of the structural and the symbolic. And so structurally – and this is what black movements always do – it obliterates the prevailing consensus that black deprivation is just natural and a part of our landscape, and is inexplicable and confusing and ultimately the product of black communities and black families themselves.
AS: The kind of culture of poverty argument that you’ve critiqued.
KYT: Yeah. That was just as prevalent in the Obama administration as it has ignored the condition of black people in the Trump administration. So when Obama chastises black families for whether or not they read to their children, or eating junk food and watching too much television, all of that worked to preserve the space for this discussion, that black people bear responsibility for the conditions and black neighbourhoods in the movement, as it did in the 1960s when the same kind of discussion was happening. And as it does every time it explodes, it forces a reckoning with the forces of racism, of discrimination, of exclusion and inequality in American society. And it forces the US to look at what it has done to African Americans historically and in this moment, in ways that outside of moments of extreme crisis are just ignored. And so people now are saying this is what structural inequality looks like. And this is what must be done to repair the damage that has been done to African American communities. And it’s spelling that out.
AS: Well, this is actually one of the striking aspects of not just the movement, but of the American political conversation, if you will, that the idea of structural racism, which not only conservatives, but so-called liberals had for a long time dismissed, is back. It’s widely accepted. Obviously it’s not accepted by all Americans, but it’s increasingly accepted. I was struck reading your book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by the juxtaposition of two quotations. One is from Lyndon B Johnson, and the other is from Obama. Now Johnson, of course, was notoriously a Southern racist, and yet he presided over the civil rights and voting rights acts. And his quote is a very powerful statement about structural racism rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. And the Obama quote reflects a kind of culture of poverty analysis, which places the blame on black people themselves. How did we get from Johnson to Obama in your view?
KYT: Well, I think that part of what Johnson’s comments reflect… it’s from his commencement address at Howard university in 1965. And so by June of 1965, the US has already had a taste of its first hot summer...
KYT: No, Watts would come later, in August of 1965. But the previous summer, in 1964 in Harlem and Cleveland, Philadelphia, Rochester, New York and other smaller skirmishes, I think also the year prior, Birmingham in 1963, some see as really the first urban rebellion of the 1960s. But more importantly, it was a march on Washington that people forget. It was the march on Washington for freedom and jobs that the civil rights movement more than any was making the connection between racism and discrimination and inequality experienced by African Americans. But it was explaining to the American public why black people were disproportionately poor, why black people lived in disproportionately substandard housing. You couldn’t understand that without understanding the centrality of racism, not just in the South, but as an American phenomenon.
AS: And at the time the movement had strong links to the labour movement as well.
KYT: Absolutely. Which was one of the organising forces for the 1963 march on Washington. And so Lyndon Johnson understood this and was responding to this, and was forced because of the movement to grapple with the structural aspects of black inequality in a way that Barack Obama had not been forced to deal with. And in fact, as a black elected official he was able to really articulate this idea of black domestic dysfunction and the perceptions of the broken black family or a broken black culture, in ways that in the 21st century no white politician would really think about doing in the stark terms that Obama did.
AS: Wasn’t that almost a price of admission for Obama too? He had to, for example, dissociate himself from Jeremiah Wright.
KYT: Yeah. I think yes and no. I think that this has become such an ingrained, almost knee jerk response in politics that they perhaps convince themselves that this is what they must do. But I think that Sanders in particular points to the reality that there’s a different way. I think some of the success of the socialists running on Democratic Party tickets says that there is a different way, that you don’t actually have to run on racism to be successful, especially in the Democratic Party.
AS: I wanted to actually ask you a question about Sanders, because Sanders came under some criticism for not placing racism at the centre of his analysis of American society.
KYT: A lot of criticism.
AS: Right, a fair amount of criticism, and he tried to address that. But Sanders was the subject of a piece that ran a couple of days ago by the conservative columnist for the Times Ross Douthat. And Douthat argued that Sanders had suffered his second defeat with the emergence of the protests, and essentially Douthat argued that these protests reflect the victory of anti-racist politics over politics organised around social class that Bernie had promoted. My sense from the demonstrations that I attended, and from what I’ve been hearing from people, is that the lines between these politics are actually as fluid as they were at the 1963 march on Washington. And that Sanders in fact is about the only candidate who’s routinely invoked at these demonstrations. So I’m rather sceptical. I wonder what you think, do you think Bernie still speaks to this moment?
KYT: Oh, more now than ever. I wrote a piece for the New Yorker that said reality had endorsed Bernie Sanders. And I think that that still holds true. I think in some ways the protests have gone beyond Sanders as well, particularly on the question of defunding the police. But I think that all of what are perceived as the strange divisions between race and class, these are the key questions that are facing ordinary people, black people in particular. The question about healthcare, the idea that we live in a country where healthcare is largely based on employment status, is absurd. And the absurdity is even more apparent now. And black people have been the biggest proponents for Medicare for all, across all other demographics. So the idea that African Americans are only interested in ‘anti-racist’ politics and not ‘class’ politics is functionally illiterate. It means that you don’t actually understand that the vast majority of black people are working class. And so these issues about raising the minimum wage, about healthcare, about redistributing – defunding the police is about the redistribution of wealth in our society, we should throw defund the military into that mix as well – these are class issues that intersect with race in this country, because black people are disproportionately poor and working class.
AS: I read in the Times the other day that the income disparity between black and white men hasn’t changed since 1950. And you recently published a chart having to do with income disparities. Everyone in principle can get behind the idea that the police have to stop killing black people, but addressing the roots of oppression, addressing unemployment, substandard housing, poor healthcare, the things that you were mentioning just a moment ago, attacking what you’ve called racial capitalism, this is another matter. This is not something that the corporations piggybacking on Black Lives Matter or states declaring Juneteenth a holiday can necessarily get behind. So do you think there’s also a danger that the movement’s energies could be co-opted by groups that have a much more truncated understanding of what this movement is about?
KYT: Well, this is how Martin Luther King went from being admired and respected in the United States to hated and despised by the time he was assassinated because, as he pointed out, ending Jim Crow didn’t really cost anything. Taking the signs down and saying that black people were free to come and go as they pleased in public didn’t cost anything. But when the focus of the movement shifts to the North, this is when you have to talk about the redistribution of hundreds of billions of dollars. Because if you’re serious about ending housing discrimination, if you’re serious about ending job discrimination, because job discrimination is not just ‘we don’t like black people, so we’re going to hold them down,’ it’s about that wage disparity. It is about getting work for cheap for certain groups of people while still charging them the full amount to live in our society. And so if you’re going to change that dynamic, then you’re talking about a massive redistribution of wealth and resources in this country, and that’s when the discussion usually comes to a screeching halt. And so Amazon can put Black Lives Matter on a masthead on its website, but unless that is actually matched by paid time off, by robust health insurance and other benefits, and by an actual living wage of $25 or $30 an hour, then it’s all just window dressing. And you can say that to every corporation that is talking about Black Lives Matter, people taking knees and all of this kind of empty hollow, symbolic bullshit that doesn’t actually cost them anything. But when it comes to changing the institutional practice that constitutes this systemic racism that everyone is talking about now, then that’s where we see whether this is a serious effort or whether this is a photo op at a press conference. And that is also what is so important about where this movement is right now. It’s that at the centre of it are these kinds of demands around redistribution that are trying to, as I said earlier, build out what it would mean for black lives to matter in this country.
AS: Keeanga, in the mid sixties, late sixties, early seventies, there were important figures, leaders who were articulating the kind of vision that you’re describing, this expansive vision of political change, economic redistribution, a different non-imperialist foreign policy, and so on – MLK, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, numerous people. I’m not saying that there are no leaders in the protest wave that we’re seeing, but I would say that it’s a much more horizontal movement. There are not as many charismatic leaders, the kind who once defined the civil rights movement or the black power movement for that matter.
In what ways is this a strength? In what ways is it a potential liability as it was in the Arab spring, for example?
KYT: I think that the strength of this is that it really is beginning to have a kind of mass character in which I think people will be challenged about how to democratically proceed. Like how do we figure out, once the obstacles become clear, once we start to move beyond saying black lives matter and kneeling in the street with protesters, how do we actually change things? Then it becomes clearer what type of organising and organisations that we need. And so it seems now, I think, without having the ‘charismatic leaders’, that this is a movement that anyone can involve themselves in and figure out how to plug in. And I think that’s good. And there are a lot of organisations that have been building over the last several years. I think that is why these types of demands have been advanced so easily. I don’t know that there’s a particular drawback about having a figurehead. I can’t think of a particular drawback. I know that those types of individuals and organisations that became seen as the leadership of the movement, the contributions that they made were being able to synthesise a lot of different kinds of information to really help narrate publicly what was happening to African Americans, to help narrate a list of demands and to really be able to articulate that publicly, which I think was important within the movement itself, but became attractive and helped to pull people into organising, into being a part of a social movement. And I think that doesn’t have to be wrapped up in a single individual. And I think over the last several weeks that we’ve seen that same kind of articulation happening across the United States, where people who have been given platforms in writing, who’ve been given platforms in visual media, have helped to articulate to a larger American public what this is actually about and why it is happening now. And we can measure its impactfulness by the rapid shift in polling. Seventy-one percent of Americans think that racism is a problem in the US. That’s a huge breakthrough. But it’s not only because of the demonstrations themselves, it’s also because of people who have been in this work for several years now being given a platform in several different kinds of media, to be able to explain what is happening.
AS: That actually brings me to my next question, because I wanted to talk to you about the cutting edge of critique, the intellectual work that has been done, that in a sense has prefigured some of the themes of this movement. I’m thinking about work that has focused on policing and mass incarceration, including your work. Now, obviously the question of police brutality, of over-policing, has always been a great concern, along with – and we can talk about this later, perhaps – a more complicated and troubled question of under-policing, because a lot of black people have felt their lives aren’t even protected, that the police are just there to protect white lives. Du Bois once said that there’s nothing easier than to accuse a black man of crime. This concern has been there for a long time, and as you’ve pointed out, the origins of the police can be partly traced to slave patrols. Still I think it’s hard to ignore the conceptual revolution that’s been brought about by works like Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow or Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s Condemnation of Blackness, and the abolitionist work of Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore. It’s often sneeringly said that the millennials only have attitudes, not ideas, but it seems to me that we’re seeing a movement that’s inspired by scholarship much as the sixties’ new left was inspired by William Appleman Williams, C. Wright Mills, Marcuse. Do you see these works as critical to the thinking and imagination of this movement?
KYT: Oh, absolutely. And I think that this work has helped to inform a generation of activists and organisers, many of whom were ex-students who were immersed in this kind of scholarship that had always conceived of itself in a certain respect as public, and not just scholarship for the sake of scholarship, particularly in the field of abolition. Ruth Wilson Gilmore was an organiser and went from organising into graduate school, and took those ideas that were shaped from her experiences in organising as a member of a community, and developed them further in graduate school, but never with the intention of it staying there in the Academy.
AS: This is your story too, isn’t it?
KYT: Yeah, I was an organiser. I went to grad school. But also for me was to learn more about the issues that I was most interested in, as a way to be even more effective and trying to understand, explain, learn from what was happening in this country, as a way to challenge the status quo. Angela Davis, obviously, was an academic, then put in prison and continued, but I have always seen her scholarship as part of a larger liberation struggle for the freedom of black people, but really Angela Davis exemplifies a kind of internationalist political ethos that is important in training a new generation of organisers and activists and concerned people in the world. And so I think that the immersion in those kinds of politics has helped again shape the people who have been organising around these issues, and has meant that very quickly, within this particular iteration of these struggles, very well defined articulated demands around defunding, introducing the idea of abolition, over the last several years, has meant that these are no longer just strange abstract marginalised ideas that are seen as fringe, but are actually becoming part of a mainstream discussion about what we do. And that’s a tremendous breakthrough.
AS: It is. And I want to ask you about… every movement looks for a kind of usable past. And as you’ve just pointed out, this is a movement that has a rich sense of its own history and of its ancestors. And you edited a beautiful book about some of them called How We Get Free. So I’m wondering, can you tell me a bit about this group, the Combahee River Collective, and why they matter today, why their concerns resonate with what we’re seeing in the streets.
KYT: The Combahee River Collective was actually a small group of black feminists that formed in the early 1970s. The way that they describe it is that there was no space for them in the left, as it was constituted then. Within black led organisations, nationalism organised around strong male personalities was the prevailing organisational model. And then feminist organisations were dominated by liberals and white women who did not see the particularities of the experiences of black women. And so black feminism develops as its own current with its own organisations, its own politics. Combahee, I think, is most known because it so clearly and decisively defined why black feminism was important in a statement that three of the members drafted for a publication in 1977. And what’s interesting about the drafting of this publication is that it was solicited by…
AS: Zillah Eisenstein, right?
KYT: Yeah. Who was putting together a reader on socialist feminism, and so it spoke to the kind of relationship that the women of Combahee had developed. And I think part of what is interesting is that they certainly saw themselves as part of the left, and not as just a feminist organisation out in the world, but they saw themselves as part of the left. And I think the power of the Combahee statement is still quite apparent. This was a statement that coined the term ‘identity politics’, and what they meant by that was the process by which black women became political, that living as people who suffered all sorts of oppression, that this was fundamental to the development of their politics. And so when they talked about the personal being political, that wasn’t a retreat from political life into the internal, that was saying that because of the racism and sexism experienced by black women in their personal lives, that is what lay at the foundation of their radical politics.
AS: It’s a remarkable statement. And I think that what I also found striking about the formulation of identity politics is that it hardly rules out – and in fact advocates – alliances, coalition building, solidarity. It was not the kind of identity politics that today’s critics…
KYT: It’s not exclusive.
KYT: It’s not exclusionary. It is a bridge into other people’s struggles, but on their own terms. It’s saying, don’t say we can build alliances as long as we don’t talk about the difficult things or the hard things. The strength of these alliances is based on solidarity that you accept our agenda that we have set.
AS: The definition of identity politics seems almost like an epistemological stance. In other words, if we’re going to understand oppression, we have to start from where we are, from our experiences. But the point isn’t to end there, it’s to branch out from there. And I was struck by something that Barbara Smith, one of the founders, one of the authors of the statement, and I believe she was one of the founders of black women’s studies as well...
AS: She says that we didn’t mean that if you’re not the same as us, you’re nothing. We were not saying that we didn’t care about anybody who wasn’t exactly like us. One of the things I used to say is that it would be really boring only to do political work with people who are exactly like me. People of different backgrounds in different places, in a social structure actually at times come together. And I think that in this movement today, it seems to me – and I think this really began or became more visible with Black Lives Matter – is that we’re seeing a kind of intersectional anti-racism in which women, and also queer people, are acquiring more prominence. Without hiding, concealing, repudiating their identities, they’re foregrounding those identities. And so it’s an interesting shift, too, from what we saw in the past with Bayard Rustin, for example, or Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, who in a sense are the godfathers, the godmothers, rather, of this movement. Would you say that this is also a kind of distinguishing feature of this new politics? The fact that black women and queer black people have been taking such a prominent role?
KYT: I think two things. One, at the height of the movement in the sixties, it was still before really the gay liberation movement had exploded through certain aspects of institutional homophobia in the United States, which really hasn’t been realised in significant ways until the 21st century. And so I think that is part of what has happened here. But I also think that the more immediate foremothers of this movement come out of the Incite conference of 1999/2000, where this kind of politics was put forward, a politics that embraced a radical feminism that was anticapitalist, that was queer unto itself, and that had abolition politics at its centre. And I think that we have underestimated the centrality of that gathering and of Incite as a place where these politics were developed, contemplated, debated and nurtured.
AS: So this was kind of an incubator, and now we’re seeing the results.
KYT: Absolutely. And the historian Barbara Ransby is one of the few people to write about this kind of earlier history in her book Making All Black Lives Matter, which I think is important. Those gatherings really helped to develop a cadre of organisers who had these kinds of politics at their core. And I think that development, along with the kind of…I wrote about this in my book, how in Ferguson, for example, one out of, I think, every six black men had simply disappeared out of the census, and most of that disappearance had been attributed to premature death. And I do think that the particular obliteration of black men, either through death or imprisonment, had necessarily opened a space which black women could politically occupy and not be forced to defer to male leadership. And I think we continue to see that dynamic. In addition to adept organising skills and developing political authority, I think that it also has some roots in this kind of demographic or sociological factors as well.
AS: You’ve been a very powerful champion of political solidarity and of developing coalitions. And along with this emergence of anti-racist consciousness that we’ve seen among young whites and in a different way among Asians, there’s also been, among some, a questioning of the meaning of solidarity. To some extent it’s informed by Afro pessimism in its white liberal version. I want to read you a passage from an interview that Ruthie Gilmore, the abolitionist advocate, gave with Paul Gilroy recently. She said,
There’s a bit of a divergence these last few weeks between what you just described, a different future for human beings, as against a path, that worries me very much. Which is that in recapitulating a certain kind of apartheid thinking in the name of undoing the effects of apartheid in the world scale. And by that, I mean, the tendency that’s got me worried is one in which people are insisting that only certain demographics of people are authorised to speak about, speak from, or speak against certain kinds of horrors. And other people have already existing assignable jobs based on their demographic, let’s call it a caste system, that they’re supposed to do. So white people are supposed to fix white supremacy, and so on and so forth. This path, which is actually a pretty strong path, doesn’t excite me. I’m seventy years old. I’m done with it. I’ve been done with it for a long time. The path, however, which some of the young Black Lives Matter people named five years ago in that year of uprising in the US after the death of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, the one in which they said quite simply “when black lives matter, everybody lives better,” that’s the path that’s of interest to me.
KYT: Absolutely. We can’t win with the idea that only black people can fight for black people, white people should fight for working class white people, Latinos should only fight for themselves. We can’t win that way. And we have a lifetime of experience over the previous century that is proof of that. And I like to think of myself as an Afro optimist. I think that the black struggle in this country has been a source of inspiration for people around the world, because this is the most exploitative, the most oppressive country, just simply because it has the resources to be different. You know, this is not a struggling republic that has no money and resorts to brute force in order to eke out an existence. This is the richest country in the history of the world, where its ruling class deliberately sets poor and working class people in opposition to each other, to maintain wealth at the top of our society. And we acquiesce to that politically by reinforcing the lines of division that they have drawn in the first place. And so we have to think about solidarity as not an exercise in finding the least contentious issue around which to organise, so that’s not what we’re arguing for. We’re arguing for an informed solidarity based on an understanding of the oppression of black people and a rejection of it, an understanding of the oppression and exploitation of immigrant labour in the United States and a rejection of it. And that’s hard. It is hard. But there’s no other way. There’s no shortcut. There’s no way to circumvent the need for what Combahee talked about as coalition-building and the need for what is actually playing out in the streets right now, which is a multiracial rebellion against capitalism and the excesses of it. And so people want to be in a movement. People want to be a part of an effort to transform this country. And no one should be told that you can’t be a part of it, you know? And so to me, that’s part of what it means to democratise our movements, to open them up and to struggle. You know, we have to struggle with each other. And we can’t have this kind of sacrosanct approach to politics where you don’t get to say the wrong thing. You don’t get to make a mistake. And if you do, then you’re banished from organising. Because the reality is if that is the standard that we are creating, then we’ll never have a mass movement of ordinary people who’d make those mistakes and say those things all the time. And so if it’s you and your 12 friends who had your American studies seminar and your women’s studies seminar, and you figured out what all the language is, then that’s great, and good luck. But if we’re actually going to build a movement of the masses who are affected by this, then we have to have some grace, then we have to listen to people. We have to understand what their struggles are. And we have to find a way to knit ourselves together into a force that can actually fight for the world that we want. And that’s hard. And it’s much harder than just saying ‘you people go to the back because you haven’t experienced what it’s like to be called the N word’. We’re not going to get anywhere with that. And we have to have a different vision of politics to fight for the kind of world that we want.
AS: Keeanga, that was really eloquently put, and I think it’s a good place for us to stop. And I hope that we’ll be able to talk again. This has been such a pleasure and an honour. Thank you for joining us on the LRB podcast.
KYT: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.