"Democracy in Black": A conversation about race in America with Eddie Glaude Jr.

Black America and U.S. democracy are in crisis — and time's running out, Princeton professor and author tells Salon

Published January 13, 2016 12:56PM (EST)

 (AP/LM Otero)
(AP/LM Otero)

As we head into the final year of the first African-American president's second term, it's hard to deny that the post-racial America that some people hoped for after 2008 is as far away as ever.

It's not just the routine police brutality, or the latest bon mot from Donald Trump or Paul LePage, that shows us the unpleasant reality. We hear it in relatively banal complaints about America not being "ready" for a black president, too. It's hard to miss, in fact, if you're bothering to look.

A lot of people would prefer not to look, however; and not all of them are conservatives and/or white. It's hard not to sympathize with them to some degree, of course. The picture of a large, alienated, neglected and racialized underclass is not pretty. But whether we want to admit it or not, black America is in crisis, even as its most prominent representative begins his prolonged victory lap.

Or at least that's part of the argument that Eddie Glaude Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, makes in "Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul," his new book, which mixes political polemic, American history, memoir and good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to make a sustained and impassioned argument for radical, transformative reform.

Recently, Salon spoke with Glaude over the phone about his book and the way he sees America's past, present and future. An edited and condensed version of our conversation can be found below.

You begin the book by writing about a “fog of unreality." What do you mean?

It’s a reference to Henry David Thoreau. Underneath it is this idea of sleepwalking, that something is not clear, that we’re not really aware of what’s happening around us. So part of what I wanted to do was to think about all this talk of recovery, that we had somehow made an economic turn for the better, and think about that in relation to all of the devastation that I witnessed, personally, in black communities. This idea that the economic recovery was post-racial, that somehow we’ve turned a corner as a country with regard to race matters, that all of this is really the kind of fog that keeps us from seeing what’s in front of us.

Do you see the “fog of unreality” as similar to the idea of “false consciousness”?

Not quite. Instead of false consciousness, I actually think about it as willful blindness. Certain realities just simply don’t come into view for a reason.

So it's more about ignoring things than knowing things that aren't true. That takes us to one of your book's main concepts, which is that we're living in the midst of a "Great Black Depression." Why is it worth separating, in our minds, the Great Black Depression and the Great Recession?

In some ways what I wanted to do in the Great Black Depression chapters was to show the level of devastation. Black America had over 240,000 homes lost with the housing collapse, and the majority of [African-American] wealth is located [in home equity]. So we saw, in 2008, an increase in the wealth gap; white wealth is 13 times that of black wealth.

We also saw extraordinary unemployment. At its height, black unemployment saw levels at 16 percent. It was recently reported at 8.8 percent. If you look at the height of the Great Recession, when people were shouting [about unemployment] from the rooftops, the [overall] unemployment numbers were around that figure.

Right. When the whole working population was experiencing that, it was a crisis. When it's happening to African-Americans — Hey, that's life.

As people talk about [poverty] numbers getting better, 38 percent of African-American children are living in poverty. For the first time in American history (since we've been recording these figures) there are more poor black children than there are poor white children — and the reason why that's stunning is there are three times more white children than there are black children.

So we see a loss of wealth; a loss of jobs; "last hired, first fired"; long-term unemployment; increasing levels of poverty; children impoverished. And what you see — across the board — is this incredible downward mobility. So when people talk about "recovery," and by every vital statistical measure, black America is suffering, you have to ask yourself the question: What is going on here? Why aren't people screaming about this?

And your answer, in part, is something you call the "value gap." What is that?

We talk about the "achievement gap," we talk about the "wealth gap," we talk about the "empathy gap." What's at the heart of all of this stuff? At the heart of it, I think, is the belief that white people are valued more than others; and the extent to which that belief is baked into our social practices and our political arrangements and our economic realities. No matter what the inputs are, the outputs will be the same.

[I'm] trying to think about what it means for a society to be organized with the assumption that some people matter more than others. And to the extent that that's true, we can then give an account of why some people say things haven't changed.

Compared to 50 or 100 years ago, you mean.

We know, just on its face, things have changed — obviously. I'm a professor at Princeton; my father couldn't even attend Princeton.

But there's something else that they're trying to reach for when people say that, and that something else is that no matter what the arrangements are — whether it's in the context of slavery, whether it's in the context of Jim Crow, whether it's in the context of having a black man in the White House — our social arrangements and political arrangements and economic arrangements reflect the value gap.

And until we close it, we will never see genuine multiracial democracy in this country, and we will never see genuine racial equality in this country.

When people respond to campus activists who feel alienated on their campuses with, basically, some version of "suck it up" — is that an example of the value gap? 

Absolutely. [Senator] Ted Cruz's response as a Princeton alum to the protest [was], These students are spoiled; they're coddled.

In some ways, for these particular students, they've been working hard to get into places like this; and it's damned if you do, damned if you don't. If you don't get into Princeton this is a reflection of your intellectual incapacity. And if you do get into Princeton, it's because "we" let you in. It was a charitable act; you should just be thankful you're here.

So part of this claim of Black Lives Matter is: We know that we matter, [but we're saying] white lives don't matter more. It's that insistence, it's that challenge to a society that's organized ... to reflect the value gap.

It sounds like what people usually call "white supremacy."

On one level, yeah. But on another level, I think it's really a way of getting down to the very basic notion that as long as we hold the view that some people are more valued than others, we can never get this thing right; we will never right our ship. You can pass all the laws you want, you can admit all of the exceptions — I'm an exception, Cornel West is an exception, Imani Perry, Barack Obama, etc. — but the vast majority of us, the large number of African-Americans, are languishing in opportunity deserts.

You argue that we see that value gap in almost every aspect of our society — economics, education, health, even simply where people live. But you also say it's interwoven with the founding ideology or myth of America, too.  

One of the things I want to suggest is that this idea of American exceptionalism blocks the way to really getting at how the value gap does its work. As long as we believe that we are inherently good, as long as we believe that we are a redeemer nation, as long as we believe that we are always on the road to a more perfect union, we have, ready at hand, a justification for our practices and for the ugliness of the things we do.

So we can say, "We held slaves. Well, we don't hold them anymore. And that's a sign of how good we are." Or "Yeah, women couldn't vote — but they do vote now; and they're CEOs!" Again, it's a sign that we're on the road to a more perfect union.

Examples of our failures to live up to our values somehow become evidence of how great we are for having those values in the first place.

Whether it's "a shining city on a hill" or "the road to a more perfect union," in each instance, there's a kind of appeal to our inherent goodness. One of the things I want to say is that America is neither unique in its vice nor its virtue. And once we understand that, then maybe we can honestly confront the devastation that is happening and has occurred in our name.

I'm reminded of the controversies that popped up occasionally during Obama's first term about whether or not he believed in American exceptionalism. He almost had to prove he did, in some conservatives' eyes. For many, he's "guilty" of  non-belief until proven "innocent."

It's just a [misrepresentation] of his position.

When President Obama was a candidate, when he gave his race speech in Philadelphia, traced throughout all of it is a kind of American exceptionalist narrative. Even when he gave his speech at Kerry's convention at the DNC, he represented his own life as an example of the greatness of America: Only in American am I possible. So it made no sense to me that Republicans were accusing him of not buying into the American exceptionalist narrative. If you read "The Audacity of Hope," it's right there.

And, to be clear, you don't see that as a good thing. You argue that Obama's version of "black liberalism" will not — cannot — close the value gap.

The arc of the book is pretty deliberate. There's a general account of what we might call the latest instance of our national panic around race. But then there's this transition, [which details] the various ways in which Dr. King has been used ideologically, on both sides, to justify a particular kind of politics — and the complicity of the black political class in it all. This is not just about white supremacy and bad white actors; it's about us, too.

Part of what I wanted to do in the second part of the book was talk about the narrowing of black politics. At the turn of the 20th century — and in the '20s and '30s and '40s — you had this extraordinary vibrancy of black associational life, from civic organizations to all sorts of black political voices; from black communists to black nationalists to black internationalists, pan-African congresses; all of this stuff is happening.

But now, where we find ourselves in our current moment, what constitutes legitimate black political dissent is simply captured by a certain version of black liberalism. And Obama kind of represents its height; he represents its ultimate conclusion. So I wanted to tell a story about the contraction of black political life, and to say that now we are faced with a mainstream black political debate that is principally a debate between different kinds of black liberals.

The radicals are gone.

We need much more vibrancy in black political life, so that we can try to be much more imaginative in how we respond to the suffering. All we have are black liberals, and it's been on their watch that all this hell has broken loose — it's been on their watch, whether it's been in mayoral seats or statehouses or in Congress or in the White House.

And that brings us to your "blank-out campaign," which is your proposal that, in 2016, black voters leave their presidential vote blank, while still voting for the down-ballot campaigns. (I'm guessing, by the way, that this is the part of the book you're going to end up being yelled at over the most.)

It is a provocation. All of the Republican candidates are worrisome, but it seems to me that we have to push the Democratic Party — and, more broadly, we have to push the country — to get in alignment with the general sense of the public. And what I mean by that is this: We can't go about business as usual, and we can't vote from a place of fear. If the only thing the Democratic Party has to say to us is "We're not as bad as the other guys," then we need to hold the Democratic Party to account.

Part of why I say that is because, by every statistical measure, black America has suffered since 2008; and the only thing we get as a response is that it could have been worse. Part of what political scientists have been talking about for decades is that African-Americans are a captured electorate. That the Democratic Party, every two to four years, they come out, they try to herd us to the polls. They feel no obligation, in some ways, to deliver in terms of policy, because they know we have nowhere else to go. So our participation in the democratic process is distorted and disfigured.

You're trying to figure out what it means that this all happened not under some reactionary and racist president, but under Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the office.

Obviously, if the Republicans come into office, things will more than likely be worse. But what does it mean for [African-Americans] to have voted for President Obama at 90 percent; but we're still not able to engage with him directly, in a substantive way, about the circumstances of our community? How do we then affect the political process so that we can speak to transformative policies that will impact the life conditions of black communities across the country?

My answer is: We need to turn our attention down-ballot. We need to turn our attention to local politics. We need to see that innovation is happening in cities. We need to see what Republicans have been doing in statehouses and governors' seats as they've been engaging in gerrymandering. We need to see what power we have beyond the two- to four-year election cycle.

Part of what the blank-out campaign is, is an attempt to create a brief civic power outage. Just shut the power down — just real quick, so that we don't find ourselves engaged in business as usual; so we disrupt how the black political class works; we disrupt how the Democratic Party works. Then we try to figure out how we're going to move forward.

This a pretty weird moment in American politics. At the grass-roots level, there's plenty for a lefty to be genuinely optimistic about. Yet if you look at the surface level — the presidential campaign, but also the overall balance of power in Washington and across most state governments — the situation is bleak. So how do you think that tension can be channeled to push for the more sweeping changes you say are necessary?

In the book I call for a "revolution of value," and that revolution of value is reducible to three things: we need to change how we view government; we need to change how we view black people (which also means we have to change how we view white people); and we have to change what ultimately matters.

We change how we view government by changing what we demand of government. We change how we view black people by changing the value gap. And we change how we ultimately view what matters by insisting that a certain ethic of greed and competition and rivalry — the selfishness and narcissism that have defined neoliberalism — [is over].

My hope is that we can begin to give voice to a new kind of politics by being bolder. Democracy in black has always been about efforts and actions on the part of black people and others to make real the idea that this country is of the people, for the people and by the people. At the heart of it, it's trying to expand the very notion of "the people." And we've done it by putting our very bodies on the line, by challenging powers, by making people feel uncomfortable.

We need a strategy for the ballot box and a strategy for the courtroom, but more importantly we need to have a revolution of the imagination. Folks want us to believe that the only options we have are the ones that are right in front of us. When we stop believing that, then we'll be able to take the risk of imagining a different way of being in the world ... Vulnerable people have had enough; we've just got to figure out how we're going to mobilize, network and make it a national movement.

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By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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