March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington DC, August 28, 1963; Justice for Freddie Gray protest on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland (Hulton Archive/Andrew Burton)

Scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. on despair, justice and Black History Month in the Trump era

Leading scholar of black history calls for radical hope: "Imagine yourself beyond the circumstances of the now"


Chauncey DeVega
February 21, 2019 1:00PM (UTC)

Black History Month is more than a time for the obligatory rote mentioning of famous black inventors and important dates. Growing out of "Negro History Week" -- which was established in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History -- Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on the Black Freedom Struggle and the may ways that black people have fought for and improved American democracy, usually against great odds and for a country that (still) does not view them as equal and full citizens.

What lessons can the Black Freedom Struggle teach about resistance and survival in the Age of Trump and American fascism? If racism is America's native form of fascism, then how does that foundational sin continue to structure the country in the present? Given their unique history, do black Americans have a special obligation to protect, nurture and defend democracy?

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How can Americans of conscience and other good people who are resisting Donald Trump and his movement survive and triumph over the despair and lack of hope which has descended upon much of the country?

What does it mean to live a principled life in a political, social and cultural moment when "fake news" and an Orwellian assault on empirical reality has captured the minds of so many (white) Trump supporters and other right-wing Americans?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University. Glaude is the author of numerous books including "In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America" as well as "Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul." He is also a frequent guest commentator on MSNBC and his essays have appeared in the New York Times and Time Magazine.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. You can hear the entire conversation on my podcast.

How is the United States doing right now, in this third year of Donald Trump's presidency?

Not very well. From another vantage point, there’s a possibility we are, to use a blues metaphor, at "the crossroads." We can either go backwards or we can go forward. The one thing we can’t do is sit still. Consider Trumpism. What he and his movement represent is a logical extension of what the Republican Party has been for decades, and how the Democratic Party has also been complicit. When you pan out a bit more you begin to see economic insecurity and demographics interacting with each other. We also see, from this broader perspective, how political party identity has become a proxy for racial anxiety in the United States.

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The fundamentals of Reaganism and neoliberalism are also in some ways collapsing as well. We know that tax cuts do not produce job growth. We know that government has a responsibility to citizens to make a better, more equitable and productive economy. We see people talking about a 70 percent marginal tax rate. That was unheard of just a year ago. Medicare for All, a livable wage, a Green New Deal. These ideas are being taken seriously. That gives me hope. This progressive drift and all the possibilities it represents exist at present because we are in a moment of crisis here in the United States.

Donald Trump has shut down the federal government to hold the American people hostage in order to build his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has imposed a "national emergency" in order to further gut American democracy and any limits on his power. The color line runs through all of this. The idea that the federal government serves "undeserving" and "lazy" black people is foundational to conservatives' arguments for "small government."  There is overwhelming empirical evidence and other research to support this conclusion.

Martin Gilens shows in his excellent book "Why Americans Hate Welfare" how when welfare became associated with black bodies, there was suddenly an attack on the program. Not only is race underneath our public discussions about social programs, it undergirds our conversations around crime and criminal justice more generally. Race undergirds our conversations around "small government." There are many examples of this dynamic. The data shows that the more a particular public policy is associated with black people the more unlikely it is going to be passed and supported.

America is in the midst of a moral crisis. Donald Trump and his movement are the real "national emergency." Is this moral crisis really something new, if racism is America's native form of fascism?  

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I think you hit it right on the head on a certain level. To sustain ourselves, our emotional labor as black people, we have to repeatedly endure America's ongoing betrayal. Consider Frederick Douglass and David Blight's magisterial new biography about his life ["Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom"]. With Douglass you have a person born in slavery who never imagined that slavery would be abolished, and then lived long enough to see it end.

Frederick Douglass also lived long enough to see the first Jim Crow laws passed. We see America's betrayal. There’s an articulation of its principles, its ideals during Reconstruction, and then we see a pullback and the reassertion of white supremacy. That ongoing betrayal has happened across generations.

You look at Dr. King’s life. This sense of betrayal was present. It’s almost as if we as black Americans always have to think about the moment in which an extraordinary event will happen and then there is hope followed by betrayal. A new world is trying to be born and it is usually aborted.

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After the election of Barack Obama, America's first black president, a white backlash and wave of white rage which installed Donald Trump in office was inevitable. This should not have been a surprise.

Backlash is really a very neat and tidy way of describing white fear. White fear has historically stopped change in this country. This has happened repeatedly. Whether we call it backlash or "frontlash," underneath all of it is fear among white people about their standing at the top of the social hierarchy.

Paralysis is in some ways a possible outcome. This is at the heart of a certain kind of "Afro-pessimism," a feeling that you cannot change things. It becomes very difficult to imagine ways of undoing it or responding effectively to the reality of white supremacy in this country.

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But as James Baldwin would say, "We got to raise our babies." We have to create a better world for our children and our children’s children. We can muster up the courage to get up off the mat and fight some more.

How should black and brown people respond to white rage and white anger? Of course such feelings are immoral and irrational. Nevertheless, should we try to empathize or sympathize with white rage and white anger, so that such sentiments can perhaps be survived and maybe even ultimately defeated?

I don’t know if it’s about empathizing with white fear or sympathizing with it. I think one must not be naïve. One must be aware of white fear because we have to understand the horror that can follow from it.

Tending to white fear is not so much about finding justification for it or understanding why some white people may have such feelings. Tending to it, on my view, is trying to track its consequences. White fear is undermining democratic energy. White fear is consistently threatening the lives of people I love and care most about. Black folks have developed an entire way of being in the world aimed at not triggering white fear because we know what it can do.

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It’s not a matter for me of empathy or sympathy. It’s a matter of understanding the political machinations of white fear. Understanding its existential and moral consequences. I want to bring white fear out of the shadows and make it public as a way of trying to neuter its backlash.

We know that right now what’s driving immigration policy is deep-seated white fear around demographic shifts in the country. Demographers has overstated the case in terms of what it would mean for racial categories but nevertheless many white Americans know the country is becoming more brown and this has caused a full-blown panic. Donald Trump is the human embodiment of white fear. We must not dance around this fact.

There are so many lies and contradictions that sustain white rage and white racism in America. One of them, usually but not exclusively argued by Republicans and conservatives, is that racism is dead and has become such an outlier in American life as to be a non-factor. These same voices then want to make claims about concepts such as "reverse racism" or oppression suffered by white people because of the color of their skin. And there is all this anxiety among too many white folks about being a "minority" in America, even as they claim that racism is a fiction.

George Lopez has this wonderful joke where he says "Yes, we’re going to treat you just like you treated us.” He then shakes his head with this ironic smile. As we begin to see these demographic shifts make themselves known in concrete ways there is this "reverse racism" narrative where the majority of Republicans actually believe that discrimination against white people has surpassed discrimination against black people. Strange things like that. You see this of course with the narratives about victimization which circulate among certain corners of the American right wing.

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For the white right, they actually think that whiteness is imperiled in America. The attacks on "political correctness" are a manifestation of this. Ultimately, on one hand there is this deep denial about racism against nonwhites. But on the other hand, these members of the white right and other conservatives want to invoke the very thing that they’re denying. That is bad faith.

At that point I don’t know what to do with it. The only thing I conclude is that this conversation really cannot get off the ground because white conservatives who would make such bad-faith claims are not really being honest. That’s part of the difficulty of the moment in which we find ourselves because there are a lot of people who just simply do not want to speak the truth about the current state of affairs in the country.

Should those of us who live in empirical reality even bother to engage those conservatives, Trump supporters and other members of the right who live in a fantasy world of their own creation? Should we waste our time?

You should simply speak the truth. I want to deal with this not so much in a philosophical way but instead in a practical, activist way. I was speaking not too long ago at Valparaiso University in Indiana. An earnest young white woman came up to me afterwards and she asked, “How do I convince my friends who hold dramatically different views about the world?"

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My response was, “We spend so much of our energy trying to convince people who don’t hold our commitments that we don’t have enough energy to try to act on our own commitments.” In other words, if we spend more energy trying to bring the vision of a fair and just world into being than trying to convince others that they should be committed to the vision that we hold, then I think we would be much more successful. I’m so tired of the 39 percent or 36 percent having the country by the throat, and the obligation is placed on us to convince them that they should believe otherwise.

Again, they are engaging in bad faith. I can present them the truth of the matter -- not just the truth but the facts as they are -- and they would reject them out of hand. They would describe it as "fake news." If I spend my energy trying to convince them as opposed to trying to make real the promise of a fair and more just world, they’ve already won.

Truth is a dangerous thing. Dreaming is also dangerous because when we dream of a better future and present it should involve holding ourselves and others morally accountable. Freedom dreams and collective action are very dangerous to the powerful and the status quo.

You hit that right on the head. You gave me the chills. Imagination is one of the key battlegrounds. We talked about this in terms of our children. The moment that you cannot imagine yourself beyond the circumstances of the now, that is the moment when you are lost. You are done. This is part of how we have found ourselves in this moment with Trump and what he represents. There has been an all-out assault on our imaginations in America. The imagination is the instrument of the good. If we can’t imagine it otherwise, oh my Lord, then we are done.

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Given our history, do black Americans have a special obligation to this country’s democracy? To be its conscience and to force it to be better?   

I don’t think that black folks have a special obligation. I just reject that out of hand. But I do know that the black tradition offers a unique vantage point to the United States. There’s something about who we are and the journey that constitutes our tradition which offers and articulates a great amount of insight into the American project.  When W.E.B. Du Bois talked about double consciousness, it wasn’t just simply seeing ourselves through the eyes of white folks. This type of second sight is almost like the baby in black Southern folklore who is born with a film over her face.

The child is gifted with second sight. Because of our unique position in the country as black people, we have been the exception. We constitute the embodied contradiction, along with Native Americans. We embody the contradiction at the heart of the democratic project. This is part of the "blues sensibility" that is part of black cultural life. We are the products of a tradition of black folks grappling with the failure of America to live up to its promise.

What were you thinking when you saw Donald Trump and Mike Pence go to Dr. King's monument several weeks ago?

Give me a break. It was so silly. You could tell that it was last-minute. You could tell Trump was watching the news and people were remarking that his calendar was clear for the day. Trump had no sincere intentions of speaking out on Dr. King's holiday. And I suspect that was deliberate given Trump's own pandering to his base -- particularly to the white supremacists among his base of supporters. You take the gesture for what it was. It was empty.

I am shocked to see this transition occur. The phrase and concept "white supremacy" has now entered the mainstream of American public discourse. This is in many ways and for many reasons surreal. I worry that the concept and all the intellectual work necessary to use such powerful language properly is being cheapened. "White supremacy" is a very potent concept that should not be deployed in a casual manner by people who have not done the necessary work.

I too have been struck by the fact that "white supremacy" has entered into common usage. For most in mainstream discourse "racism" was the word used to describe racial inequality and racial injustice and other bad behavior. White supremacy is sometimes used interchangeably with racism but to the extent that happens it is problematic. I think many people who invoke "white supremacy" are trying to call attention to the structural realities that go beyond just simple intentional acts of discrimination.

In other moments, we see people trying to reach for a language that calls our attention to something that goes beyond simple, intentional acts of discrimination. Because white supremacy isn’t something that can be redressed simply by the law.

In many ways, I am actually quite happy that we now have the phrase in circulation because it used to be that few would talk about that.

How has Trumpism come down on you personally given your teaching, research and public voice?

You just got to keep fighting. There are always pressures when you do this kind of work. I imagine myself doing what pragmatists at their best do: They bring their skill set to bear on the problems of human beings, to think seriously in public with others, and to do so with conviction and with an eye to a more just and equitable society. That all comes with a cost. We have to keep our heads level when doing this work.

You’re constantly getting emails from folk who are angry about something you said or disagree with you vehemently. There are threats of harm. I stand on the shoulders of a whole bunch of people who experienced much worse. You just can’t be naïve. You have to be courageous and faithful in charging forward with your vocation. As long as I got people I love and people like you who are out there fighting the battle with me, I’m good.

What gives you hope in this moment? What are you most concerned about?

As a pragmatist, I’m always hopeful to the extent of which I have faith in human beings. As Jimmy Baldwin would put it, “We’re miracles and disasters simultaneously.” Understanding that fact, we can then try to create a situation where we can reach for our better angels. It’s all in our hands. We made the mess, we got to clean it up. What scares me more than anything are the three temptations of our moment.

The first is the temptation of nostalgia. In times of crisis, we often reach for -- not so much the past, but we reach for a vision of the past that allows us to sit in the safety of an illusion of comfort. For example, Barack and Michelle Obama are among the most admired people on the planet. Why? Because we’re longing for something to help us confront the disaster that is Donald Trump.

The second is the temptation of despair. Facing the obstacles and enduring problems in this country, many of which we are still struggling against since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, it seems to me that it is just so easy to just slip into a kind of despair that would lead you to throw your hands up and say there’s nothing we can do.

The third temptation is to just take the bribe. If nothing can change, we can’t do anything and hell, "I might as well get mine." When we see large numbers of black folks start to say "I’m going to get mine," then that means we turned our back on our tradition. That scares me to death.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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