Charles Blow: The key to building Black power is to reclaim the South

New York Times columnist argues there's an obvious pathway to empowering Black Americans: Take back the South

Published February 21, 2021 7:00AM (EST)

The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto by Charles M. Blow (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Harper Collins)
The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto by Charles M. Blow (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Harper Collins)

Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist and author of the provocative new book, "The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto," is tired of begging others for justice and is urging Black Americans to empower themselves by moving en masse to Southern states. 

Blow candidly told me during our "Salon Talks" conversation this week why his radical reverse migration idea is a mechanism for Black people to seize power on a legislative level. Currently, Black people "have to convince the people who hold the power — predominantly white people — to see you, acknowledge your equality, and grant you justice," Blow said. "I keep saying to Black people, "Aren't you tired? Aren't you tired of that? Aren't you tired of begging them and them still saying, 'No'?"

Blow's overall goal is to elect officials in Southern states who are focused on solving problems that bedevil Black communities, like gerrymandering, but I wanted to go deeper and understand the root of his argument, which he agrees is a matter of life and death. "There's white supremacy and also anti-Blackness. You're fighting both of those things," Blow said. And waiting on the browning of America relies on the premise that everyone who is not white shares a common sense of objectives, which, Blow argues, they simply do not.

Will masses of African Americans follow Blow's call to move to the South, as he has done, uprooting himself from New York City and relocating to Georgia? Possibly. Is Blow correct on the resilience of white supremacy in America? Absolutely. Watch my "Salon Talks" with Blow or read a transcript of our conversation below to hear more about why he believes that in order for Black people to get what they advocate for and protest for, they must first obtain power on their own terms. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, as usual.

 In your book, you have a great quote by the late activist Stokely Carmichael. He said, "If a white man wants to lynch me, that's his problem. If he's got the power to lynch me, that's my problem." Clearly, we are talking about a sense of power. Power is not just electing members to Congress or electing people to the governorship, in the case of the Black community. Power is often about life and death.


Why did you use that quote, and what does that mean to you? 

Well, particularly in Stokely's case, in that quote he's expressing power as a means of protection. Power can also be a means of agency and equality, right? What I'm suggesting to Black America is that you don't have enough of that. You have very little, if any, of it on a state level, most of your power is municipal. You're able to elect representatives to Congress, but even that representation is suppressed because of gerrymandering. And that gerrymandering is done by states, by the way. If you really want a solution to solving many of the problems that bedevil Black people, that Black people go into the streets and march about that, they go online and complain about, much of that is controlled at the state level.

There's a mechanism by which you can change that and basically seize that power, which is reverse migration into states where you increase your power in those states, as you increase the percentage of Black people live there, and you could get back to the position that Black people held at the end of the Civil War when they were the majority of the population in three Southern states and near a majority in three others. They had large percentages of the population in all Southern states.

Is your revolutionary idea about encouraging a reverse of the Great Migration and going back to the South


I understand that it's about Black power. Why now?

Well, there's a fatigue that sets in when you see Black person after Black person after Black person killed, and you see that the mechanisms that would deliver justice cannot because basically the states, and to some degree the federal government, has made it illegal for this to happen. The reason they don't get arrested and the reason they don't get charged and convicted is because in most cases what they are doing is legal — and that legal framework can be changed.

You don't have to be powerless. You don't have to march every time there's a killing. And the marching itself, as powerful as it can be as a social connector, as powerful as it can be as a congregational, spiritual awakening for people, a thing that changes the narrative, it is still, as far as power is concerned, a pleading. It may be an active, in-the-streets position for you, but it is a knee-bent position before power because you are asking power, "Recognize that something wrong has happened here and do something about it." If you had the power, you wouldn't have to go to the street. You can simply demand of your representatives, "This can't be, this guy has to go." It would be over. But you don't have that power.

What is preventing that power from happening in the framework we have now?

If Eric Garner is killed in New York and you're only 11, 12, 15, 19 percent of the population, you don't have the power to change it. You are still in a pleading position. You have to convince the majority of people in New York state to do something about that. You know, if you are in California and someone is killed, you are 5 or 6 percent of the population of California. You don't have the power yourself to say, "This must stop." You have to convince the people who hold the power — predominantly white people, predominantly white, rich men — to see you, acknowledge your equality, and grant you justice. I keep saying to Black people, "Aren't you tired? Aren't you tired of that? Aren't you tired of begging them and them still saying, 'No'? 'Please see me and recognize my equality and my humanity,' and them still saying no?"

What have Black people said in response to you urging them to move to the South? You make a compelling case about how this isn't just about political power. It's about life and death. It literally is about saving our lives. What's the reaction you get?

I don't get a lot of pushback on the principle. People worry about feasibility. Can I make a living? If I'm used to a liberal environment, will I be able to express myself in the same way? I talk to them through those issues. It's not going to be right for everyone. Not everyone moved during the Great Migration to the North and West, out of the South. In fact, most Black people did not move. So people won't move, but there'll be people for whom it makes sense. And I was speaking to those people.

Are you offering prizes at all? [Laughs] I mean, because I'm Muslim and we're a teeny community, right? But if one of the big Muslim leaders in America said, "We're all going to move to Dearborn, there's already a lot of us there," I'd be like, "It's cold. I live in New York. I like New York. I'm down with Muslim power, 100 percent. I'm not kidding. But do I really want to move?" I don't want to drill down to practicality. I'm more interested in the actual reaction of people in your community.

I mean, the answer to your question is complicated by the fact that I am on a virtual book tour. The entire book tour has been in this room, so the responses I get are online. Because that's how we connect with people during a pandemic. 

People ask about poverty in the South. And I explained to them about how concentrated poverty is where you actually are. And in fact, New York City has a higher percentage of Black poverty than all of the state of Mississippi, which is one of the poorest states in America. I think people don't even see their suffering because they live in the shadow of prosperity.

At its essence, is this truly about white supremacy in our nation? And the fact that it is unbeatable unless you just mass your own forces, to be blunt, to have your own power base?

I think there's two things on both ends of that spear. There's white supremacy and also anti-Blackness. You're fighting both of those things because if it was just white supremacy, you probably could wait for allies to help you out who were non-white, but in every society across the world where there are people in those societies where people express differently physically, and there are darker people and lighter people, invariably the darker people are assigned the lower caste. Invariably. The anti-Blackness part of it must be equal to the anti-white supremacy part of it.

I say to Black people, "You can't wait for white people to evolve into your liberation." And also you cannot be completely dependent on the browning of America to deliver your liberation because people make the false assumption that everyone who is not white shares a common sense of values and policy objectives. They simply do not. These are not perfectly overlapping circles. When you think about it half a second, it makes sense that they wouldn't be. But it also means that for you to be able to advocate for your particular set of policies, you need to have the power to do that on your own.

I think what you're saying, Charles, is that minorities don't naturally ally simply because they're not white. There's a concern around Black and brown people being used in the same sentence to talk about vastly different problems. Do you get a sense that there is there a zero-sum game mentality between some minority groups that if you move up, you hurt us, as opposed to we're all in this together? 

I'm not sure if that is the way I think about it, but rather that white supremacy has been such a global phenomenon, as well as here in America, that whiteness has become aspirational, right? People aspire to that lighter skin. That's why people walk with umbrellas and women wear face masks to the beach with bikinis because they aspire to keep it. White supremacy taught the world through their oppression that there would be a value to whiteness. The insidious thing about white supremacy in America is that whiteness continued to expand itself to protect its majority in this country. 

There was a time when not all the people we consider white today were considered white, but whiteness expanded to include them because it helped them maintain majority. It is not inconceivable that whiteness will continue to expand itself to include some of the people who we now consider to be Asian or Hispanic because it needs to maintain its numerical advantage. There are people within communities who aspire to that. That is part of the reason I believe that you saw nearly a third of all Asians and a third of all Hispanics in 2016 vote for Donald Trump, even after he had had this racist campaign against Barack Obama, even after he had said "ban all Muslims," even after he had called Mexicans rapists. Within immigrant communities, according to the New York Times analysis, that was where his percentage of nonwhites really skyrocketed. My concern is that you could replace a white supremacy with a light supremacy.

You talk about in your book about how race is not real, but racism is and the idea that race is a social construct. I'm the living, breathing example. Pre-9/11, I was white and was raised to be white. My dad wanted to name me Salah ad-Din. My mom was like, "No, we're going to name you Dean." Then 9/11 happened and society made me a minority. Now I'm very proud to be a minority, frankly. But to your point about people who are minorities and aspire to be white — it is vitally important to remember that. James Baldwin talked about people who are not white when they came here and they earned their whiteness.

And I want to say this too, Dean, I talk about that from a place of familiarity within the Black community. It's not like Black people are casting stones at other racial and ethnic minority groups. We have experienced our own passing for whiteness within our own Black community. There has been, to a lesser degree now, but to still to some degree, a light-skinned privilege within the Black community. We speak out of that, or I speak out of that, from an experience of having seen how people who get a close enough proximity to whiteness will, if given a chance and if they are so inclined, try to merge into it.

I didn't want to lose my whiteness and after 9/11 and I fought to keep it. I didn't know what the other side was, but I had an idea it was not going to be as good. I understood America was designed for white people and so did my parents. That's why they raised me to be a white guy, to be blunt. You write that whenever Black people make progress, white people feel threatened and respond forcefully, which is the history of our country. When white supremacy is threatened it will always use violence. Why? It is as simplistic as jealousy, or is there something deeper at play? 

It's not jealousy, it is always power. It is always power. It has always been power. I think you have to think of power broadly. It is loss of political power. It is loss of the economic guarantee that America granted to white people, that we will always make sure you succeed at the expense of other people, right? It is loss of cultural power that you get to write the narrative of America where you are the heroes and everyone else is the villain, or you are the elite and everyone else is the subordinate. All of these areas of power are threatened when you do not have the supremacy to demand that you exist at the top of the heap.

When you look at what happened on Jan. 6 with the insurrection at the Capitol, in your view was a white power manifesto come to life?

I do believe that it is that same fear. Fear of political, economic and cultural displacement.

This might sound naïve, and it's not intended to be. I'm a minority, but I'm not Black. The more I read about Black history, the more I see movies, the more I read books, I think of James Baldwin's quote about how if you're a conscious Black person, how can you not be constantly in a state of rage? Thinking about the history of this country and what it's done to Black people and the struggle that you articulate today for Black power. Are things changing for the better?

I don't even want to get into the progress argument because you can't take 400 years to inch out of a thing that should never have been done and hope for me to pat you on the back. I'm not going to do that. But what I will say is there was this brief glorious moment called Reconstruction in which Black people did have that power, right? And they wielded it. But they weren't as armed as their white countrymen. They didn't have the same wealth as their white countrymen. And they were subject to attack. The case that was just filed by Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi last week using the anti-Ku Klux Klan Act, well, that act is a Reconstruction-era act. During Reconstruction, the federal government helped to protect Black people so they could exercise the power that they had. They allowed the federal government to mobilize troops into the South to protect those people who had the right to vote and were the majorities in some of those states.

You had a glimpse of what power could be. The only reason you don't have it in those numbers right now is because of the Great Migration. Up until the Great Migration 90 percent of Black people in America lived in the South. I'm saying there is nothing preventing you from having the power that they had from 1865 for about 12 years.

If your thesis plays out, what's to say white people won't use violence to prevent your success? Look at Wilmington in the 1890s. The council there was biracial, but essentially it was Black people in power and a white supremacist coup-d'état actually happened. You'll look at the Tulsa riots, a sense of jealousy and fear of power. What if you are successful? Do you fear there will be a backlash of white supremacists?

Fear has no real place in liberation. Either you want to be free or you don't. If you want a cakewalk, I can't promise you that. I am suggesting a revolutionary act and there are no such things as revolutionary acts without resistance or risk. I will say this though, when white terror helped to scare and chase Black people out of the South, they won that battle. I believe that morally and historically, they cannot be allowed to win that war. As a moral issue, right has to win that war.

What would Black power look like from your point of view? 

It would look a lot like Georgia. And Georgia is not even a Black majority state at this point, but Georgia increased its Black population. It doubled his Black population from 1990 to 2020. Thanks in large part to diverse reverse migration. It went from 1.7 million people to now 3.4 million people. If you could just get back to restoring the majorities you had post-Civil War, which would only take about half the Black people in the North and West returning South, by the way. It wouldn't take everyone.

If they still had those states, they would control up to 14 Senate seats. They could control more Electoral College votes than New York and California combined. If they voted over that same period the way they vote now, they wouldn't have had a Republican president in the last 50 years. And the last time I checked, I don't think there's a single person on the Supreme Court who was appointed more than 50 years ago. The entire court would be different. You would have enough power to demand of politicians and political parties that they pay attention to your issues and move on advancing them because you would be able to deliver states.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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