The Great Recession and systemic racism continue to afflict African Americans, and after seven years in office President Barack Obama has done little to address it, says Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, chair of the Department of African American Studies. In his new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Glaude takes the president to task and calls for sweeping changes in American politics and the American outlook on race.
What made you write the book?
Two things. One was the amazing activism on the part of young people in response to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. The other was the disconnect between the talk of economic recovery and what I knew about the true state of black America. There was this narrative that we had turned a corner economically when all the data suggested otherwise.
Has social media changed political mobilization?
Prior to 2008, there was a massive amount of organizing around the World Trade Organization and the Iraq War. Prior to Ferguson, there was the Occupy movement and mobilization around the killing of Trayvon Martin. Much of that was on the ground, face to face, but we know more about it because of social media.
In Ferguson, people like [activists] DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie are doing amazing work without relying on mainstream media. Dr. King and others in the 1960s and ’70s had to time their protests in order to make the nightly news. That doesn’t have to happen now. It happens with a 140-character tweet, or a post on Vine, Instagram, or Snapchat.
The Occupy movement got a lot of attention, but some observers have suggested that the Tea Party has achieved more by electing candidates to office. Do you disagree?
“The beauty of democracy that extends dignity and standing to every individual has been hijacked in the name of security and corporate greed.”
— Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, chair of the Department of African American Studies
The Occupy movement has had a great influence on our public rhetoric and politics. Income inequality has become a central topic in the current presidential election because of it. I think the Occupy movement in some ways disrupted the corporate hold on the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders’ campaign wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for Occupy. We will have to see about its effect downstream, in mayoral races, council races, state legislative races.
But the changes that happened in Ferguson weren’t attributable to the electoral process. Voting did not get the police chief fired or stop predatory policing. So to claim that they needed to channel protest into more established political processes misses the point. The Ferguson protesters transformed their circumstances.
Is your book a response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me?
I’m more interested in describing the conditions under which ordinary people can struggle for more democratic arrangements. Coates isn’t interested in that. Struggling and questioning alone are not enough. You have to ask why you are struggling. We should struggle because we need a broader vision of democracy. Over the last two decades, Americans have seen a fundamental assault on democratic life in this country. The beauty of democracy that extends dignity and standing to every individual has been hijacked in the name of security and corporate greed, and the most vulnerable in our society have suffered because of it. In these kinds of moments it has always been the case that those on the margins give voice to a vision of democracy that saves us from ourselves.
I don’t want people to read my book and say, wow, it’s really bad for black people, and feel that they can do very little about it — that nothing is demanded of them. I want them to read it and say, now, what must we do?
You are very critical of President Obama. Why?
President Obama is who he always has been. If you read The Audacity of Hope, there was no reason for us to think that he was going to come in and fundamentally upend things. Although we did: We green-screened him because the political options have so narrowed. The euphoria surrounding his election has not translated in any shape, form, or fashion to the transformation of the conditions of the black community or the most vulnerable in this country. The only thing he can say is that it could have been worse. That is not enough, in my view.
Can you describe your proposal for a “blank-out” in the next election?
The blank-out campaign comes out of Jóse Saramago’s novel Seeing. It’s an allegory about the authoritarian underpinnings of so-called democracies. People begin to understand that the game is rigged, so they have to figure out how to expand their political options. They have an election, there is a huge turnout, but 80 percent of the ballots are blank. The authorities think there must have been some mistake, so they hold the election again and the same thing happens. And then we see the authoritarian dimensions of the state come forward.
So part of what I am suggesting is that we go to the polls next year in record numbers — without Obama on the ballot — and leave the presidential ballot blank. Turn our attention to state, local, and congressional elections, and in that way bring the massive energy that we’ve been seeing to bear on the electoral process. It would disrupt the power of a particular black political class, and it would shake the Democratic Party at its core.
But surely you don’t think a conservative Republican president would do more to address the issues you care about.
Something dramatic must happen. We can’t continue to face the lesser of two evils and think we’re going to change things — and that’s for all Americans, not just black Americans.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83