“It’s the economy, stupid” may yet stand as the most delicately nuanced economic statement to ever come out of a presidential campaign. “We turned a recession into a record streak of job growth,” President Obama said on October 8 in his weekly address from the White House, teeing up the ball for Hillary Clinton, who echoed his comeback-nation talk at the town hall debate in St. Louis, Missouri, the following night.
In Democracy in Black (2016), Eddie Glaude confronts the Pollyannas of the jobbed recovery. It’s often said we’re living “after”—after the recession, after race—but this is a stubborn amnesiac’s tale, one that erases its beginning by insisting on its end. We talked with Glaude, a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, on the phone on October 11. The conversation below has been condensed and lightly edited.
Lindsey Gilbert: It seems like economists are always bragging about the size of our Gross Domestic Product.
Eddie Glaude: This emphasis on GDP—it’s the kind of economics that the late Sheldon Wolin used to talk about. It overdetermines what we take to be the most important indicators of the quality of life in this country, instead of a broader, more substantive understanding of the public good.
LG: So is GDP really the main measure we should be using to decide whether or not America is in a recession?
EG: No, not at all. I don’t think the size of the GDP is a good indicator, or even an adequate indicator, of the quality of life of everyday ordinary people. Folks are working harder and longer for less, trying to keep a roof over their heads. Folks are underemployed or unemployed, struggling to imagine a better future for their children because college education isn’t affordable. If you keep track of the size of GDP and you don’t pay attention to those other indicators, you’ll have a skewed sense of the quality of life of people in this country.
LG: In Democracy in Black, you describe a Great Black Depression that’s not letting up.
EG: People have been talking about us turning an economic corner. They’re saying we’ve finally come out of the Great Recession, and they’re looking at certain indicators. But when you look at African American communities, you still see unemployment as twice that of white unemployment. In some places it is still at the same level it was at the height of the crisis of the Great Recession. You look at the effects of the collapse of the housing market, the tremendous loss of wealth. You look at 38 to 40 percent of black children growing up in poverty. Folks aren’t really paying attention to it because, in some ways, black suffering is invisible in this country. And it’s invisible because we’re disposable.
LG: You’ve written that the United States might well have a proper welfare state by now if it weren’t for fear.
Race is at the heart of the critique of the welfare state.
EG: My colleague Martin Gilens has written a wonderful book on welfare and race. Think about the emergence of the welfare state in the context of the New Deal: Dixiecrats were lobbying and insisting that certain policies be extended to the Southern poor, to white folks who were struggling in the South. What Gilens shows in his work is that the moment those policies are extended to black people, the moment the representation of welfare gets associated with black bodies, then it becomes anathema. Race is at the heart of the critique of the welfare state, which presumes that we are taking something from deserving people and giving it to undeserving people.
LG: There seems to be a sense that it’s a zero-sum game.
EG: Exactly, yes.
LG: I’ve been hearing the term “reverse racism” spewed left and right. Earlier this month, a lecturer at the University of Virginia compared Black Lives Matter to the KKK. Is this amnesia?
EG: One of the key features of our current malaise is what I call “disremembering.” The fact is that some people in this country think that we have double digit unemployment because black people don’t want to work. They think that white wealth is thirteen times that of black wealth because we’re not working hard; because we’re not diligent or self-reliant; because we’re dependent, victim-mongering, relying on black victimization. But they don’t understand the dual housing market and what it meant.
This is disremembering at its worst—maintaining an illusory innocence.
The GI Bill and New Deal legislation helped create the middle class in the United States, but African Americans were excluded from most of those policies. Even though today’s public schools are as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board, people talk about the state of education as if we haven’t had a dual education system, as if we’ve simply failed to educate our kids.
I could even say it this way: The last piece of major legislation of the Great Society was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which they really didn’t implement. Twelve years later, Ronald Reagan was elected.
Reagan was elected on a platform that was explicit about undoing, dismantling the Great Society. And in between, of course, there was Jimmy Carter, who was perhaps the first neoliberal president. This is disremembering at its worst—to absolve oneself of any responsibility to know what’s happening in the darker corners of this country, to maintain an illusory innocence.
LG: And now Donald Trump has somehow, mind-bogglingly, doubled down on his decades-old crusade against the Central Park Five.
EG: I mean, Donald Trump has revealed who he is. He said he would jail his opponent if he was elected. He denied the legitimacy of the exoneration of the Central Park Five in spite of DNA evidence and in spite of the actual perpetrator of the crime admitting guilt. So he’s very clear about his position on certain key values of American democratic life. Given his ascent, we have to put forward those of us who claim to be progressive. We have to put forward a different vision of the country—which means we have to change our view of government, change our view of white people, and change our view of what matters. As long as we have the idea of white people circulating in this country, we will continue to have the problems that we have. That’s just me quoting James Baldwin. The idea of white people organizes the world in a specific sort of way, and the moment it is discarded, many of the problems that we face will fall to the side.
LG: If what you call “racial habits” are sustaining white supremacy, and some habits are really hard to break, is there any parallel between racism and addiction?
EG: Instead of calling it unconscious or implicit bias, I call it habits. Habits are formed in the context of our social lives, instead of beginning in the psychology of people. So we can shift habits by changing our behavior and by changing our social arrangements. What would it mean to have a housing policy that would have mixed-income neighborhoods, that would work to immediately dismantle residential segregation in this country? What would follow from that? The way in which we fund schools would change. But with implicit bias talk, it becomes very difficult to hold ourselves accountable.
I tell the story that I hate waking up. I used to hate waking up and not having my house shoes right next to my feet, because I hate my feet touching cold floors. So I just got in the habit of putting the shoes in the same spot every day. And then now when I get up, there are my shoes, boom. I’ve created the conditions under which I can change certain things. So what happens when we imagine our social world, our economic world in those terms?
LG: What do you think of what’s going on at Georgetown University? Is that an example of the kind of structural change you’re talking about?
The explicit acknowledgment of the ugliness is what will release us.
EG: What Georgetown has done is identify how it has directly benefited from the selling of slaves. The descendants of those slaves can apply for admission to Georgetown [and receive preference]. They aren’t giving them any funds, they can’t come for free, but they’ll get in. It seems to me a kind of way of reckoning with the “bitterness at the bottom of the cup,” to use Williams James’s phrase: a kind of acknowledgment that underneath the structures lies all this ugliness. The acknowledgement of it, the explicit acknowledgment of it, is what will release us into a better future. So I think it’s a wonderful beginning, and it’s a different kind of way of thinking about reparations. It’s not just simply cutting a check for black people. It’s a different way of thinking about how our current society is implicated in our past actions, and how acknowledging that sets us up to imagine ourselves anew.
LG: Racial justice instead of some kind of charity.
EG: Yes. We’ve got to move from this philanthropic model, where racial equality is a loose expression of charitable enterprise, to actual racial justice, where we’re standing in right relation with one another. That means a society built upon non-domination.
LG: Even as racial justice too often gets reduced to charity, black Americans are asked to be the moral conscience of a nation. I guess that brings me to President Obama. The pundits are on in earnest now about his legacy—well, they were talking about it even before he took the oath. Has anything about that conversation surprised you?
EG: No, not at all. I wrote in Democracy in Black that President Obama is a Melvillian confidence man, selling the snake oil of hope and change. In effect, he was a centrist liberal, and he will leave office as a centrist liberal. The success and failure of his presidency will be measured by the rate of economic growth, by our GDP—by all those things you and I began our conversation with. Nothing has struck me as distinct or unusual about how people are assessing his eight years. What I do know for sure is that relatively little has happened over the last eight years to change the circumstances of black people in this country and the most vulnerable in this country.
LG: You’re called a “public intellectual.” What does that mean for you in practice—that you never get a vacation?
EG: I don’t invest much in the description, other than that I am dedicated to thinking seriously in public with others and to exercising critical intelligence in the service of the most vulnerable. To the extent that I imagine public intellectual life in those terms, I’m always doing it. I’m teaching a seminar this semester on James Baldwin. But right before I go to teach the seminar, I’m on Morning Joe, and I use a quote from The Fire Next Time. I paraphrase Baldwin by saying, “Civilizations aren’t ended by wicked people; they’re ended by spineless people,” as a way of reflecting on Paul Ryan. So here I am in the classroom, reading Baldwin with my students, and then I find myself on a conservative TV show as a progressive voice invoking Baldwin in a different setting. What’s key, though, is to lead with the idea no matter where I am, and to lead with the idea in a clear and concise way that’s accessible to my mama. If my mom texts me and says, “I saw you on Morning Joe, baby, and that was a really powerful point,” then I’m doing the work. Lead with the idea—not with my personality, not with me, but with the idea. And if the idea is rooted in a more just world, then we’re doing our work.