Dr. Peniel Joseph, the founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, believes the events of the last few weeks—George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis and the protests that have followed—represent a watershed historical moment. But he also believes it is a confluence of events, not just the eight-minute, 46-second video of Floyd’s death, that put us here.
“As tragic as [the video] is, it’s bigger than the video,” says Joseph, whose first two books (Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama) documented the intersection of race and democracy. “In 2013, 2014 and especially 2015, Black Lives Matter represented an organized movement for black dignity, citizenship, and the end to racism in the criminal justice system. Then there’s this presidency and the embrace of white supremacy and white nationalism. And finally, COVID-19 had a devastating impact on the country, but it had an even more devastating impact on black communities. We saw the racial disparities. We saw the amplification of injustice in premature death, disproportionate black death, but also in the vulnerability of black workers who were in meatpacking industries, who were working for delivery apps and were restaurant workers, or in the post office. Couple that with the fact that right as the George Floyd video came out, the shelter-in-place orders in many areas were declining and people were wanting to get back into the street, wanting to live what they thought of as a normal life again.”
Across his academic career, Joseph has specialized in what he calls black power studies, which is built on the notion that the black power ideology of the late sixties and early seventies represented “a powerful political movement that redefined and deepened American democracy.” Joseph believes the present-day protests and the Black Lives Matter movement represent America’s next “generational opportunity to transform democracy.”
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“Black Lives Matter made the argument that’s pretty obvious for everyone to see now that the criminal justice system in the United States is a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic gendered oppression,” says Joseph, whose latest book, March’s The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., outlines the civil rights icons’ approaches to protest and reform, which Joseph suggests had more in common than is often believed. “The movement argued that criminal justice is connected to public school education and segregation, residential segregation, [and to] zoning and density. It’s connected to child care and nutrition. It’s connected to employment and health care. It’s connected to mental wellness because so many cops in black communities are murdering black people who have mental health breakdowns. And we’ve seen much of that on video. So in a lot of ways, George Floyd is a tipping point globally in the sense that there’s a political and economic system that is not working for most people, but it’s especially targeting black and brown people and people of color across the world. This is the pushback.”
On The National Podcast of Texas, recorded Tuesday morning by phone, Joseph weighs in on what he believes are the next steps for the movement, the difficult conversations that will have to happen first, and what role the young white crowds he’s seeing at protests might play in the movement. He also outlines what we can learn from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and evaluates Texas’s historical role in previous civil rights struggles.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
Joseph believes real reform and equity doesn’t have to be doled out incrementally.
“Los Angeles already announced that they’re going to suddenly find one hundred to one hundred and fifty million dollars to invest in poor communities. And what we’re seeing with the current administration is that we don’t have a robust, flourishing, thriving, small-d democracy. We don’t have a small-r republic. We’re increasingly authoritarian. We have a massive wealth gap. We relish and thrive on racial segregation and the misery of black people. We don’t have a thriving democracy. So people are pushing for that. And people want change now, which is why masses of people are in the streets saying that this system is corrupt and bankrupt. But the hope and opportunity is that people want a country that is as good as its citizens, right? This country right now is not as good as the everyday people in the country who are promoting racial justice and equity and are promoting anti-racism. It’s not as good as that. And so people are pushing and pushing. And I don’t think that change has to be incremental.”
Joseph says it’s fundamental that white allies in the struggle for racial equality really sit back and listen.
“When it comes to racial justice, a lot of whites are going to come into that conversation and they might have gut feelings and emotions, but they don’t know anything about the history of racism, racial exploitation in this country. Period. And so it becomes really about listening. Will there be some discomfort there? Yes, but black people have experienced that discomfort for four hundred years in this country. And so what we’re seeing now is at least more of a willingness for institutions to listen. All these institutions, including UT-Austin, are racist institutions. These are white supremacist institutions from stem to root, from top to bottom. That’s just basic. That’s what they’re founded on. That’s why a black person couldn’t attend UT until 1950. So all of these institutions have followed a morally repugnant, morally reprehensible, and politically unethical line for centuries and decades. It’s a national shame and a national embarrassment. And the worst tragedy is that thousands of people, tens and hundreds of thousands of George Floyds and Breonna Taylors, have had to die and perish at the hands of this morally reprehensible and repugnant system before we could reach this moment. So to validate that loss of white discomfort is meaningless. So what white people are searching for in the country right now, and some of them have taken to the streets to find it, is their own humanity. Because that’s what white supremacy does, it distorts and destroys. And defaces our individual soul. And Martin Luther King Jr. is the person who said that.”
Headed into the November election, Joseph believes that the almost instant politicization of the idea of defunding police departments is indicative of a larger systemic problem.
“If just the phrase ‘defund the police’ causes you to vote for the status quo, you are part of that status quo of being morally reprehensible and being a white supremacist already. Whether you’re claiming to be a Christian, whether you’re claiming to be a good person or not, you are represented by your deeds and not your words. You are not who you think you are. You are what your actions proclaim you to be and reveal you to be. And we’ve seen that with police all around the United States. The black community always realized that the police were not there to support us. They were there to incarcerate and criminalize and choke-hold and kill us. But we’ve seen the police physically assault white people—[including] a 75-year-old white man in Buffalo. So the police have revealed themselves as who they always were. It’s just that this is on a global stage, right? And so we’re seeing all kinds of illusions disappear right before our eyes. And I think that it’s extraordinarily clarifying for all of us. I don’t think that disinformation is going to have an impact on either side because the sides are as dark as pro-slavery and anti-slavery right before the Civil War. This is a struggle for America’s soul and there is a battle that’s happening. It’s not just a physical battle. It’s going to be a spiritual battle. It’s going to be a policy battle. And there are two distinct sides.”
(Excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)