Dr. Peniel Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University ofTexas-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, is a scholar of black power studies whose publications have focused on such subjects as Barack Obama and the civil rights organizer Stokely Carmichael. His most recent book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (Basic Books), aims to reconcile the stories of the two great African American civil rights leaders, who are typically viewed—wrongly, in Joseph’s opinion—as men of contrasting visions. In recent weeks Joseph, a contributing opinion writer for cnn.com whose byline has appeared in outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Reuters, and The Root, has been prolifically writing about and commenting on the Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

Texas Monthly: Are you surprised that the protests spread nationwide this quickly?

Peniel Joseph: No. This came on the heels of the COVID crisis, and mass unemployment, and it’s connected to all these different interlocking crises we have. Everybody’s broke. People can’t pay rent. They see that the federal government and our political system is broken for the most vulnerable people. People see the wealth inequality that we have in this country, which was really amplified by COVID-19. They see that COVID-19 has disproportionately hit the black community. We’ve got Great Depression levels of unemployment. Then [George Floyd’s death] becomes the spark plug right around the time certain places are loosening their shelter-in-place restrictions. 

We’ve seen mostly peaceful demonstrations, but you’re also seeing violence perpetrated by police against nonviolent demonstrators. That’s very similar to the 1960s, where most of the violence you saw was police violence. There was a very, very tiny amount of violence from self-styled left-wing revolutionaries, but for the most part the violence you saw was police in Selma attacking demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and police in Birmingham, Alabama, attacking nonviolent unarmed demonstrators with fire hoses that were strong enough to tear the bark off trees, and with German shepherds. So really, throughout, the police are the biggest users of violence during the civil rights and black power periods. We see echoes of that today.

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TM: Observers were quick to compare the protests after Floyd’s death to the racial unrest we saw across the country in 1968. Should people who are trying to understand what’s going on now look first to 1968 or to 2014, when the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner set off a new wave of protests?

PJ: I think 1968 is a turning point. After the urban uprisings in one hundred and twenty-five cities in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the rhetoric of law and order won the day. Social justice activists, including King, argued that the urban revolts were a response to white supremacy and structural racism.

But there was no political will to make massive investments in racially segregated, economically impoverished, and brutally policed communities. After 1968, we get, instead, fifty-two straight years of a criminal justice system that is designed to police and profile and incarcerate and, at times, kill and brutalize as many African Americans as possible. In 1968 the Safe Streets omnibus bill, passed by Congress and signed by Lyndon Johnson, puts the federal government in the business of giving out what’s going to be hundreds of billions of dollars for criminal justice in the form of grants, and puts the federal government in the anti-crime business and out of the anti-poverty business.

We made thousands of policy choices that continued to criminalize African Americans and continued to invest in large police forces, both when crime was up but also when crime was going down. By the 1990s, murder rates and violent crimes were going down, and we still added hundreds of thousands of new police and law enforcement officers. We went from a prison system that had three hundred thousand people in 1970 to 2.3 million today. And another four million people on parole, probation.

TM: What do you make of the fact that Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for president was intimately involved, over decades, in building up that system of incarceration?

PJ: For decades, there has been bipartisan support for not just mass incarceration and prison building but the criminalization of black neighborhoods and disinvestment from those neighborhoods. Of course, Biden was a part of that. Ronald Reagan was part of it. There were even some African American politicians who voted for tough-on-crime bills. This is a national problem.

TM: Quite a few people in power have urged protesters to emulate the model set down by Dr. King. Are they right to?

PJ: They’re misusing King. King was not violent, but King was a political revolutionary. King was talking about radical social democratic activism. He wanted a universal basic income before Andrew Yang and the Johnny-come-latelies. He wanted health care and food justice and environmental justice.

He wanted an end to police brutality, and tried to negotiate with big-city police chiefs in Los Angeles and New York to make that happen. He failed. He linked the war in Vietnam to the lack of investment in urban cities. King was saying that militarism, materialism, and racism were the triple evils facing humanity. When people asked him about rioting and looting, he said we needed to look at the origin of the problem, and that rioting was the language of the oppressed and the unheard and those who had been marginalized.

TM: The civil rights movement in the sixties seems to have been quite organized—lots of groups with acronyms and identifiable leaders. The activists pushing for Black Lives Matter seem more decentralized.

PJ: What Black Lives Matter has done is combine the nonviolent civil disobedience of the civil rights movement with the structural critique of white supremacy and racism of the black power movement. They’ve been very, very effective. They looked at how public policy was impacting what district attorneys could or could not do. They looked at things like pretrial diversion. How you could end the cash and the money bail system. How you could vote district attorneys out of office. They went to the very granular level of, “Hey, here are the forces that are controlling our lives, and we need to organize and mobilize people in the streets, resist killer cops.” But they’ve also asked how we can reimagine small-d democracy in a way that’s going to invest in our communities instead of incarcerating and criminalizing us.

TM: Are you concerned at all about a political backlash to the protests and unrest?

PJ: I’m not that worried. I think right now we have a generational opportunity to eradicate institutional racism, to defeat white supremacy, to build what King called a “beloved community” that is free of racial injustice, that is multiracial, multicultural, and interested in equity and radical citizenship and dignity for all people. 

Even if just half the country believes that this is a time for dramatic, radical social change, then good things are going to happen. Of course people will spin this and talk about violence and looting and backlash, but people are only spinning that to their own base and their own constituency. We really are, on some levels, where we were in the 1960s. 

We’re also close to the 1850s as well. I’m not claiming that there’s going to be a new civil war, even though the president’s language imbues certain constituents with a feeling that there’s a civil war coming. I mean it in this way: By 1858, 1859, 1860, you were either anti-slavery or pro-slavery. We’re at that same inflection point. We’re the most partisan that we’ve been since right before the Civil War. Anybody who’s intelligent and who lives in the United States can feel it.

You either think that the murder of George Floyd means that we have to do a wholesale reimagining of who we are as Americans, and racial and economic inequality has to be defeated, or you’re going to think that the protests that you’ve seen means we actually have to double down on the law and order and have an even bigger criminal justice state. Those are very, very stark divisions.

From that perspective, I don’t have much fear about a backlash because neither side is really listening to the other. I don’t think that’s great—I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re a democracy in decline. But those who are interested in spreading false narratives and smears, they’re only going to be talking to themselves, because we are that divided.

TM: Texas has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform efforts. What do you think of the prospects for further change here?

PJ: All politics are local, and I think that criminal justice reform and the push for social change will continue to gain momentum at the local level. Cities such as Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston will be under enormous pressure to fundamentally transform their approach to policing and racial and public school segregation, and to make investments in health care, education, mental health, housing affordability, transportation, and the environment. The protests that have spread throughout Texas cities are truly remarkable. They represent a generational opportunity to end institutional racism and defeat white supremacy.