Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 3
Living Up to America’s Promises
Featuring Peniel E. Joseph
Are we actually a “United” States? Has the US lived up to the promise of inclusivity, freedom, equality, and opportunity for everyone? And where can we go from here? Peniel E. Joseph, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the history department in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, joins us to ask these questions and point to the successful building of a multiracial democracy.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? Is our podcast, which we are now in the fourth season of, in which we have conversations, often with members of The Progress Network, but not exclusively, with people who embody a sensibility of positive change, a sensibility that we have so many problems but we are capable of solving them, and that there are a lot of people who are dedicating their lives and their time and their energy to doing so without fear, without outrage, and without Armageddon dreams dancing in their head and coming out of their mouths. So in that light, we’re gonna talk today about something we’ve talked about before that is clearly one of the more central conundrums, challenges, problems of American society, let alone global society. And that’s the ongoing challenge of race in America, particularly the relationship between African Americans and the sort of dominant society, but also the relationship that we all have to each other around the question of race, and whether or not we have created in the United States, at least, a society that is nearly as race-neutral or colorblind or inclusive of a multiplicity of ethnicities and individuals and groups to the degree that we believe that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence enshrined those ideas as belonging to all of us, and not just to some of us. And we could debate, and other people have debated and will continue to, just how much those documents really were inclusive. But it’s true that the language for the most part was, even if the structures that those things created absolutely was not, and that the society in which those documents have been embedded, in the United States in particular, clearly has not lived up to the promise of inclusiveness and freedom, equality, and opportunity for everyone irrespective of gender, race, et cetera. So these are conversations we need to keep having. These are conversations a lot of people are tired of having, and that is absolutely no reason to not keep having them. The fact that they remain intractable doesn’t mean that one should throw up one’s hands and stop talking about them, or be annoyed at the fact that we keep talking about them and arguing about them and debating them and trying to deal with them, because there are clearly a lot of things that go on that remind us in a brutal and tragic fashion about how far we are from an ideal or even a real world of balance that we believe is possible and that we’ve not yet achieved. So, Emma, we’re gonna talk today to somebody, I think, you know, both of us, we’ve talked to before on an earlier version of this podcast, but is part of The Progress Network and his work is really quite inspiring.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna talk to Peniel E. Joseph. He holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s also the founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Prior to that, he was a professor at Tufts University, where he also founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. And he is author of a few books, most recently, one called The Third Reconstruction. So we’re excited to talk to him.
ZK: Peniel Joseph, thank you so much for joining us today. So you’ve become one of the most eloquent, thoughtful, historically minded, which I think is very important, voices about where we are in the history of race in America, most broadly put, both in terms of books you’ve done, the work you’ve done on the dual biography, The Sword and the Shield. And that’s a tough position, right? I mean, people turn to you largely, I think, from just my awareness of your work, more than not when there’s a problem, right? Like, you get a call, someone wants to interview you, somebody’s been killed. I am not saying this, by the way, flippantly at all. I’m saying this in the sense of you’ve been an historian, an academic, a speaker, a writer, a commentator on just the state of race in America, particularly African American and white interactions over the past centuries. And I guess I’m curious as to like, one, you know, what do you feel today? Very subjective. And two, have you ever thought about urging people to call you more, not just when there’s a crisis?
Peniel Joseph (PJ): [Laughs] I’ll start with the latter, Zachary. Yes. Yeah, I would definitely like to be called when there’s, you know, good news, and sometimes I am in terms of Black History Month, you know, MLK, so it’s not just about, you know, urban rebellion or, you know, police shootings of Black people. You know, Juneteenth is a positive. So sometimes I am called just to sort of give historical context, but really, yeah, most of the time, it’s really in the context of crisis. And I would say not even just about race, but really race and democracy, right? And the relationship, because in so many ways, the last few years, we’ve seen liberal democracy in crisis, both in the United States, but globally as well. So I think that in a lot of ways, I’m called on to sort of discuss what is the historical context for this. In terms of how I’m feeling, I think, you know, I’m always an optimist even as I’m a realist. So I still think that there are huge, tremendous opportunities ahead to build a better world and to build a better America, but I’m also someone who wants us to dive into the granular details of what are the real challenges that we face. And those challenges in certain ways have continued to amplify. I think that the opportunities are there, but the challenges continue to amplify. And I think you see it, you know, Biden’s State of the Union, right? Where, you know, he’s talking about the positives or the potentials of American democracy, and at the same time, he’s talking about the crises and he’s being heckled in the State of the Union, [laughs], you know, really like it’s the 19th century, you know, like we’ve been here before and we’ve had, you know, folks in Congress trying to kill each other. You think about the beating of Charles Sumner, who was really never the same again. You know, I have mixed emotions about where we’re at today.
EV: How do you feel, in particular, just to zero in on one topic on this, as far as history goes, about the conversation going on with the, you know, AP African American Studies course. Obviously, like a lot of that discourse got captured by DeSantis and the back and forth about the particular chapter or section in the curriculum. But something that I really appreciate about your work is that despite the fact that people call you in a crisis, you always have something productive to say. So I have my own moment of productivity around that conversation, which is that, you know, when I was in high school, which is not that long ago, there was no opportunity to study African American history like that. Like we probably read one book in AP English by someone who was Black. So when I look at that, you know, despite the fact of all this DeSantis rigmarole, I’m like, hey, cool. Like, I would’ve liked to study that when I was in high school. So what do you have to say about it?
PJ: You know, I think the DeSantis AP critical race theory, it’s really important. And I think the historical context behind sort of the banning of Black history in certain states, there’s 36 different states, is really the Reconstruction era, right? The first Reconstruction era. Because what you see during that first Reconstruction era are many instances of trying to ban basically speech, trying to ban citizenship, voting rights, dignity. That’s the era where you’re gonna start to see the first instances of people trying to formalize racial segregation, ban Black, voting rights, ban Black people being able to legally purchase property, ban Black people being able to be self-employed, you, you know, a lot of folks set up vagrancy laws, convict lease systems, where if you didn’t have proof that you were employed by a white employer, you could be arrested and then sent to work in labor camps. So, in a lot of ways, DeSantis is taking that playbook. And I think what’s so interesting, Emma, is that the whole anti-wokeness that we’re talking about now, we have to just substitute the word woke for just the word Black. And that’s what people are saying. You know, they’re saying, I don’t want any of this wokeness, and this is too woke for me. Rihanna at the Super Bowl, or the Black National Anthem at the Super Bowl is too woke, it’s too Black. And so, DeSantis is part of that. And there was always, even in the 19th century, there’s always an audience that’s ready for you to highlight the way in which your line in the sand is Black people becoming too central, Black people having access to dignity and citizenship, and in this case, Black people’s history being a central component of the curriculum ’cause right now, these debates we’re having, this is the first time in American history we’re having these kind of debates because usually, Black history has been really, really marginalized. Now, we had a certain version of these debates in the 1960s and ’70s with Black studies, the television series Roots. But even with that, K-12 public schools were largely untouched. It’s really what’s so extraordinary about the times we lived in, and these are some of the things that make me optimistic, is that it really took Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project and the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor to really set really tens of thousands of teachers said they wanted to teach this curriculum in the public schools, right? Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, books like White Supremacy and Me. And Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist has literally sold over 2 million copies. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has sold over a million and a half copies. 1619 Project has sold over a million copies. So that’s the first time in American history that that many people have been interested in African American history. And what we have to say is that many white people have been interested in African American history, right? So that’s huge, huge progress. And I think what DeSantis is is a reaction against the progress of really tens of millions of white people who protested in the streets, but also a smaller subset who put their money where their mouth is and walked the talk and is trying to teach these issues and teach this history wherever they at. We’re talking about folks in Nebraska, in Missouri, in Illinois, in Indiana, in Ohio, right? Not just the coast. And Florida, right? And Texas, where I live. So the DeSantis anti-CRT, banning of AP African American history, it’s a huge negative, but that’s based, that’s inspired by this positive. And that’s what we have to keep sight of. The negative is this banning of free speech, this banning of teaching American history, which is also African American history. And so, yes, that’s bad, but why now and not 2015? Why now and not 2019, right? It’s because of the progress. It’s because in one great leap in 2000s, especially the summer of 2020, this whole “secret” American history came out. And I put secret in quotes, Emma, ’cause, you know, a lot of people knew it, but the great majority of the public didn’t. So I think that’s really, really a good sign. But now, it becomes, what can we do legally and legislatively and through community organizing to make sure this is actually accessible and being taught in K-12?
ZK: So let me tell you some of my concerns around all that, which is, like, I was a teacher for a while. I’ve written a lot about American history and the degree to which race, not just African American, but obviously, Hispanic, Native American, the whole sort of panoply of what we have always claimed to be a melting pot, but have managed to, you know, literally whitewash that inclusiveness in bringing those stories in as a collective us, right? And not just as a silo or as a buried, I mean, I thought I had a really good education, but I never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre until, you know, well into my 20s. In a way, that kind of surprised me when I found that out. We did learn a lot about the Civil Rights Movement, I have to say. And I think partly that’s ’cause it was easily folded into a redemptive narrative of American history, right? So we’re pretty good at telling stories of where we think we got it right, and we’re pretty good at burying stories of where we’re pretty sure we got it wrong. So there’s that. On the other hand, I find that some of the tonality and the sensibility of people like Ibram Kendi and some of the others, and I found this true of the 1619, is that it is so laser-like focused on one aspect of history and willing to kind of subsume and interpret what is interpretable, meaning that there’s a lot of causality, there’s a lot of things that were going on in the 17th century other than race. To then say, you know, race is the lens, and the story to me feels like replacing one orthodoxy with another or overturning one orthodoxy and enshrining another. And I do think some of the pushback, even though I don’t actually trust or like either the people or the institutions where most of the pushback is coming from, like, I personally don’t think DeSantis is sitting there going, oh, yeah, you know, we shouldn’t be having an inclusive curriculum. On the other hand, I do think that some of the pushback comes from a feeling of, hey, wait a minute, you’ve just negated an entire aspect of our history and replaced it with another aspect of our history that’s equally problematic and that you could poke a lot of holes in 1619 factually, just like you should poke a lot of holes in kind of the traditionalist triumphalist narrative of America and the Constitution. So I don’t know where you come in that. I’m just trying to explain like– you know, I’m someone who supports most of this, I have like a track record of having supported most of this, but I’m uncomfortable with some of, you know, literally the black and whiteness that this conversation takes on.
PJ: You know, Zachary, I teach The 1619 Project, so I’m really, really deeply, in a granular way. So I’ve taught that book, and when you read the 19 chapters, and I’m thinking about the book and not the New York Times magazine, one, I mean, I think every work of scholarship does have some factual errors, right? That, well, hopefully, the people, once that’s brought up, actually fix those in subsequent additions. And sometimes those are just mistakes. Sometimes, other historians are just gonna disagree in certain interpretations. But The 1619 Project, I would say, and really not even defend, but I’ll contextualize how I think of it and how I teach it. One, I think it’s unbelievably expansive. So there’s stories of Native Americans in there, there’s stories of Latinx and Hispanic folks in there, there’s stories of queer folks and white folks and Asian-American, Pacific Islanders within the history and their connection to both the American experience and the Black American experience. So, one, that’s important.
ZK: I think it’s interesting ’cause I think the book is actually– and I should have clarified this too, I think the book is different than and a lot better than, in many ways, the original thing that that sparked all this [inaudible].
PJ: The magazine.
ZK: The magazine article.
PJ: Special issue of the magazine, because I think the book is really radically inclusive. But I would also say that what it focuses on– I think race is one of what it focuses on and Blackness, but it really focuses on the connection between racial slavery and how racial slavery and all the supply chains of racial slavery impacted the development of our constitutional democracy. And that’s not, sort of hyperbolic or overblown. That impacted everyone. It impacted women, it impacted labor, it impacted our vision and version of capitalism. It impacted religious institutions and political institutions, higher education, K-12, and it continues to impact, right? From Reconstruction to the present. So I don’t think that that is farfetched, even though I think that everyone has a right. You can do The 1619 Project and really focus on slavery. You can do another book project and focus on the labor movement. You can do something that centers Jewish history and different his– So I think that there’s many ways to do this. And then finally, one of the things I would say, and I think this is important for our discussion, Zachary, in terms of especially The Progress Network and what we’re about is this, The 1619 Project, which has also been criticized because of this on the left, it’s a love letter to a Reconstructionist vision of American democracy. If anything, it’s a deeply patriotic, deeply, in a certain way, American nationalist, although it’s cosmopolitan vision and history, right? Other people have criticized it because of that. Now, the Nikole Hannah-Jones and the contributors, they really set up a world where– which I actually think is true and I believe it, but that, you know, Black people love America and American democracy, but a Reconstructionist, which is a version of American democracy that supports multiracial multi-ethnic democracy, multi-religious, and pushes back against the Lost Cause or Redemptionist version of American democracy, or basically of American, because I think the Confederate version, the Lost Cause version is an authoritarian version, so it’s really not a version that supports democracy, you know, it’s a Potemkin democracy, if anything, right? And that’s what DeSantis, Trump– So I think one thing we have to do, and this is where it’s– I’m happy to be a scholar and one of the people who actually– you know, when people talk about these books, I actually read them, you know, including the big books by Jon Meacham. He’s got a brilliant new book on Lincoln, the big books, David Blight, 792 pages on Frederick Douglass. I read every single word of those books. So that’s what I spend my weekends in my life doing, right? You know, yeah, exactly, Frederick Douglass. But, you know, and so when you read them and you’re studying them and you’re teaching them, I have to say that a lot of the backlash against The 1619 Project and even, you know, How to be an Antiracist and these books coming out of 2019 and 2020, folks didn’t actually take the time to read and get into those books because those books are absolutely these, in certain ways, radically, pro-American books. It’s just that they’re not a pro-American vision of racism, right? But in certain ways, I think those books are very interesting books because in the context of the 1960s and ’70s, Zachary, many people, including groups like the Black Panthers might say, well, no, we need a whole new revolutionary constitution, we need a new vision of the country, right? They’re saying something kind of different in the sense that they’re saying that these histories of people like Ida B. Wells and Du Bois and the Fannie Lou Hamers, Ella Bakers, and white abolitionists, the people like Thaddeus Stevens, Virginia Durr, these people, this is the vision of America that we should be embracing, right? You know, so it’s very interesting, and I think that’s where you– I understand that even if people might say, hey, I disagree with Nikole Hannah-Jones and the focus on sort of slavery and the American Revolution or some interpretive aspect, I think if you really read that book non-ideologically, you see that she– her father was a military veteran. She’s biracial. She talks about this in the Hulu series too. She has a deep love and reverence of the country, for the country, which, like I said, in certain ways, people who are coming from an older generation of radical find unseemly [laughs] [inaudible] absolutely unseemly and sort of, like, well, why are you loving America this much? You know what I mean? Yet in the den of our conversation where– You know, this is about– You know, we’re living in the era of fake news and falsehoods and all these different things. People have cast her and that entire project as some kind of anti-American left wing scandalous project where even if we could say, hey, we disagree with aspects of it, that’s– I mean, I teach that book. I mean, like I said, it’s a profoundly, profoundly, pro-American democracy and pro-America book to the point where people who are on the left, in a much different way, feel that that book goes too far.
Audio Clip: One of the reasons The 1619 Project has been so controversial is that it proposes that we should talk a lot more about the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black people when we talk about the foundations of our country, which of course means acknowledging that racism permeates our history. Because the fact is right now, kids aren’t learning the realities of our history. In 2018, only 8% of US high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. And that is horrifying. That’s like only 8% of kids knowing you can make a volcano with Mentos and Diet Coke. They’re both basic facts. Now, the good news is that about two-thirds of students do seem to know that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, except, and here’s the thing, it absolutely did not do that. That required a whole constitutional amendment, which wasn’t even ratified till after Abraham Lincoln died.
EV: I think a lot about talking in language that the two sides of the partisan divide will listen to, and like, you know, where we can find the connective tissue there, and I think patriotism is one where, like, you can really talk to people on the left and the right and have them unite around that. And I was wondering, like, where you’ve come down on that in your own work, particularly when it comes to flashpoints around police brutality and BLM and kind of like these things that when people use certain language, like the mind shuts down. I have a friend who’s kind of Republican, but if you mention BLM to him, it’s like big X, you know, like he does not wanna talk about BLM, but I did a little experiment and I took the article you wrote for CNN around when Tyre Nichols was killed, and you had, like, this paragraph about actual solutions from education to drug rehabilitation, you know, you had this whole nice paragraph about all the things that we could do. And I read that to him and I was like, what if we did all this? And he was like, yes, great. Thumbs up, let’s go. You know? And I was just like, okay, well, so what’s, what’s the real argument about here? So yeah, I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on that.
PJ: Yeah, you know, I mean, I think it’s connected to a couple of different things, Emma. I think on one level, especially, I’ll start with the patriotism, right? I think that on some levels, patriotism becomes something we can build consensus around, but I also think that because of our very particular history, a lot of times people who are not white, who are not male, are not perceived as patriotic, even though the reality and the evidence of people of color and Black people serving in the military since the American Revolution, even though the reality right now, disproportionately people of color serve in the armed forces. They’re not disproportionately military officers. They’re not disproportionately at West Point or the Naval Academy, but they are disproportionately what we people used to call general infantry men and now women, right? So that we have to say. So patriotism is very, very important, I think, of anti-racism and social justice, folks who are against anti-Semitism, against sexism as something that’s very patriotic. I think that historically, we have not, right? We have not. So in certain ways, I think one of the interesting parts about the Civil Rights Movement is that for a time, Martin Luther King Jr. and the other activists within that movement were able to make an argument that the anti-racism of that era, the movement to defeat Jim Crow was a patriotic thing, right? And even, you know, by the time John F. Kennedy, says, you know, there’s a revolution happening, those who do nothing invite shame as well as violence, those who act boldly recognize right as well as reality, it becomes central to the American project that anti-racism is also patriotic, right? And people have tried to do this in the 1930s and ’40s with the Double V campaign. Their success was both real, but more mixed, right? Especially because of McCarthyism. So I think patriotism is really important, but I think we think about something like those of us who are supporters of multiracial democracy, it’s up to us to take back the flag in that sense, right? To say that the flag, the American flag, is a flag of abolition and of abolition democracy at its best, right? And we can give examples whether you’re gonna think about Abraham Lincoln or Thaddeus Stevens or Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells, different military veterans and say that this is what America and American democracy really means. I think the other part though is that when you think about Black Lives Matter, just like the Black Power Movement, there are certain things and certain language and rhetoric that have always been sort of successfully demonized in our history, and a lot of that has to do, and this is where I think– again, sometimes people say we focus on race too much, but our history of race and slavery are central to the history, it’s central to how even me and you think today, even though I would like it to not be so. You know, I realize race is a social construction. I’m not a race essentialist, but I’m saying the way in which it’s been constructed through our policies, through our rhetoric, through actual segregation that exists today, ’cause this would be easier for us, Emma, if we were no longer segregated, we’re no longer unequal, and all we had to do, me, you, Zachary, we were excavating that time we were. It’d be so much easier, right? We would say, remember we used to do these bad things and then it stopped in 1980 or it stopped in 2000? And we would be the investigators of saying, wow, let’s investigate that period, how and why it stopped and sort of we’re spreading the news to contemporary people. And people are like, oh, gee-whiz, you mean somebody tried to stop and ban Black history and there used to be this prevalent anti-Semitism and there were all these bad things? And we’re the people sort of making people both remember that, but also excavating the archive of why that happened, right? Unfortunately for us is that we are forced to do both. We live in a time where it’s still impacting us and we’re trying to figure it out at the same time. So in some ways, all of us, our brains are tainted by this history. You know what I mean? And it’s not supposed to be like this. And I think for a lot of white Americans who haven’t had the time, the wherewithal to really investigate this history, it becomes much to do about nothing because they’re like, wow, you really have race on the brain. You know, you really, you know, why are you doing this? Whereas if you really, in a granular way, look at the history and explain to them, you know, why couldn’t women vote until 1920? And even though Black women and other women are supposed to be extended that franchise, then there are all these barriers to them, right? Until the 1960s, right? You know, why couldn’t Black people actually have wills and estates? Well, because courts didn’t recognize those wills and estates. And what did that mean for intergenerational wealth transfer for Black– And then, you know, people who are in good faith will say, oh, I didn’t know. You know, like, I didn’t– And then we get back to the DeSantis, well, why didn’t, you know? It’s because there’s this whole structure that’s saying actively, even if people are interested, that they don’t want you to know. So I think that Black Power, Black Lives Matter, you know, wokeness have become these words that shut people down, right? That shut people down. And, you know, there’s a point where abolition was a word that shut people down as well. And that’s what I want people to understand. So it’s not just about defund the police or Black Lives Matter. If you told people, look, we should abolish racial slavery. Even Abraham Lincoln, you know, Lincoln, right before the Emancipation Proclamation, he has a group of Black folks in the White House, and he says in 1862, you know, why don’t you leave? You know, and I’ll help. But the American Colonization Society, they pushed back vehemently against him into his credit. He then comes out with an earlier version in September, and then real version, the Emancipation Proclamation comes out in January of 1863. But part of that was because Lincoln was in the White House with these Black leaders and thought leaders, and they were pushing back against him and saying, look, Mr. President, we’ve been here for generations and some of us can, trace our people back to earlier than you can [laughs],, right? So they were making these arguments, right? And so it’s so interesting that, you know, race continues and anti-Blackness continues to sort of cloud our ability to connect and produce consensus. But just because of that, it doesn’t mean we should stop speaking truth to power, right? So I think that, again, there’s a point where abolition is unpopular, but it doesn’t mean you stop being an abolitionist or saying the word abolitionist.
ZK: So how do you square, you know, kinda the ongoing challenge of, one, the tendency, particularly in the United States, although I do think it’s true in multiple other societies, of putting a neat bow on things in the past, right? So much of the way most of us learn about the Civil Rights era– I did a book once in the making the Civil Rights Act and the tapes and the discussions around that. But the way it’s usually taught is there was this movement, there were these leaders like King, then there were these, you know, massive pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And then we were done, right? We had rectified the injustices of Jim Crow. We had finally restored the promise of, you know, the post-Civil War, the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, and we were done, right? We had finally– It had all come out well at the end, kind of. And I think that’s a lot of the story we tell ourselves.
ZK: The the flip side though is we’ve made no progress at all, right? I mean, both narratives exist simultaneously. And part of the challenge of a social media age and the visual reality of social media, particularly when it comes to police brutality, is that we are now much more acutely aware of all the ways in which we remain, you know, an incredibly violent segregated society. And, you know, one of the things people talk about is having– I mean, Martin Luther King, you know this better than anyone, understood the power of visuals, right? I mean, some of those protests were somewhat done to provoke a violent reaction among people like Bull Connor and others ’cause he knew that the visual effect of actually seeing, you know, these peaceful protestors being mowed down by water cans or beaten senseless by police would have a profound effect in alerting people to an injustice. But, you know, the flip side of that is when we’re inundated with all these images of just violence and brutality, often police brutality, it can make it feel like, oh my God, you know, we’re no better than the Tulsa Race Massacres, we’re no better than thousands of people being lynched from 1890 to 1930s. So how do you square that? And particularly with your students, who I’m sure, like all of us, live in the present, right? So what they know is what they see. And the past is a kind of unfamiliar foreign land that exists out over there and isn’t nearly as viscerally powerful.
PJ: That’s a great question. I think that I try to talk about both. You know, I talk about, you know– Martin Luther King Jr. has a great quote from, you know, violence is betrayal speech, A Time to Break the Silence speech from April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church, and he talks about a bitter but beautiful struggle to transform American democracy. And I think you have to talk about both. One, I’m a believer that yes, there has been racial progress. In certain ways, there’s been tremendous racial and political progress, but you have to say for whom and what group of people within Black and other communities that have been historically marginalized, oppressed. So that’s important. So, you know, in the 1890s, there couldn’t be a Barack Obama winning the presidency of the United States in quite that same way. There couldn’t be Robert F. Smith and a venture capitalist in that way who’s got that kind of income, that kind of wealth, that kind of power. Part of it is data and showing folks, okay, here’s the size of the Black middle class and upper middle class earners. Here’s the number of folks who can vote and who are voting. Here’s the folks who have created Black businesses and entrepreneurs, folks who are athletes, celebrities, doctors, lawyers, the whole thing. So there is progress. And part of that progress even is connected to these social movements because these social movements continue to become more and more inclusive and expansive, probably the most expansive has been The Movement for Black Lives, which pushes back against queerphobia and homophobia and transphobia, which pushes back against classism in the Black community, which pushes back against certain kinds of segregation within the Black community, colorism, so many other other things, right? So I think telling our students that yes, there’s been progress, but then showing how the progress that has been made has to be juxtaposed against what the Civil Rights Movement actually wanted. And these movements wanted to build the beloved community where there were gonna be no aggrieved and marginalized communities, right? So on some levels, you can say, look, racial segregation of the type of the 19th century ends even as it evolves, right? So there are all these different juxtapositions, and I think it’s important to call them juxtaposition and not aberrations because sometimes when we think about American history and when something bad happens, we say, well, that’s an aberration. Usually, we’re good. And I think that part of what’s so tough to teach, and sometimes people don’t wanna teach this, is that we really have these duel tendencies. So on one level, they’re dueling tendencies, that’s duel, D-U-E-L, and another level, they’re dual, D-U-A-L, right? Where we have that progress and that backlash. And I boil this down to we have these Reconstructionist sentiments, and I think, for example, the Biden presidency is a great example of a Reconstructionist sentiment, trying to have multiracial democracy, trying to push back against our histories of structural deep-seated, segregation and racial inequality, but we also have these Redemptionist tendencies, right? And those Redemptionist tendencies are exactly the kind of tendencies that got us into this mess in the first place. And they’re very interesting ’cause Redemptionist tendencies spin at times an even better story of America than Reconstructionist tendencies because Redemptionist tendencies tend to focus on things like individual liberties, they tend to focus on scarcity, which is always a compelling story. This idea that, you know, we’re not gonna be replaced. The Blacks, the Jews, women, queer folks are all trying to get something that you have and that you’ve earned, right? That’s a very compelling story. It doesn’t appeal to our best angels, right? It appeals to our worst. But a lot of times, that’s how you get people to vote. That’s how you get people. You tell them, look, the end of the world is coming. You don’t tell them, hey, let’s build the beloved community. Come and vote for me. You tell them the exact opposite, right? So I would say that we have to– and what I try to teach is both. It’s a both, and. And again, these juxtapositions continue to stay with us, you know. The 2020 election is the most racially divisive election in American history, but it’s also the election in American history where the most people voted, right? 81 million to 74 million. You know, no election has ever seen that much democratic participation, right? January 5th, the state of Georgia, the state where the new Klan is founded in 1915 in Stone Mountain, Georgia, elects its first Jewish and Black senators in American history, right? That’s real, real progress. And I teach that. And the next day is January 6th where there’s a riot at the US Capitol, right? And then two weeks later is the inauguration of Biden alongside the first Black woman VP. So those are the juxtapositions, that I teach. And I also explain by talking about the Reconstructionist versus Redemptionist visions of America.
Audio Clip: At the same time there was so much chaos unfolding at the Capitol today, we saw a shift of power in the US Senate after the vote in the state of Georgia. Democrats won both runoff elections–
With the balance of power in the US Senate in its hands, history was made in Georgia. Democrat Raphael Warnock, now senator elect, defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler to become the first Black senator in the state’s history. And just this afternoon, Jon Ossoff, who challenged Republican incumbent David Perdue, was declared the winner of his race. He will be Georgia’s first ever Jewish senator. Warnock, who’s a pastor at–
EV: One bright spot for me too, you know, when it comes to thinking about these juxtapositions, my head always goes to, like, how much of this can’t be put back in the box, right? In a good way, like it is here to stay. And we talked about this a couple episodes previously, and this is from Axios, that of the 60 Black lawmakers elected to Congress this year, 30 now represent states or districts with the plurality of white voters. And actually, you were the first person that made this point. We did an interview, you know, I think in 2020 together, for The Progress Network, and you’re the first person I had read that made the point of the multiracial multi-ethnic facet of the BLM protest then being such an important thing. Like it wasn’t just Black people, it was white people, it was Asian Americans, it was everybody that came out. And so I think about the 2022 midterms the same way. You know, there’s a difference between a district of majority Black voters electing a Black lawmaker and a district that’s majority white electing a Black lawmaker. So yeah, I’m hoping that that kind of thing, like, that’s very hard to go backwards on, I’m hoping.
PJ: Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, this push against teaching Black history, Emma, it’s really, you know, they never talk about Black kids. They always talk about white kids because they don’t want white kids knowing this history because they’re fearful that if white kids know this history, we’re gonna have another 2020, or even more amplified, folks just being out in the streets demanding a better society and a better country because they know about this history, right? So I do think that multiracial democracy is the key. But to gain multiracial democracy, we have to talk about this history, you know, and we have to look for things that bind us together where we can build consensus around. And those issues, like I said, I think the movement for Black Lives Matter, and its call for, you know, really what Du Bois call abolition democracy, which is really just ending these systems of punishment and investing in systems that allow us to flourish. So that is food justice and environmental justice, educational equity, you know, desegregation, right? The building of wealth in communities that are starved of resources, so real wealth, right? Those are all, you know, positive things, you know, reforming immigration and immigration for both Spanish speakers, but also there are a lot of Black folks and white folks and other folks who want to come into the country, right? And how we can make that happen, right? And really ending hate. I mean, part of what we’ve seen is an uptick in real anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness, anti-Islamic, and, you know, anti-trans. So we’ve seen the formulation of real hate, especially over the last seven, eight years, against marginalized groups. And, you know, just like this banning of Black history, they’re gonna come for you too. You know, I mean, when you, when you read Elie Wiesel’s Night and you read about folks who were in the Holocaust and survived, one of the biggest things they argue is that, you know, this kind of terror and genocide, many people thought, okay, you know, they needed to stay silent and not say anything, right? But over time, so many people got caught up in there, right? In the context of World War II, over 6 million Jews were murdered. And so, you know, they’re not gonna stop at banning Black history in the state of Florida. [Laughs] That’s what I’m here to tell you. They’re not gonna stop at banning Black history. There’s gonna be white and other sisters and brothers who are gonna be right there with us being banned. So unless we get ourselves together, collectively, they’re not– They always pick on the Black people first, but they don’t just stop there, right? Or sometimes in certain countries, they always just pick on the Jewish people first, and they don’t just stop there. So we really are all in this together.
ZK: You’ve done a lot of work about W Du Bois over time. You mentioned before in one of the great early articulators of trying to move the needle forward, particularly in light of Jim Crow. But Du Bois had a long life. And without going into the particulars, ’cause we don’t have time, a lot of his arc was he became much more disillusioned with his efforts toward the end of his life in the ’50s and ’60s. A lot of that was, he, you know, was profoundly persecuted by the US government, partly ’cause of his views about communism. But it is also true, like, a lot of people do, you know, begin as an idealist. And when it comes to being able to make meaningful change in these issues and end up bitter and cynical because they have not seen the change commensurate with their passion or belief in what’s possible. And I just wonder from your own life, given that while it would be lovely to think that by the end of our collective lives, all of this will be fun, and it may certainly be better, right? We’ve talked a lot on The Progress Network and we’ve tried to highlight the ways in which acceptance of gay marriage, acceptance of more alternate lifestyles, acceptance of, you know, drug use insofar as it represents alt lifestyles, I’m not talking about the safety or lack thereof of some of these substances, has actually moved more quickly in the past 15, 20 years than I would’ve thought, actually, you know, 30 years ago. So it’s certainly possible there’ll be some sort of watershed moments and maybe we’re on the verge of them, and you don’t– You know, no one knew the Berlin Wall was gonna fall five months before it did. Maybe we’re on the verge of some sort of radical collective shift in our ability to integrate race finally in the United States. I think that’s unlikely, but it’s certainly not impossible. So I guess, you know, how do you make sure you’re not on the path to disillusionment?
PJ: Yeah, you know, I wouldn’t say I’m an idealist. So I do think you’re right that a lot of times, idealists get on the path towards, you know, disillusionment, disappointment, and cynicism. And I think cynicism is a road to ruin. So I would say I’m an optimist, but I’m also a political realist and pragmatist. So I think that we have to understand that this is a marathon. This is not a 100-yard dash, and you’re gonna get your victory achieved where there’s no anti-Semitism, you know, women are completely treated as human beings, you know, no racism. I think that there are all these juxtapositions and things can get better, and we’ve already seen it in our lifetime. So 1973, Roe, from ’73 to ’92, Planned Parenthood decision v. Casey, women had much more reproductive rights than they ever did in the United States of America. It’s really a 19-year period because what Planned Parenthood v. Casey does is reduce the number of weeks a woman has to decide and really makes viability another marker. So it’s both a affirmation, but it’s also a constriction, right? So now, women in 2023 after Dobbs have basically very, very limited reproductive justice rights and control over their own bodily autonomy. So what we can look towards in the future is not necessarily, perfection there, but basically more than women have right now, because we know in the past that actually occurred, right? And it’s the same thing with voting rights. We have a past voting rights situation. From ’65 to 2013, we had the most expansive voting rights covering the most states in American history. Right now, because of Shelby v. Holder in 2013, we’re living in a decade of no consensus around voting rights, right? We can look towards a future where the For the People Act, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act gets passed, right? That’s gonna be a better, better future in terms of voting, but it’s still not gonna be perfect. Criminal justice is the same way. George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would not have saved Tyre Nichols, would not have saved George Floyd, but it’s better than the status quo because of what it does in terms of chokeholds, qualified immunity, data for police misconduct, all these different things are better. So I think the way in which I prevent, disillusionment and, you know, I believe in hope, in radical hope, in the idea that hope is a discipline like Mariame Kaba says, is that, you know, you do the work and you understand that these juxtapositions are gonna continue. So there’s gonna be progress and there’s gonna be backlash, and you can’t be or feel surprised. You have to actually strategize amidst that backlash and do the work, and it’s within doing the work, Zachary, Emma, I would say, that you build the beloved community. I think sometimes people think that that’s a destination point. And you know, one day you’re gonna wake up and it’s almost like America’s Super Bowl where, like, well, there’s no racism and we’re celebrating [laughs] [inaudible]. You know, it doesn’t work like that. What it is is you’re building these archipelagos of really fugitive democracy, right? And we had this during racial slavery where there were places and there were towns, and I know people have written excellent books where even during antebellum slavery, there were places, and it wasn’t just Canada, it was in the United States, where people were free and lived among white folks and folks who were committed abolitionists, a lot of them were Quakers, shoutout to the Quakers, shoutout to the Quakers [laughs], a lot of them were Quakers and, you know, they were building that beloved community by doing the work. So that’s how I feel I prevented. And again, cynicism is the worst thing because it’s a weapon of the weak that prevents us from getting any kind of change and transformation that we want, right? But again, I’m not an idealist. I mean, with the work that I do, I’m very, very well aware of the challenges we face, but I am an optimist and I think that even within those challenges, there are tremendous opportunities.
ZK: Well, thank you so much, Peniel. That’s a touching, you know, moving way to end what I think is a really intense, important conversation. So thank you so much.
PJ: Well, thank you Zachary and Emma. Thank you for all you do with The Progress Network.
EV: Thank you so much. So that was an intense discussion. You covered, you know, a lot of ground. One thing that he said at the end that I really, really liked is that cynicism is the weapon of the weak. Because often cynicism feels like it’s really powerful. You have your sledgehammer and you’re just like, now everything sucks, you know, knocking everything to the ground. But actually, you know, it does require the strong to take a look at a messy situation and say what can we do here? To keep going along like he has with an accurate view of history and like a full in-depth understanding of all the wrongs that have been done in the past in the United States matched with that, you know, Martin Luther King, beloved community sense of, like, we can definitely do this and then keep the love of country in there and everything. I think it’s incredible.
ZK: Yeah, and I meant what I said during that. I mean, I hope, I meant when I say everything, but I really meant the– you know, his response to some of my discomfort with the sensibility or what I feel, what I’ve gleaned as the sensibility, and I have read some of the works he talked about, but his defense of them, and I don’t mean that defensively, his kind of eloquent justification of them, does make me reconsider some of my own presumptions about what’s been uneasy, how much of I’ve reacted to the reactions as opposed to the actual books. And I have read some of those books, as I’ve said, but even then, I wonder if I was reading them through a lens already predisposed to be negative about them. And I want to examine that. You know, people often say that nobody changes their mind in any conversation. I hope in these conversations, both you and I are willing to change our mind based on what people we listen to tell us, and also the people are listening are willing to reconsider. I mean, there’s no point in having ongoing conversations. We talked about this with John Wood and Better Angels at one point, that there’s no point in talking about difficult issues with people who before that conversation, you know, disagree with each other if there’s not some willingness, not just to hear what another person has to say, but actually reflect on your own views and evolve with them. And that seems, you know, increasingly in our culture, something we don’t do at all and certainly something we don’t do about race enough. I mean, maybe that there’s not a lot of people like Peniel Joseph to have that conversation with. You need a certain skill and facility of both marshaling your sense of history, but also doing so in a way that is embracive and accepting and you know, non-judgmental about people who disagree. So I think all that, it’s much more about the how than the what. Although again, once again, as we keep talking about a lot of the point of this endeavor that we’re doing is a lot about the how and not about the what. You know, that that outrage and fear and anger and judgment themselves cloud any meaningful discussion about change and where we are and what we can do. And that a lot of the same things, if they’re said with acceptance and consideration and respect, can have much more potency actually, and be heard more and listened to more.
EV: Yeah. And that’s exactly what I was trying to ask in the interview, that in my experience, sometimes the alteration of the how leads to an acceptance of the what, or you just realize that the what is the same. It’s just how you’re describing the what, you know. And I think, as you mentioned, this offensive history is so important there too. And that is why I’m so excited about the AP African American Studies course coming out. I think it’s gonna be rolled out nationally in 2025, something like that. Because, you know, we were talking about Du Bois in this interview. I happen to read an interview this very morning that had a quote from him, this really nice quote about being coworkers in the kingdom of culture. And I was like, man, I’ve never read him in my life. I’ve never heard of that in my life. Why? Part of that is on me now, you know, as an adult. But part of it was just simply an educational system that wouldn’t put Black thinkers in front of me. It just wasn’t part of the conversation. And I take Peniel’s point that now, the secret history you know, is starting to be revealed little by little. And I think that that’s only gonna bring good things, even if it also does bring the juxtapositions, as he called them.
ZK: He is definitely someone to read and someone to listen to, Peniel Joseph is, and I’m really glad we had the conversation with him. Clearly, you know, race in America is, as we talked about the end, probably not an issue that is gonna be delightfully looked at as a past tense problem. And that is a lot of the problem about how the Civil Rights Movement is taught. You know, it’s taught as if we’re done, we did it, we finished, we solved the problem of race in America in the 1960s. Isn’t that lovely? Oh, oh, if that we’re so, but it’s not, and we have a lot of people trying to raise consciousness, raise awareness. We didn’t get into the fact, you know, we’re recording this on the heels of the Super Bowl, two Black quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. That may not be more than just one small thing optically, but it’s still a thing and it’s still a thing to look at as a good thing and as a meaningful thing. Just like more representation in Congress. Just like the election of Barack Obama. Just like, whether you like her or not, the fact that Kamala Harris is vice president. You know, the obligation should not be whether or not you like everybody who is an example of a more inclusive culture. It’s the reality of it being a more inclusive culture. And then the ability to dislike people or like people regardless, right? So I certainly think there has been some meaningful change, but it’s often hard to see in the messiness and the noise of the present. And that’s one other reason to be aware of our history. It’s one of the reason to listen to conversations like this, and we are going to keep having them. Right?
EV: I certainly hope so.
ZK: Thank you again, Emma, and thank you all for listening. Until next time.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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