The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

From left: Setti Warren,  Cornell William Brooks, Sandra Susan Smith, Khalil Gibran Muhammad | SCREENSHOT BY HARVARD MAGAZINE

During a searching discussion Thursday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on the “State of Black America,” historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad opened with a trenchant warning: “We are facing uncharted waters.” 

Surveying the rise of Trumpism and the past several years of proliferating book bans, rollbacks of voting rights, attacks on diversity, and laws curtailing or prohibiting the teaching of black history, he added, “It looks like we have the underpinnings of textbook fascism—not make-believe, not excessive rhetoric. If these things were happening in other countries, particularly in liberal democracies, or let alone in the Global South, the U.S. State Department would be issuing warnings about the status of those societies.”

Muhammad, the Ford Foundation professor of history, race, and public policy, was joined on stage by three HKS colleagues, including co-panelists Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser professor of the practice of nonprofit organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice; and Sandra Susan Smith, the Guggenheim professor of criminal justice. The evening was moderated by Setti Warren, director of the Institute of Politics and adjunct lecturer in public policy.

The event came a little more than two months after U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx (R, North Carolina) targeted Muhammad and one of his courses by name on the House floor. During the now-infamous Congressional hearing into campus antisemitism where lawmakers interrogated former President Claudine Gay and two other college presidents, Foxx decried Muhammad’s class, “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power,” as a “prime example” of the “race-based ideology” that made Harvard “ground zero for antisemitism.”

Muhammad’s course, required for first-year MPP students, explores how race and racism have influenced American public policy and contributed to the nation’s rise to global dominance. Last fall, 207 students were enrolled. On Thursday evening, Muhammad sought to put Foxx’s accusation in the broader context of recent and longstanding political attacks on education, and he argued that those attacks endanger American democracy. “These people have no idea what happens in [my] class,” he said. “Zero evidence. So, I find it incredibly important for you, the audience and the listeners, to take seriously what that means, to take seriously that we have political leaders in this country who can pick out of thin air classes being taught anywhere in this country and accuse the people who teach those classes of being responsible for antisemitism.” The goal, he added, is to silence voters, activists, and educators. “Self-censorship and fear are the oxygen that allow this illiberal movement to win,” he said.

Muhammad also had criticism for Harvard. In response to an audience question from a College student about feeling uneasy as a black person on campus in the current political climate, Muhammad said he felt uneasy too: “I'm still waiting on this University to say something about protecting its faculty against such attacks” as the one he experienced, which he described as “unwarranted, unjustified, and a flat-out lie.” He also called on Harvard’s leadership to “dispel the myths” articulated by conservative activists and politicians who accuse the University’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies of generating antisemitism. “Faculty can't be their full selves for students if they themselves feel unsupported or unprotected,” Muhammad said.

In a statement about Muhammad’s course, emailed to Harvard Magazine by HKS, Dean Douglas Elmendorf said: “Requiring this course for Master in Public Policy students at the Kennedy School recognizes the important role that race has played in public policy over time. This course makes a vital contribution to the learning of our students who will become policymakers and public leaders.”

 

The rest of the evening’s discussion was by turns sorrowful, frustrated, and defiant. Warren noted the long history of African American leadership in the pro-democracy movements to expand rights in the United States and wondered about its meaning in the context of the current moment. In response to a question comparing today’s political anger and polarization to the backlash against Reconstruction in the 1870s, Brooks offered the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine. “When we talk about the state of black America,” he said, “we're really talking about the state of America, and the state of this democracy. Which is to say, when black people's lives are in peril, when black people's access to the ballot box is in peril, so is the country’s.” The same laws that make it harder for black people to vote also make it harder for other groups of citizens: young people, the disabled, the elderly. He continued, “And we see in our democracy all the time, over and over again, that the harms perpetuated against black people are not just illustrative—they are predictive.”

Smith spoke of the difficulty of achieving, and sustaining, concrete gains for racial equality amid the reflexive undertow of American culture. Too often, she said, activists try to effect change with ambitious policies, but “fail to grapple with the cultures that lie underneath.” Americans’ short-sightedness—and short memories, when it comes to racism—also make it hard, she said, to give policy reforms the longevity they need to work. “When you're trying to achieve racial equity, you have to take into consideration a history of race and racism. But we live in a culture of denial. How do you achieve equity, if you're denying the fact of or erasing a history of poor treatment, and you're not addressing it?”

At one point, Warren broached the idea that racial progress has been overstated, given the dramatic setbacks in recent years. Smith agreed, arguing that mass incarceration skewed people’s perceptions by removing a huge fraction of the African American population from view. Incarcerated people aren’t counted in statistics on employment, wages, graduation rates, and other categories of social status. As a result, she said, “[W]e like to lift up how much progress we have made…but much of it has been a mirage, because we have essentially warehoused a significant percentage of people on the low end.” Smith and Muhammad both pointed to racial gaps that have persisted, and in some cases widened, since the civil rights movement, even when prosperity overall has risen: black women die in childbirth at higher rates than prevailed 20 years ago—and at more than double the rate for white women; black Americans’ homeownership rate is 30 percentage points lower than whites’—three percentage points worse than in 1960, when housing discrimination based on race was still legal.

Asked about the “bright spots” they see, Smith pointed to examples of “communities of color taking control of their situation and creating solutions for themselves”: black women opening birthing centers to give each other better maternal care; community bail funds to help get people released from jail; participatory defense efforts, in which ordinary citizens help prepare the legal defense for loved ones or neighbors; court watchers who monitor legal proceedings. All this work “strengthens democracy,” she said. “These are people who otherwise would have been marginalized. Now, they feel like they have a stake in it, and they’re empowered to make a difference. And they do it together.” 

Brooks pointed to a 60 percent drop in incarceration rates among juveniles (though racial disparities remain): “What we failed to do with respect to adults”—2 million of whom are behind bars—“we have managed to do in many places for young people.” He also noted the pushback among grassroots organizers against voter suppression. “In the teeth of vicious voter suppression, we have seen a corresponding degree of brilliance on the part of activists, on the part of lawyers,” he said. “I think that speaks to our ability to be optimistic. It’s not the inevitability of this democracy writ large. We're confident in ourselves and our ability to affect change, which I think is absolutely necessary to a school that calls itself a school of public policy and leadership. We’ve got to be hopeful with respect to ourselves.”

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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