Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor at the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. After Taylor called Donald Trump “a racist, sexist megalomaniac” at a commencement speech earlier this year, she received several deaths threats, leading her to cancel a number of public-speaking events. We caught up with Taylor recently while she was touring the country talking about her new book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She speaks here about the importance of building an anti-racist movement, how people can get involved and her vision for a just America.
Gail Ablow: Unlike many professors, you are also an activist. Was there a moment in your life, a tipping point, where you thought, “I’d better do something?”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I think that when I first became active in politics, in the sense that I felt there was something that I needed to do, was probably in high school. In my junior year of high school, I had just moved to Buffalo, New York from Dallas, Texas. I remember being in a history class where a black student complained to our history teacher, who was a white woman, that he was tired of hearing about white people, and wanted to hear about black people. She called the police, and there were police in the school building as is common now in public schools, and had him removed from the classroom for talking out of turn and being disruptive in the class.
I had another situation where a teacher would regularly come to the class with a JCPenney catalog, and read the catalog during the class. I told my dad about this, my father who’s a professor at the University of Buffalo, and he went to arrange a meeting with the teacher to discuss this. She called the police on my father when he raised the issue of her reading a magazine during class.
I went from being what I would call a critic of things that were happening to actually doing something while I was the editor of the school newspaper. I wrote an editorial opposing the compulsory nature of the Pledge of Allegiance. After that, I was removed from my homeroom, and my new homeroom became the vice principal’s office. That’s where I had to go every morning, so that I was not “disruptive.”
I think ultimately when I turned the corner into full-fledged activism was when the US went to war with Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. That was my initiation into regular, full-time activism and organizing.
You are still active; what are the biggest challenges that you are confronting now?
I think one of the biggest challenges is that there’s often a lack of confidence that we can actually change things. It’s very difficult to overcome, because everything in our society tells you that someone else is supposed to fix your problem, or the problem is your fault to begin with. It’s up to you to have some kind of personal transformation or revelation to change your circumstances.
So between those two poles — either entrusting your own self-preservation to an elected official or some other authority figure, or self-blame and having some kind of personal transformation — there is little space for people to understand that they have the capacity to collectively transform their conditions and the conditions of other people.
Having an analysis of where oppression comes from and where inequality comes from — that cuts against the idea that these are self-contained problems or conditions of our own making. And that actually points to how they are manufactured by a system and by a society that actually thrives on that inequality. That is why history is so important: because it provides real examples of where ordinary people have been able to break through those kinds of constraints to change things.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been touring the country to talk about my book, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. Everyone wants to know where the Black Lives Matter movement is now. This is no longer only a question about police abuse and violence. What we’ve seen over the last several months is the growth of the fringe extreme right, of neo-Nazis, of neo-Fascists — or actual Fascists — who in many ways have not just been emboldened by President Trump, but by the people he has around him. We have to think about what signal that sends to people who identify themselves as the “alt-right,” or the new neo-Nazi white supremacist.
I think that there’s a larger question of “How do we build a larger anti-racist movement that can marginalize the extremist right, and that can demonstrate that the vast majority of people in this country reject those ideas, and are able to stand up to the intimidation and violence of those forces?” I think this is necessary because without a visible manifestation of our forces, it gives these extremists confidence. It continues to embolden them to think that it’s their ideas that are on the rise. When those people have confidence, it has very detrimental consequences for those of us who they despise.
I think that’s a big challenge for progressive and left forces in this country: How do we knit together a large, visible movement against racism and its many different forms, whether it’s Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria or anti-black racism?
How do you answer when somebody asks, “Where do I start?”
I think the first place to start is locally. There’s not a city in this country that isn’t grappling with these issues in some way or another. I think that if you’re on a campus, it’s fairly straightforward what to do, which is to put up flyers and get in touch with people who are having the same questions and concerns that you are. Get together, discuss what they are, and figure out ways to act on them.
In neighborhoods and communities, there’s a similar way to respond, either through churches or community organizations. The main thing is, we can’t begin to deal with issues individually or alone. It’s critical to connect up with other people, either through formal or informal organizations, and begin to discuss what are the issues that are of most concern to you, and how do you connect with the next group of people who share those concerns?
Is there something that you think people can do to fix our broken system?
To me one of the most powerful events I was involved with, after the election, was the Women’s March in DC after the Trump inauguration. To me the best antidote to despair, to sadness and isolation in the political and also the human and emotional sense, is to connect with other people who are experiencing the same kind of collective emotional and political trauma: to not suffer through that alone. Some of that can sound like new-age, self-help therapy, and it’s really not. At its essence, it’s really about the politics of ordinary people. We can’t confront the things that damage our lives individually.
There’s something to be said about being in big demonstrations and to really put flesh on the idea that we are many and they are few. The transformative impact of being in a protest, where the sense of isolation and atomization begins to disintegrate, and you feel like you are a part of something. That’s why the key social and political movements, over the course of history in this country, have always involved the mass protest. It’s a way ordinary people can collectively assert themselves. You’re not the only one who feels alienated by this, and you’re not the only one who wants to do something about this.
How you go from your living room to organizing is a complicated question, but I don’t think it’s as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. It is about talking about that issue, connecting with other people, finding those people and beginning from that standpoint.
What is the vision of America that you want to pass along to your child?
A vision of a just world anywhere means fighting for everything that you want. No one will give you anything, in this society or any other society. You have to know what you think is just and what it is that you think is important, and you have to connect with your fellow humanity to demand that. It is, in some ways, the struggle itself that is a part of what makes life important.
It’s very easy to sit back, if you have the ability to do that, and to just let life happen to you. But it’s a hard country to rest in, even for people who may have the means to do so. The world around us is a very complicated and complex place, and if we’re even going to have a world to live in, it’s going to be something that we struggle for and that we fight for.
What does this just world look like?
For me, having an economically just country, where the majority of people are making decisions about what happens with the resources of our country, and of the world, really, means that you don’t have to use scapegoating to make decisions. You don’t have to blame the most powerless among us to justify your own decision-making; it’s not necessary.
Right now there’s a billionaire who’s the president, half of Congress is made up of white men who are millionaires. We have somewhere between a kleptocracy and a plutocracy in the United States, where these people make decisions in the name of the people, but most certainly for themselves.
It really is a basic idea of divide and conquer. It’s the reason why racism becomes so pervasive; why gender discrimination, why religious bigotry and nationalism become so pervasive: because they get us to fight each other, while they literally hoard the wealth. People may think, “Is that hyperbolic?” But think about Donald Trump and the way that he’s come into office. It’s not just promising this austere budget of nothing for poor and working-class people and everything for the rich. It’s that it comes accompanied with vile, anti-immigrant hysteria, like blaming Mexican immigrants for the economic problems of working-class white people. It comes with the most racist, anti-Muslim rhetoric, to get working-class people, black and white, to think that their No. 1 problem is radical Islamic terrorism and not the kind of economic terrorism that goes on in this country on a daily basis.
People talk about racial resentment, and the white working class. Is that what produced Donald Trump? It’s understanding that the rich and the elite in this country have always used racial resentment as a way to deflect from the real crimes that they are engaged with. We’re seeing a master class in this right now. It’s a naked agenda of stealing from poor people, to give to the rich, and it’s all couched in the most racist and vile language.
That isn’t just a nasty aside. I think that Malcolm X once said, “You can’t have racism without capitalism, and you can’t have capitalism without racism.” It’s because they work together to create and perpetuate the kind of inequality that is at the heart of our society.
Do you think we can solve this through our political system?
I think that elections can play an important part. But, there are some things that are not policy questions. Like: “How do we end poverty?” That is not a policy question that, if you get Democrats in, maybe you’ll have decent policy, but if they get voted out, then you’ll get rid of the policy. How do you have a policy that may be this way under one administration, but then may be completely jettisoned under another?
The Affordable Care Act, Obama’s health care bill, is deeply problematic but then that becomes the law. Can another administration just come in and decide, “Well no, we’d like to do something different?” — and you throw millions of people’s lives, potentially, into upheaval. Some of these fundamental questions about what it means to be human are not policy questions. Health care should not be a policy question. Whether or not you get to eat should not be a policy question. If shelter, housing, is critical to the perpetuation of the species, then how do you put a price on it?
I think that we have to fight for whatever it is that we can fight for, as the political system is currently constituted. These are questions that are existential to the human condition and are not partisan issues. It raises bigger questions about what kind of system is it that we actually want to live under. That’s the kind of world that I think not only means that there is justice for everyone, that people have real self-determination — meaning that they get to determine what happens in their lives, without coercion, whether it’s economic, whether it’s physical. That’s a long struggle, but I think it’s a world worth fighting for.