HKS professors Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Archon Fung say America’s refusal to come to grips with the role race has played in the formation of our democracy has undermined progress toward political equality.
Featuring Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Archon Fung
May 15, 2023
45 minutes and 54 seconds
The history of American democracy has always been fraught when it comes to race. Yet no matter how elusive it may be, Harvard Kennedy School professors Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Archon Fung say true multiracial democracy not only remains a worthy goal, but achieving it is critically important to our collective future. From the earliest, formative days of the American political experiment, the creation of laws and political structures was often less about achieving some Platonic ideal of the perfect democratic system than it was about finding tenuous compromises between people and groups who had very different beliefs and agendas when it came to the status of people of different races. Those tensions have been baked into our system ever since, and the history of the movement toward a true multiracial democracy in the United States has been marked with conflict, progress, reaction, and regression—from the 3/5’s Compromise to the Civil War to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement and on up to threats to democracy in our present day.
Fung is a leading scholar of citizenship and self-governance and the faculty director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Muhammad is a professor of history, race, and public policy and director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project. They say that in our increasingly diverse and interconnected country and world, the question isn’t whether or not to strive for a multiracial democracy, but, if you don’t fully reckon with how race has shaped our system of governance, can you really have democracy at all?
Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research explores policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance. He focuses on public participation, deliberation, and transparency. He co-directs the Transparency Policy Project and leads democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School. His books include Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency and Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy. He has authored five books, four edited collections, and over fifty articles appearing in professional journals. He received two SBs—in philosophy and physics—and his PhD in political science from MIT.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He directs the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project and is the former Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library and the world’s leading library and archive of global Black history. Before leading the Schomburg Center, he was an associate professor at Indiana University. His scholarship examines the broad intersections of racism, economic inequality, criminal justice and democracy in U.S. history. He is co-editor of “Constructing the Carceral State,” a special issue of the Journal of American History, and the award-winning author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. He is currently co-directing a National Academy of Sciences study on reducing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. A native of Chicago’s South Side, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Economics in 1993, and earned his PhD in U.S. History from Rutgers University.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows, and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
Archon Fung (Intro): Right now, all over the country at the local level, at the national level, we see big fights over who gets to say what our history is. I think that there are some societies that seem to be a little bit better at dealing with and grappling with the deep historical injustices of their societies. I guess I would put probably Germany after World War II up to the recent president in that category. I would put South Africa probably in that category. And that there are some countries that are really bad at grappling with the tragedy and the injustice, structurally, in their history. I'd put the United States in that category, I would put Japan in that category, probably put China in that category, and many others as well. I think that many of the global experiences around transitional justice show how important it is to get this right, because it's very difficult to imagine a multiracial democracy going forward in which different groups deal with each other on a foundation of justice, unless they have a common understanding of the injustice that preceded that. This country right now is struggling mightily.
Khalil Muhammad (Intro): The challenge of multiracial democracy in liberal democracy, both in the US and abroad, will only intensify as the world shuffles around issues of austerity, climate change, and the mobility of members of the Global South. We are likely to see, as we have already seen, increasing anxieties about what it means to extend democracy to those new groups. One last thing I'll say is that the United States' commitment to immigration, while we often celebrate the notion of a nation of immigrants, our history is as much a history of xenophobia, which is to say we want the labor of immigrants, we want their bodies, but we don't want their brains, we don't want their full access to their own dignity and humanity.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. The history of American democracy has always been fraught when it comes to race. From the earliest, formative days of the American political experiment, the creation of our laws and political structures was often less about achieving some Platonic ideal of the perfect democratic system than it was about finding tenuous compromises between people and groups who had differing beliefs and agendas when it came to the status of people of other races. Those tensions have been baked into our system ever since, and the history of the movement toward a true multi-racial democracy in the United States has been marked with conflict, progress, reaction, and regression—from the 3/5’s compromise to the Civil War to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement and on up to the threats to democracy of the present day. Yet no matter how elusive it may be, my faculty guests from the Kennedy School today say the pursuit of a true multiracial democracy remains critically important. Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race, and public policy and director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project. He is also the former director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the world’s leading library and archive of global Black history. Professor Archon Fung is a leading scholar of citizenship and self-governance and the faculty director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. They say that in our increasingly diverse and interconnected country and world, the question isn’t whether or not to strive for a multiracial democracy, but—if you don’t fully reckon with how race has shaped our system of governance—can you really have democracy at all?
Ralph Ranalli: Archon, Khalil, welcome to PolicyCast.
Khalil Muhammad: Great to be here. Thank you.
Archon Fung: Yeah, it's great to be here.
Ralph Ranalli: So, we're talking about multiracial democracy, and I wanted to start off with what’s at stake—basically why we're talking about this topic. So why is it important to have multiracial democracy? Or maybe to frame it in the negative: What are the consequences of not having a functional, multiracial democracy and how are we living those consequences today?
Archon Fung: So many ways. Thank you very much. It's a great opening question. I think that establishing multiracial democracy in any society is a huge challenge and very much unfinished work, not completed. I think anywhere in the world and in different places, it takes different formulations and permutations. In the United States, I think race has been one of the, if not the, most significant fissure and dividing line in American politics. It's extremely important, from a democratic perspective, because what a democracy requires is equal citizens governing themselves and in no way, shape, or form has equality been projected along different racial groups in America, especially with regard to African Americans in the long history of this country, but also Native Americans, in the multiethnic, multiracial context.
That's a little bit a very high-level gloss over the history of it. The price of not establishing an equal and inclusive multiracial democracy is that you don't have democracy if you think that democracy requires political equality. So, I think that is the main thing—you can't have democracy unless you have an inclusive and equal multiracial democracy.
Khalil Muhammad: Yeah, I appreciate that opening, Archon, and agree in the main, I think one of the challenges in terms of liberal democracy, as conceptualized on paper, and as enacted for the better part of the last 250 years, is that whatever the enlightenment thinkers had in mind as a matter of practicality, multiracial democracy was not it. I think the challenge is to come back to the original problem, which is why did they imagine democracy for some and not for all? Therefore, is it even possible, given the perspective we have in hindsight and given where we are as a country in 2023, that political elites in fact truly want multiracial democracy? I mean, democracy has always been a means of solving among equals the power, the problem of power-sharing, the distribution of resources. But if the tent of distribution gets larger and larger, the pie of distribution gets larger and larger, we are solving for a challenge that people used other means to enact, which is to say, to keep people from actually having the right to make those decisions, the right to vote, to be disenfranchised, to hold the line on citizenship for immigrant populations, or a pathway to citizenship for refugee populations.
I'll also just add that the challenge of multiracial democracy in liberal democracy, both in the US and abroad, will only intensify as the world shuffles around issues of austerity, climate change, and the mobility of members of the Global South. We are likely to see, as we have already seen, increasing anxieties about what it means to extend democracy to those new groups. One last thing I'll say is that the United States' commitment to immigration, while we often celebrate the notion of a nation of immigrants, as our colleague at Harvard has written, America for Americans, Erika Lee, that our history is as much a history of xenophobia, which is to say we want the labor of immigrants, we want their bodies, but we don't want their brains, we don't want their full access to their own dignity and humanity. That is another challenge for multiracial democracy. What does it mean to want the labor of people who can be paid less without their claims for their own dignity and participation in the promises of citizenship and full participation?
Ralph Ranalli: Right. If I can put in a plug for this podcast, the episode we just released features Jacqueline Bhabha from the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Professor Hannah Teicher of the Graduate School of Design. And they were talking about this looming issue of climate migration and how do you create a welcoming place for all these people who are going to be on the move. By some estimates are as much as many as a billion people by 2050 may have to move either within their own countries or cross international borders. So, that's a problem that is only going to get bigger and it's one we're going to have to grapple with.
But, in the meantime, we're sort of dealing, which I think you alluded to, Khalil, which is all these legacy issues that we have in our system and in the Constitution. What's really struck me after listening to the two of you talk about this issue in other forums is to look back about what I thought I knew about American democracy, or maybe we collectively thought we knew about American democracy. And to think about this sort of pervasive and, depending on how you look at it, almost pernicious mythology about American democracy that's obscured its realities, particularly when it's come to race. Archon, I know you take a, small D, democratic theorist sort of take on this and, Khalil, you're a historian. I wanted to ask you both to dive in a bit on the mythology versus reality of what we learned maybe in school and what we're trying—with mixed success—to relearn now. There’s certainly been some resistance to that lately.
Archon Fung: That's good. Khalil, do you want to start off?
Khalil Muhammad: Sure, sure. I'll jump in. Yeah. I'll start with an important historical text that people today haven't read but has sort of framed political theory for a long time, and it is sort of baked into the assumptions we make about what's possible in the United States, which is Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma, published in 1944. It essentially argued that the principles and ideals of the nation were sound, the promises of access to liberty that would transcend the traditions of blood and soil, that is the fact that people did not have to be born here to fully participate. This American creed, which also gets euphemistically described as the American Dream or, in our political culture, quite often American exceptionalism. I just traveled from Lagos, Nigeria last week and visited the US Consulate. In the room where a member of the consulate staff presented to us, you could see all of the tropes of American exceptionalism, the values that we hold being extended to people all around the world. So, there has never been generationally a moment in US history since our founding where we didn't lead with our principles and our values as the greatest story to be told.
But make no mistake about it, the gap between that story and the reality for many has been significant. The problem that some critics, either as historians or social theorists, would argue—I have a colleague named Nikhil Singh, who's written a book called Black Is a Country, I've taught it for years—would argue that the only way that the myth of American exceptionalism has ever worked was to have essentially an oppositional category through which many different groups could position themselves against to claim access to Americanness, or even to claim access to whiteness. That group has stood in as the hyper visibility of Black people. What's complicated about this is that symbol which essentially functions for whites as, "I may not have enough to eat, I may not make a living wage, I may not even have healthcare, but at least I'm not Black." That's sort of one way in which this is articulated in our national culture, and it very much animates as my colleague, Jonathan Metzl, who has written about in a book called Dying of Whiteness, about the failure of red states to accept the expansion of Medicaid in the context of the Affordable Care Act. That's one aspect of it.
The other aspect of it—and you hear this in conservative speakers, I debated David Troutt a couple of years ago on this, and he really articulated this point of view very clearly—is that the struggle of African Americans to hold the nation accountable for its principles, that Black freedom struggle, the one that even conservatives and right-wingers today celebrate in the legacy of Martin Luther King, though distorted it is, nevertheless, everyone embraces this story and what they're embracing is American exceptionalism. They're embracing the capacity of the nation to absorb a formerly oppressed population to rise to full participation embodied in the civil rights movement. So, those two things are working simultaneously. One, the populous notion, "At least I'm not Black." And on the other side, the elite notion that only in America can a Black man rise to the presidency, only in America can a subjugated population be included into the full fruits of our society. The problem with both ends is that it ignores the structural racisms and inequality that predictably shorten the lives of people of African descent, who are native born to this country, and predictably subject them to forms of discrimination that are very plain for all of us to see.
Archon Fung: Good. I agree with most of that. I kind of want to break it down a little bit and see, get people to think about and talk about different dimensions of the question that you raised, Ralph. I think that one area in which I think there's kind of no daylight is the historical issue, and that's nontrivial. Right now, all over the country at the local level, at the national level, we see big fights over who gets to say what our history is. I think that there are some societies that seem to be a little bit better at dealing with and grappling with the deep historical injustices of their societies. I guess I would put probably Germany after World War II up to the recent president in that category. I would put South Africa probably in that category. And that there are some countries that are really bad at grappling with the tragedy and the injustice, structurally, in their history. I'd put the United States in that category, I would put Japan in that category, probably put China in that category, and many others as well. I think that many of the global experiences around transitional justice show how important it is to get this right, because it's very difficult to imagine a multiracial democracy going forward in which different groups deal with each other on a foundation of justice, unless they have a common understanding of the injustice that preceded that. This country right now is struggling mightily. I don't know where we'll end up on that question, whether we'll come out in a place where we arrive at a common understanding of the great, great injustices of the past and present. So, there, I am in very large disagreement.
There's some questions that I want to raise that, and I don't quite know where I land on this, and Khalil kind of teed them up very nicely. One is, are the values, ideals, and principles, that we interpret to have come from the founding, the problem? Or is it the gap between how we've structured our laws, and institutions, and social lives, and practices together that are at large variance with those ideals, and principles, and values? That is the problem. And I think you can have different views on that. A second question is, is the disagreement about how to fix the current dominant idea that we have of what democracy is, that is a couple of parties competing, at least in America, a couple of parties competing against one another, and people getting to vote for politicians in those parties and the winners of those elections getting to make the rules at least for a few years, is that idea still a good idea, and the way to deal with the many of the political inequalities that cleave along racial lines to make sure that people can engage in that process as voters, as politicians, as political leaders on an equal basis, an inclusive basis? Or is it that that model of democracy is the problem and we need to experiment and consider other models of democracy?
There are, I am fascinated with a community in Jackson, Mississippi, in which there's a long history, at least since the 1970s, and the idea is that you cannot have Black empowerment and Black equality unless you have Black control of the political process and the community in a wider environment that is rife with white supremacy. That model of, doesn't matter what race you are, you get to join these parties and you get to run, that's not going to work for us, is the view in Jackson... And they may well be right. I think it's important to take that argument seriously, that the received institutions and practices of democracy may not be capable of achieving the kind of multiracial democracy that we want. Then, I just want to lay out just another possibility that these ideas of democracy themselves, whether it's representative, or participatory, or community controlled, or whatever it is, aren't the path toward racial inclusion and multiracial equality and justice, that there's some better non-democratic path regardless of the flavor of democracy that you're for. You don't like any of them, you think that there's some other path that's non-democratic that would be better for racial justice. That last one, that fifth one, I basically reject, because I haven't heard one that's more compelling. I've heard different compelling versions of representative democracy and not representative democracy, but I haven't heard compelling versions of not democracy that would get us a better, more racially just society.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. So, if we want to change things—Archon, you've made the analogy to the car, you wouldn't drive a 250-year-old car without some updates, so why would you drive a 250-year-old Constitution? The last meaningful amendment to the constitution was the lowering of the voting age 50 years ago. Why is it so hard to change things?
Archon Fung: Well, institutionally, there's just so many hurdles to amending our constitution, if that's the ... fixing the Constitution is very, very difficult and much more difficult as society and politics gets much more polarized. And our Constitution is more difficult to change than most others in the world, most other democratic constitutions in the world. It's hard. By design, constitutions aren't supposed to be easy to change. That's why there are constitutions. Ours is incredibly difficult.
Ralph Ranalli: But that leads me back to what you might call a features versus bugs argument. Is that a malfunction or is it really the way it was designed to function, in other words, is that a bug or was that supposed to be a feature? It seems we run into all kinds of these anti-democratic potholes, or speed bumps, or whatever you would want to call them, in the Constitution – things like the the composition of the Senate, the electoral college. Were those baked in for precisely the reason that they're being used for now, to undercut one-person, one-vote democracy? And was what was missing really just a political moment where there was so such polarization that one side decided that they were going to abandon the old political norms and utilize those less-democratic features to their fullest?
Archon Fung: Yeah.
Khalil Muhammad: Let me jump in on this.
Archon Fung: Yeah.
Khalil Muhammad: One aspect of the mythology of America is that there is a unified singular narrative of a manifest destiny. I mean, this is what we teach our children. This is what our kids go to school to learn. There is absolutely no truth to the singular notion of a unified country, period. The reason we know this is because we know that the basic structures of our political system, we're solving for an existential problem at the very beginning, which fundamentally was the problem of the minority of founders. It wasn't so much the minority of founders as slaveholders, it was the minority of founders who wanted slave-holding in perpetuity. As such, they had to protect their understanding of the basis of their economic power. They had to protect their right to limit the reach of a future federal government or a future congress to usurp that power away from them.
So, we have solved for essentially minority representation, not in the abstract sense that democracy often holds itself up as a beacon of liberty for the least of these, we've solved for a minority problem for essentially a slave-holding or capitalist class. Those two things, to some degree, become one and the same by the 19th century. That capitalist class of the slave holders, and future landowners, who would monopolize the power to withhold democratic rights over other people, including Black people in the South, have had tremendous power to disrupt the expansion of democratic principles. Therefore, that structure is a feature, not a bug. At every step along the way, the next biggest one historically would be the so-called Second Founding, a term that Eric Foner has recently deployed to describe the Reconstruction era Civil Rights Amendments, which abolish slavery, which give equal protection under the law and the 14th Amendment, then franchise to Black people. But that quickly becomes subverted not only to a Supreme Court decision that those equal rights really don't mean exactly what we think they mean, in the doctrine of separate but equal. Secondarily, the 14th Amendment becomes the basis for corporate personhood, which is to say that the capitalist class gains more power in its ability to abstract its interest into the body of a corporation, and then to bestow upon that corporation so-called civil rights, which is just remarkable as part of US history. So, these are the features we still live with, the basic structure of that Second Founding on top of the First Founding, which again embodied minority rights of the capitalist former slave-holding class to dictate the terms of our society. The last thing I'll say is that public opinion has always driven the basic stepping stones to participatory democracy for change, which is to say, in a nation where race has been the most salient political motivating factor, a majority white population still holds the power of public opinion to decide what they think is an appropriate constitutional change or not. No matter how much we talk about a rainbow coalition of the future, it remains still a fact today that public opinion among white Americans still defines what is possible democratically in this country.
Archon Fung: Oh, that's good. I just want to add a couple of things to those great insights. I think that... I don't know. That one of the basic insights that Khalil offered is that interests, and people, powerful people, and sometimes less powerful people, if they can get organized, try to change the rules of the game to advantage themselves and advance their interests. That's been true forever. I think Khalil offered some great examples in which very powerful individuals and groups have prevented some changes of the rules, and then made some other changes of the rules that give them more political power. I do think that for democracy to thrive and deepen as an ideal, there have to be some people, hopefully a lot of citizens, who want to create the rules that make democracy better, not just so that they'll be more powerful. A lot of my colleagues, probably a lot of your listeners, really dismiss that probably as a kind of idealistic fantasy. But I really do believe it to be true, that that normative interest in having a democracy is really, really important if you want to keep having a democracy.
To your question that opened this little thread, the difficulty of changing our Constitution is a feature for some, a bug for many others, but it is worth saying that it wasn't intended by all of the founders. There's a really interesting essay and book by Larry Kramer at Stanford Law School, who dives into the debate between Jefferson and Madison on constitutional revision. It may surprise, it certainly was a little bit of news to me, I'm not an expert in that era, but they both thought that the Constitution should be frequently revised, maybe every 20 years or so. And the fight between them was about how. Jefferson thought that a more popular constituent role of, well, a pathway to revising the Constitution would be better. Madison predictably favored a more representative, a more elite kind of way to revise the... But wasn't about, I mean, I don't think any of the founders would've imagined that the document that they wrote 250 years ago would've been appropriate for a society with the internet, and electric cars, and space travel, 250 years later. I mean, the amount of hubris that you'd have to have to think that is incredible.
Ralph Ranalli: So, Khalil, you're the faculty director of IARA, the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, and the word institution is really key to that, because I think what you've said is—and I want quote you on this—"The bone and marrow of structural inequality in our country is kind of left to the devices of individual institutional leaders to decide how much diversity, equity, anti-racism there is." So maybe the way to approach that as an issue is to go where people live their daily lives and not just focus on periodic elections. Can you talk about why you've taken that approach, and why you think it can be effective?
Khalil Muhammad: I really appreciate it. That's a really great summary. Thank you. Well, in my work as a educator, and as a writer, and as a researcher, most of the energy of producing knowledge as a historian is directed toward understanding the work of individuals to make social and political change. We tell historical stories, we narrate them through representative figures, historical figures, who rise to meet the challenges of a particular moment. We measure their success based on usually some significant political or social change. Social change usually is embodied in legislative change or court decision. This is sort of the driver of historical scholarship. The problem, of course, is that we have to wait for those historical figures to emerge, and we have to hope that they are successful by the standards of legislative policy change, when, in fact, I spend a lot of time, and the reason IARA exists is because it seems to me this is a project I'm currently writing. It seems to me that 50 years of civil rights history, meaning everything since 1965, has been a history of the individualization of racial progress, which is to say we can point to greater numbers of Black firsts, penetrating civil society and the private sector as evidence that things have gotten better.
When, in fact, by almost every economic measure, the gaps between home ownership, between income, between wealth, between health, between educational outcomes have remained incredibly sticky. There have been some closing of the gap at the margins here and there, but by and large, if you look statistically at these things over the last 50 years, you'd be amazed. Even when things have gotten better, as a matter of actual fact, meaning greater rates of home ownership, it has improved for whites as well. In other words, the gap doesn't close. So, the disparities have remained incredibly sticky. For many people, that is the reason why we spend so much time now talking about systemic racism and structural racism, because it seems that continuing to solve for individual work and/or individual bigotry, that is the discriminators, we are not going to close those gaps in any significant way with any amount of time. So, IARA is set up to say, if there's so much goodwill in the world, there's so many good people out there who believe in justice, who believe in equity, then maybe it has more to do with the agency they have within their own institutional setting than it does having to step out and become a civil rights leader, or hoping that youth pick the right horse in the next contest. Maybe people actually can make more change if they actually live the policies and values that they articulate and that they express to pollsters in their individual agency and decision-making power in the workplace, in the school, in the PTA, you name it.
Ralph Ranalli: I’m glad you brought up economics, because that’s the area I wanted to turn to next. Archon, you've talked about things like universal basic income, baby bonds and the need to deconcentrate wealth. Khalil, you've talked about generational wealth and generational poverty. So, can we turn to that for a moment and link up the economics with the political and the historical?
Archon Fung: Yeah, happy to start that thread. I think almost every serious theorist of democracy, for almost as long as we've had democracy in just about any form, has said that you can't have democracy and huge levels of material inequality at the same time. They're just incompatible. So, Justice Brandeis' formulation was you can either have great concentration of wealth or you can have democracy, but you can't have both. Rousseau's formulation was, in a democracy, no one can be so wealthy as to buy another or so poor as to have to sell himself. So, I think that that logic, I very much accept that logic that for a functioning democracy, there has to be bounds on inequality, material, economic inequality. Because even if you don't really care about the economic inequality in and of itself, which I do, and many other people do, but even if all you care about is the political equality, it's so difficult, I would say, probably impossible to create a firewall between great inequalities in the economic sphere and try to have that exist at the same time that you have some equality in the political sphere of equal citizens. So, I just think that that's not plausible as a proposition. So, I think that the economic inequality in the, as Khalil pointed out, the greater that dramatically increasing economic inequality that we've seen at least since 1980 is a serious, serious problem for democracy, and I think very much causal in the democratic fragility that we're seeing in the United States, for sure.
Khalil Muhammad: Yeah. Yeah. I don't have much to add to what Archon just said, only to emphasize that 10 years ago, and I guess now closer to 15 years ago, when Occupy was on the front pages of every newspaper in this country, and animating the early debate about what to do in the wake of the Great Recession, the Obama administration's response to that. That level of inequality at the time that gave us the populous discourse of the 1% essentially tracks quite well with the ever-growing threat of authoritarianism and fascism within the United States. In other words, I was just having this conversation the other day with a student, I haven't tracked the wealth of Bezos and Zuckerberg lately, and in some ways I haven't tracked it because it's not in the news like it once was. But I heard recently, and again just, and you can fact check me on this, I'm making a general point, not a specific one, but it seems their wealth has doubled since the Occupy movement. So, what was like $80 billion is now closer to $200 billion.
To Archon's point, as we see the extreme wealth grow amongst the already extremely wealthy, our politics are literally, or our democracy is potentially unraveling right in front of us. The irony, of course, that the political majority of whites in the country are, at best, torn and, at worst, leaning towards hitching their train to the minority interests of the capitalist class as their best guarantee of saving the nation for either the rightful leaders, the historical descendants of the founding fathers, or people who will ensure that white people won't lose this nation to the mongrel races of the Global South in the articulations of white replacement theory. That's an old problem in this country. It's a founding problem, it's a colonial problem, and we are still living with it.
Ralph Ranalli: So, the name of the podcast is PolicyCast. We like to end every episode with specific, actionable policy recommendations that people who are listening to can take to heart and, if they so choose, advocate for them in whatever manner they choose: their job, in politics, wherever. So I'm going to ask you both to leave us with is a couple of your policy recommendations that you would prioritize that you think would have the best chance of moving the needle and getting us a little bit further down the road towards a true-
Archon Fung: Okay, great.
Ralph Ranalli: ... multiracial democracy.
Archon Fung: I'll offer two huge ones. These aren't like changing the tax rate to make it 1% more progressive. These are bigger things than that. One of them is more proportional representation and multi-member districts in the United States. This relates a lot to racial representation. Since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the main strategy for assuring some sort of African American representation, largely in the South, but in other places as well, is to have racially conscious districting that would ensure that Black communities at least get some representation in legislatures. There's been a bunch of federal law and decision-making that has backed that up, much of it growing out of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has removed many of those legal tools, at least at the federal level. So, some civil rights and voting rights activists are trying to reconstruct state level Voting Rights Act, which that may work. But I point to my great friend and colleague and unfortunately departed Lani Guinier, who for decades argued against that mainstream strategy of the civil rights community, and for basically multi-member districts, which is the idea that a place like Jackson, Mississippi, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, would be represented by several representatives, not just one in our single member districts that we have. Her thought was that with proportional representation in multi-member districts, when race was the most important political issue, it would give racial minority groups a good shot at getting people who represent them on racial grounds. This is important that it wouldn't bake that presumption into the very maps and political process itself.
In a great article in the Boston Review, and this is also in her book, Lift Every Voice, called Second Proms and Second Primaries, she offers the example of Brother Rice High School in Chicago, and there, the white students and the Black students were trying to plan the prom, and they couldn't agree on the playlist. If you just would've voted, there are more white students than Black students, so there would've been no songs that pleased the Black students or a critical mass of them on the playlist. So, what they decided to do was have different proms. So, they racially segregated prom. Lani thought, "Oh my God, this is terrible. There has to be a better way." That was her metaphor for race-conscious districting. So, she favored a form of proportional representation in the prom playlist, which is give every student five votes and you can load them however you want on different genres of music or the songs and artists that you like most. She thought that that would be a much better kind of solution than baking race, in this case, into the structure of prom. That's one suggestion is multi-member districts and proportional representation, which doesn't touch the race issue directly, but I think touches it powerfully, very powerfully, indirectly.
Another suggestion is that we should incorporate non-representative forms of democracy much more commonly in our democracy. Here I'll just offer one of them, which is citizen assemblies, which are getting a lot more common in Europe and a little bit in the United States in some areas. The idea there is that you should have ordinary citizens decide important questions. And if you have 100 or 200 citizens deciding over what the, I don't know, what provisions of a constitutional provision should be, or a green energy policy, or as in Michigan and California, what the districting maps should be, you'll get them to wear their citizen hat rather than their partisan party hat. The proposition is oftentimes you'll get more inclusive and equitable results out of that kind of format. It requires a lot of the advocates, because the advocates don't get a seat at the table, just like the Republicans and the Democrats don't get a seat at the table. You get a seat at the table if... As in a jury, you don't get to be a criminal justice advocate or a defund the police advocate on a jury. You're just a citizen that's trying to call the balls and the strikes in that case. I am for, I don't know what the end result, in aggregate, of many citizen assemblies would be, but I think it's a promising innovation that's worth exploring.
Ralph Ranalli: Khalil, I'll let you have the last word on policy recommendations.
Khalil Muhammad: Sure. I have one really big idea, and the theory of this idea is that everything flows from it. The menu of policy recommendations, some of which Archon just described, are predicated on what I would argue are the basic building blocks of how we are socialized into a social contract. I believe that if we are to produce multiracial democracy in a way that actually lives up to the promises of what's on paper and extends to people in a way that is not subjected to the vagaries of recurring populism and illiberalism, then we actually do have to start in the classroom.
Kenneth Clark, the famous social psychologist, along with his wife, Mamie Clark, when they did the research that would ultimately make the argument to desegregate public education in the Brown versus Board of Education decision, one of the main arguments that Kenneth Clark made then and continued to make until he died was that school was itself fundamentally a democratic institution. And the notion that judging the effectiveness by a school on literacy was one measure, but the degree to which then, even by the 1960s, 10 years after the Brown decision, he argued that Northern whites were escaping from public schools with an increasing population of Black people, were denigrating the democratic possibilities that would come with children learning together. So, we actually have to fight and extend the right to learn together the actual history of this country, to socialize young people, to recognize in exactly the spirit that both Germany understands and that the US purports as it waves its flag around the world, that we should never forget all of the human atrocities that have happened in the 20th century. Only in America, only in America, do we teach children to forget, do we encourage forgetting, do we privilege the innocence of youth over the responsibilities of youth to actually understand how the country came to be. That's the story of the last 250 years of this country. We've never had a time where we embraced our own history.
The struggle right now, the struggle that has animated anti-CRT laws, laws against understanding sexuality and gender in the classroom—all of these laws are reactions to the very contemporary possibility that children might actually be taught these things at an early age, so as to be better people and better citizens. My big idea is not just to keep moving forward in this way, but to actually fight against the anti-woke legislation that is happening, because I use a metaphor of the physical therapist, if I have an injury and I go to the PT doctor, and the PT doctor touches my wound, and I'm screaming and saying, "Please, don't do that." I'm not going to heal. But if I stick it out and I take the medicine as it's being delivered to me, then I get better. Right now, people are leaving the doctor's office in droves. They are running for the hills. And they're doing it legislatively, which means that they are protecting against change as opposed to actually changing things. The status quo is already the misinformed history that most kids are socialized into. So, that's my big idea. We don't get a different politics, we don't get a different public opinion, we don't get the possibility of a new menu of political or policy choices unless we actually change how we understand who we are as a nation.
Ralph Ranalli: Great. Well, thank you both.
Archon Fung: Thank you very much.
Ralph Ranalli: This has been a really interesting-
Archon Fung: This was really great. Thanks.
Ralph Ranalli: ... and enjoyable conversation tonight. Appreciate you being here.
Khalil Muhammad: Thank you so much for having us.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. PolicyCast is a production of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Please join us for our next episode, when we’ll talk about how increasing levels of self-determination for American Indian nations has led to increasing levels of economic prosperity and success, and about a major expansion of the Harvard Project for Indigenous Governance and Development with Professor Joseph Kalt and Program Director Megan Minoka Hill. If you have a question or a comment pertaining to our podcast, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To hear more episodes, please subscribe to PolicyCast through your favorite podcast streaming service or visit our website at hks.harvard.edu/policycast. And until next time, from all of us here at the Kennedy School, we encourage you to speak bravely, and listen generously.