The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police has pushed America to a major inflection point in its seemingly endless struggle with racism.
Featuring Khalil Muhammad and Erica Chenoweth
June 8, 2020
47 minutes and 40 seconds
After 400 years of systemic discrimination against black people in America, the volcanic reaction to video of the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis has pushed America to another major inflection point in its seemingly endless struggle with race. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, both black people and allies from other racial identities, have taken to the streets to decry police brutality and systemic discrimination, and to demand change.
But will that change be transformative or incremental? And will it be permanent or merely temporary, forgotten when the next big crisis comes along? To help us sort it out, host Thoko Moyo welcomes Harvard Kennedy School Professors Khalil Muhammad and Erica Chenoweth.
Muhammad is one of the country’s foremost scholars on the history of race, criminal justice, and inequality, and the author of groundbreaking book “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.” He is a professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and faculty director of the Institutional Anti-racism and Accountability Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Chenoweth is known internationally for her pioneering research on social and protest movements and what makes them successful. Much of her work examines the relative efficacy of nonviolent and violent protest and what tactics can help bring about lasting change. She is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and director of the new Nonviolent Action Lab at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
For more information, please visit:
The Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
The Nonviolent Action Lab at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Thoko Moyo: The video of the brutal killing at the end of May of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has pushed America to another major inflection point in a seemingly endless struggle with race. Hundreds of thousands of Americans and others around the world have taken to the streets to decry police violence, racism, and to demand change. America has a history of systemic racism, which goes back 400 years, and the cycle of injustice, protest, riots, inadequate reaction and response has come around many times in the US since the 60s. So can this be a moment of actual change? Or is it just too hard to end racism and police violence in America? Well, to help us answer those questions. I'm joined by Harvard Kennedy School professors, Khalil Muhammad and Erica Chenoweth.
Professor Muhammad is a scholar on the history of race, criminal justice, and inequality, and the author of the book, “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.” Professor Erica Chenoweth is known internationally for her pioneering research on social and protest movements, and what makes them successful. Her research focuses on political violence and its alternatives. Professor Chenoweth's book “Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know,” explores what civil resistance is, how it works, why it sometimes fails, how violence and repression are affected, and the long term impacts of such resistance.
Welcome to PolicyCast, both of you. Khalil, I'll start with you. Why is it so hard to fix systemic racism and inequality in America and police violence? Why is it so hard?
Khalil Muhammad: Well, I think there are three reasons, primarily, policing as a central issue has shown time and time again, based on extensive study, commissions, consent decrees led by the Department of Justice, that they are incapable of policing themselves when it comes to reacting to black bodies. I mean, it is just an unmistakable record. It's also within the context of policing. Police officers for really the past 50 years, have been told that black people commit the most crimes in the community. And so you can reasonably make an assumption that a black male in particular is a suspect. That's what stop-and-frisk has always been about. That's why in the name of crime prevention, we know now on the record, both in the Bloomberg administration as well as federal trial in 2013, that officers were told, keep an eye on, black males between the ages of 14 and 21.
So we can't explain that away. We have to sit with that. So when you sit with that, then the question is like... So if that's what policing was supposed to be doing in the name of crime prevention, then this has to either, we define the rules of engagement, or find some other social lead productive mechanism for engaging communities around harm reduction.
Thoko Moyo: And that comes in the context of there being evidence and reports that have found that policing is biased, that they, police are violating the civil liberties of people, but nothing has changed. So that raises the question that, obviously reforms are needed. What are those reforms and what would it take to have them enacted?
Khalil Muhammad: So picking up on that problem of the internal design of policing, the reform question and the levers, the policy levers to achieve reform now from where I sit, and so you're asking my opinion, but others share this point of view suggest to us yet again that there's some tweak within the system itself that can be turned on or turned off. And I think that should be rejected. The same body of evidence that tells us how policing was designed and therefore meant to perform is also same body of evidence that suggests to us that there aren't a lot of levers based on the way police officers are attracted to the profession, the way that the public and elected officials presumptively defend the profession. We know for example, through social psychology research, that the vast majority of white Americans have an assumption that only bad people can engage in racist behavior and that good people can't be racist.
And so when we have a culture of the worship of police officers as patriots, as the people who protect us against the worst elements of society, then all Americans, to some degree believe that those good people can't possibly be racist. So, that's a culture problem that live outside of policing. So we need Americans to vote for, demand, protest, advocate for a different accountability structure and a different notion of what it means to be a police officer.
One quick example. We have had a conversation about unions in this country for the past 40 years that essentially presumptively discredits union as hostile to our collective economic interest. We have national conversations that fundamentally discredit teachers unions as hostile to achieving real educational reform in schools. We're not having the same conversation about national police unions that continue to defend police officers, make things up, defend racism and in the case of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and every national police union in the country voted for the man or lent their support to him.
So if any of us believe that Donald Trump has been a president that has abetted, argued for and articulated racist ideas, and all the police unions in America are in support of Donald Trump, and by the way, every demographic of white Americans voted for Donald Trump in the majority that is, then that's the problem. White people are getting by and large the kind of policing that they've been, they've been supporting.
So the final thing, the third thing is then activist movement builders, experts in the field who have been pushing for transformation no longer use the language of reform within policing. They say we need police officers to do less of what they've been doing. And we need other parts of our public goods sector to do more of what should be happening. So that means in schools that there should be more guidance counselors and more social workers and fewer school resource officers like in Minneapolis, the school board just fired the Minneapolis Police Department for providing security services. That means that in violence reduction when there are huge homicide rates in some neighborhoods, specific neighborhoods of a place like Chicago, we need to continue to invest in public health violence interruption, which is a proven effective way of conflict resolution that prevents people from committing harm because people know who's upset and they talk them down, they talk them off the ledge, they don't call the police because the police come in and treat everybody like a suspect.
So there are proven ways to begin to shift resources out of policing. We completely gutted the mental health system, and we use police officers to respond to citizens who are having mental health crises. And in too many instances people who are having mental health crises have literally been killed by the police because a schizophrenic who is panicking and paranoid the police say, "Well, this person threatened my life, and they shoot them down in cold blood."
Thoko Moyo: So this is a really big point that you raised here, because there's been a lot of calls recently for defunding of the police, something that some people are seeing as anti-police. So maybe let's talk about that a little bit more, and particularly for our non US listeners, maybe just start us at the beginning and help us understand exactly the role, the various things that the police are doing in the US and you've touched on a couple of them that they should not be doing, and then bring us to this idea of defunding the police, what that means and so the contrast between people saying that there's a movement that's anti-police.
Khalil Muhammad: Sure. So I'll start with how we get to defund police. We know for the past 40 years, essentially going back to the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, that essentially a social safety net has been subject to various forms of divestment by the federal government as well as at the state and local level. And so a low tax ideology that has gripped America that the government itself is by definition, the problem, which was the mantra that Reagan articulated in his first term means that things like mental health services, like community-based direct service social work became less the purview of government and more the purview of nonprofits and philanthropists, which of course can never fill the vacuum of the public sector, which has the actual resources to do that kind of mass scale work.
So what that means is that law enforcement have been called upon for the past 30 or 40 years to do more and more work around the basic conflicts that happened in society. When people disagree about things and people who are struggling the various forms of personal hurt or trauma, some of it having simply to do with parenting. And I'm not even articulating an idea that their a bunch of black and brown people are broken. And I'm saying that the access that white people have to private mental health services, low income African Americans don't have. And so where do you feel the void when somebody needs to talk about something that is a reasonable conversation to have, you would expect the public health sector to deal with that.
And that's what was gutted in our society. And so if you listen to police chief reformers, the kinds of people like Charles Ramsey, who headed Obama's 21st Century Task Force, and frankly, I serve on the Board of the Vera Institute of Justice, I've been involved with Vera for many years. I'm not just talking as a angry, radical, black historian. I've been at the table with people who care deeply about these issues, and I spent time with Charles Ramsey, one-on-one and Charles Ramsey, like so many others will say, "Police officers are asked to do way too much in this society." And many of them according to research by Philip Goff, who runs the Center for Policing Equity also know that the personality profile of a lot of those police officers who are asked to do too much don't have the personality profile to do the kind of soft diplomatic deescalation, kind of soft, fuzzy stuff that you would expect of a social service provider. The kind of stuff that that police in the UK know how to do because they don't have weapons, they can't just shoot somebody if they have a bad attitude. They have to know how to talk to somebody in a way that calms them down.
We have empowered law enforcement in this country to believe that their lives are so important that, because they wear a blue uniform, they are a protected class of people. And that because citizens might actually express a sense of frustration towards them, that they need civil rights protections because they are now quote unquote blue lives. It's absurd. It is absolutely absurd. But of course in a democracy absurdity can be legislated. And so in 32 states, there had been Blue Lives Matter legislation. And now even in my own community, the police officers wear Blue Lives Matter flags on their uniforms. So 13% of the population of black folks can't stop an armed civilian force that has been empowered to shoot black people down because they have a problem with the way policing works in America.
Thoko Moyo: So how do you have these conversations so that there is a clarity in a way that you have explained right now about the issues that you're talking about? That it's not anti-police, the police have a role that they can perform in society, but it's not everything. How does because that's critical as well to moving forward. How do you have those conversations? How do you get to that level of understanding because it's not a terribly sophisticated idea, but it's not one that people generally understand, which is why you have all these sort of Blue Lives Matter versus, Black Lives Matter. So just talk to me about that a little bit. I mean, how do you get there?
Khalil Muhammad: Well, I've been trying to come up with metaphors and analogies, because just talking inside of the conversation about race, people's belief systems are incredibly powerful and really hard to change at a certain age. So I like to use the climate change analogy. So we know right now that climate change is a system problem, a worldwide system problem. Our commitment, investments, the incentives in profit making, based on fossil fuels, makes a whole lot of people a whole lot of money, it brings a whole lot of comfort. I'm paying a cheaper gas bill and electric bill because of the fracking that has been going on in this country, but by definition, fracking is bad for our environment and good for our economy. So I as an individual am personally willing to pay more to do less fracking or to do no fracking in this country, but the incentives run in the opposite direction.
That's essentially a way of saying that we keep asking the police to lead the effort for reform, when their incentives are not for reform. If we want police to do less, we don't ask the police that, "Hey, will you sign up to do that? Will be fewer of you?" No, they're not going to sign up for that. Just like the fossil fuel industry, and the coal industry don't volunteer to say, "Hey, put us out of business. We know that fewer carbon emissions are going to save the planet. And in the meantime, we'd like to be jobless, and what we thought would last forever now you're telling us to cut back on."
That's the big system stuff. On the individual stuff, I have a climate change 18 year old in my house, we have a pile of rotting food in our kitchen because she insists on throwing it all in the bucket and the compost bin hasn't arrived yet. Why do I use this example because the pressure inside of my own home to change my personal behavior in light of climate change is a cost. There's a cost to that. So white people have to think about this at two levels. They have to think about racism as a system problem akin to climate change, that then means they have to hold elected officials accountable and policymakers accountable for doing the hard work, for being willing to lose elections, to being willing to turn down lobbyist money from one of the wealthiest industries in this world.
It's not an accident that Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon Mobil, became the Secretary of State, like that makes any sense. It's not an accident that the EPA has been led by an Oklahoma oil magnate to dismantle the regulatory state of the Environmental Protection Agency, so we Americans, and most especially the white population that are still the majority population in this country, need to expect more of politicians when it comes to structural racism. At the same time, they'll say Americans, we need to begin to change their individual behavior, which means they're going to have to give up some of their privileges as white people. In my household now we have meatless Mondays. I'm like, "Really, I have to eat tofu and seitan now?" But that is the cost of changing my personal behavior in order to achieve a goal that is in our collective interests.
Thoko Moyo: Okay, and I want to come back actually to dig further into some of the work that you're doing at Harvard Kennedy School that looks at institutional responsibility as well. But let me bring Erica in now, just go back to this idea of protests that we're seeing in the US. And Erica, your work is focused on political violence and its alternatives. And you've also written a book on civil resistance, how it works, why it sometimes fails, how violence and oppression are affected and the long term impacts of such resistance. So we've seen days and days of protests and resistance in the US in this past week. Do you think that these protests that we're seeing will actually get us to this change that will end systemic racism and inequality in the US. What are the chances of success do you think?
Erica Chenoweth: Well, I think from what I've observed so far, this is a powerful movement that has as much chance as any movement to create real, meaningful and tangible change in this country. Part of the reason is because of its size and its momentum. And what we know from research on movements that have succeeded or failed in the past, is that it's really a numbers game. The movements that succeed do so because they are able to compel overwhelming numbers of people to actively participate, to do the things that Khalil was just saying to take on personal costs and inconveniences in order to meaningfully push for change.
And the second thing that we know about movements that succeed is that they succeed usually by creating defections. That is to say, it's not just that they continue preaching to the choir, but they actually start to pull in people who are not the usual participants in these movements, people who are in positions of power who decide, "Honestly, I'm going to have to side with the movement this time." And we've started to see some of those defections taking place from local state, and national leaders, from business owners, from corporations, from churches, there are many different important pillars of support that maintain the system that are starting to waver. And that is a really meaningful indicator of the power of this movement and its potential to actually transform things. The third thing that we can see is that this movement, even though it formed, somewhat spontaneously is rooted in really effective and skillful grassroots community organizations that know how to bring people together and organize them and leverage their power for change.
Thoko Moyo: What are some examples of that organization that you've seen that has been so skillful?
Erica Chenoweth: Well, there are mutual aid organizations that have been active in the country for decades, but have been supercharged by the pandemic. And so they were sort of available, I think, and already in the mindset of taking care of one another, and having really open daily channels of communication available to start turning that into active mobilization. The second thing is, we have the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter chapters all over. We have many different kind of local offshoots of movements and organizations that have been interfacing with law enforcement and their communities for years around these types of killings that happen all the time and this is a moment where the movement has achieved mass mobilization. But these community groups have been very active and have been fighting this stuff for a long time.
So I think that the fact that it's well organized means that the movement can maintain momentum, because it can be organized and disciplined. I mean, the overwhelming number of participants have been able to follow black leadership in this moment and do what they're asking for people to do who are participating without kind of going off the rails. And I think that's really important. I mean, there were lots of narratives about looting and rioting. Those were totally overstated, in my opinion, compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who've actually been facing down brutality and violence, without even putting up their hands to defend themselves because they're so committed to making sure that in this instance, it's clear where the moral high ground is.
Thoko Moyo: But I think it's also true to say that with the sort of attention that there was on the looting and the rioting, there were concerns that this attention would drown out what it is exactly the protesters were seeking, because people now clamor for a return to order. In your study, I mean, have movements been able, peaceful movements been able to overcome the deflection that comes when you have sort of violence and looting and that sort of noise that can sometimes overwhelm the actual aims of the protest?
Erica Chenoweth: Absolutely. It's often the case that movements have to respond to these narratives, whether or not it's even happening. So there's often provocateurs that engage in these types of actions or there are people within the movement who are engaging these types of actions, the political effects can be the same for movements. And it's almost universal that their adversaries try to delegitimize them and criminalize the activists and undermine their credibility in the public eye by calling them looters, thugs, criminals, provocateurs. All of these things. That is just like a universal response, even when it's not happening.
And this instance, there was some of that activity, but it wasn't overwhelmingly predominant and in most places in the country, and what I think is really important is that movements are able to maintain their narrative control when they are very large already and when the movements are organized and clear about what their narrative is and keeping the focus on the problem. And in this case, I think that there was a real rejection throughout the course of the week by the public, by movement activists and organizers that this was a movement that was about chaos and lawlessness and disorder.
People kept the narrative very clear. This is a movement against lawlessness and violence, and we reject lawlessness and violence by the police. And that is what this movement is about. It's about anti-blackness. It's about black lives and black people seeking justice and accountability. And this time, we are not going to have a case where that cause gets to be derailed because there's concern about how folks are trying to fight. So I think the other thing is that the overwhelming force that was used in those instances and afterward against peaceful protesters, and the next few days and then Trump's threat to deploy the military and to civilian areas throughout the country if governor's couldn't, quote unquote, bring things under control to his satisfaction, totally backfired.
It is completely clear which side the violence is coming from here. Real violence and that, in fact, I think that, that was a major strategic misstep by the Trump administration. Because the counter mobilization to that has been even more than what's already mobilized that weekend. So that's how movements do it. They maintain narrative control, they maintain their own discipline, and then they just totally outnumber the other side in terms of the show of power that results from these attempts to undermine them.
Thoko Moyo: Now, a lot of your research on social movements has dealt with groups that have worked for regime change or overthrow a government as a goal as opposed to sort of fighting systemic discrimination or racism. Would their be different tactics depending on the goal if your goal is something that's systemic as the cases in the US.
Erica Chenoweth: Yeah, so that's a great question and I think one of the helpful ways to think about it is to think about what actually is systemic racism, what is it. And there is a useful kind of teaching tool that I learned when I lived in Colorado from some anti-racist organizers that they call the Four Eyes. And they say the four eyes of racism and oppression are, a couple of them are familiar and are sort of what white people imagine when they think of racism, they think of ideological racism, which is an idea that white people are superior to black people. And then there's interpersonal racism, which is when white people disrespect or insult black people on the basis of thinking that they are subordinate to them.
But there's also two other kinds of racism. There is institutionalized racism, which is the fact that there are policies that are passed that have racist outcomes, even if they didn't have racist intentions. They have racist outcomes. They have unequal outcomes that discriminate against black people. And those are pervasive throughout our society.
And there's also internalized racism, which is the fact that even if I grow up in an anti racist household, without any racist ideologies, or any examples of interpersonal racism in my family, or in my home, when I go out into the world, from the time I'm five years old, heading into kindergarten, I look at the teachers who are teaching me, I look at the doctors who are treating me, the pediatricians, I look at the dentists that I go to, I look at who is in positions of power and privilege in my neighborhood and my community, and I come to learn deep inside subconsciously, that white people have more access to power and privilege and black people don't. And so from the time we are so young, we are conditioned socially to think this, and that is in us.
And yes, if you are trying to confront all four “i”s of racism, then there are so many different tactics and actions and strategies that come along with that. And so this is why this movement doesn't just call for people to be active and calling for change and pushing for change and putting forward real personal sacrifices in order to create the change. But it's also calling for white people to educate themselves to reflect on the ways in which white supremacy and racism and anti-blackness has conditioned their entire lives and the ways that they've benefited from them.
And start in the home, start in the community, push nationally, push internationally, against anti-blackness. And yes, that requires a wholesale change in the way we think about our relationships with one another.
Thoko Moyo: And it also appears that movements are rendering political parties irrelevant. Almost. You're seeing a lot more sort of action and change likely to come out of the movements that we're seeing today almost as it was in the 60s. What would you say to that? Is that your sense as well?
Erica Chenoweth: Well, I'd say yes or no. Yes, in the sense that communities that are able to solve their problems in the way that they want to do in some sense render irrelevant, whatever the sort of established political order is. So an interesting example of this would be say, like the Solidarity Movement in Poland, which in 1980 kind of emerged out of a demand by factory workers and shipyard workers to be able to form trade unions in Poland, which should have been obvious because it was a communist country but they weren't able to organize because the party was afraid of their power.
And so they went on strike, they did all kinds of really interesting actions. But it was much too dangerous to do street actions at that time. And so the movement kind of after it won the right to at least form free trade unions went underground, and it started to build a different type of society underground. And basically, this involved the creation of a new newspaper that was illegal that ultimately got 20 million subscribers called Solidarity, which is where the movement got its name. They created free universities, they created mutual aid organizations to help dissidents who'd been in prison because of political persecution. They created strike funds to support families whose family members went on strike and so were fired from their jobs or were out of work.
They created all kinds of alternative institutions that form the basis of the new society. And nine years later, when people really did start going to the streets, it was as if they were living their own lives without the government even involved. And so the government had no choice but to sit down at the table and negotiate its own demise, actually in this instance, and there were new elections and solidarity overwhelmingly won them. And a lot of people looking back at that said, it wasn't even because of street demonstrations. It was because of the people power that built itself through communities that cared for one another and were there to take care of one another. And so I actually think that we're seeing such a similar moment emerging out of the numerous uprisings that have taken place that had been black-led over the past 15 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, 400 years. We are seeing the continuity of struggle that at this point has a real breakthrough moment and breakthrough opportunity.
And then just in terms of whether the government is truly irrelevant, I do think that representation matters. And I think that we are also seeing some really interesting developments about things like voter turnout and who's running for office and who's getting put in office. So like, the Ferguson Uprising happened just a few years ago, and there was a lot of fallout from it in terms of reforms that took place locally. Ella Jones just became the first black mayor of Ferguson this week. She's also the first... She happens to be a woman, a black woman mayor of Ferguson for the first time in the community's history. Barbara Lee and Deb Helen introduced legislation this week in Congress calling for a truth and reconciliation and racial healing and transformation commission, which to my knowledge the United States has never had to put itself through a national conversation about white supremacy and the way that other countries emerging from periods of say fascism have had to undergo massive reeducation campaigns to rid their societies of these racist ideologies at the root.
We've never had to do that in this country. And having some kind of commission or truth and reconciliation commission is not actually the last thing that we need to do about it, but it's the right idea. It's the right idea and it's national leaders who are representing these communities, who are bringing these ideas forward. So who we put in power matters, the balance of power matters and whether we create an open space for these really important and necessary conversations.
Thoko Moyo: So I'm going to put this question to both of you, the protests are happening in the context of a pandemic. And so the concerns are people are going out there and already the pandemic has exposed the inequalities. I mean, black people are by far affected by the pandemic than other groups, but yet protesters are going out and yes, black and others that are not black. What's your take on this? I mean, is the pandemic hindering? Has it created a perfect storm? I mean, how are you thinking about the context in which all of this is happening? And maybe let me start with you, Erica and then Khalil, I'd love to hear your thoughts about that as well.
We know that mass uprising was are the most likely to happen when there's sort of three things that come together at once. The first is political opportunity, which means there's some kind of breakthrough moment that presents itself, often it's a triggering event, like the one that George Floyd's video release created. The second is the accumulation of grievances which clearly the pandemic has exacerbated in terms of the sort of, as you said, inequalities and unequal effects on black communities, but also the unequal effects on elderly people because that means a whole cohort of elders is being taken at the same time and the grief and mourning that would otherwise happen has not been able to happen.
So people are holding on to grief and mourning. They are holding on to fear about their own economic opportunities and their future. Many children and black communities have not been able to continue their education when the shutdown started because of lack of access to remote learning opportunities. These have been piling up over the past few months, on top of all the things that have already been piling up over the past 15 years, 20 years, 50 years, 400 years in these communities, and so it's sort of like at a certain point, people decide they have nothing more to lose. And so once people move into that experience of what the sociologist Doug McAdam calls, cognitive liberation, which is the sense of, there's nothing to lose, and I'm not stopping until something is different, and there's no going back from that, people are willing to assume so much personal risk once that kind of mental threshold is crossed, there's nothing that the police can do. There's just nothing that can be done to reverse that mental process once it has been crossed.
And then the third thing that is often needed is organizational resources. And that's what can determine whether it turns into a movement or whether it fizzles out as another uprising that doesn't have staying power. And I think there's extensive organizational resources, both because of the experience of these grassroots organizations that have been taken hold, largely led by black youth. And also because of how many people are personally available to mobilize right now, because of the pandemic, whether that means unemployment, whether that means people are just staying from home with flexible schedules, whether that means people need a cause larger than themselves right now to attach themselves to and this is the moment whether it's just means that we all are collectively recognizing that this crisis is reaching a point of no return. And if we don't all take action now, it will be too late. My sense is all of these things are coming together. And that's when you start to see mass uprisings that have staying power and the pandemic has played a role in that, I think.
Thoko Moyo: Khalil.
Khalil Muhammad: I think Erica's answer was comprehensive and wonderful and so I'll only add two things. One, a point of emphasis in something she didn't say. Point of emphasis just to reinforce something she said earlier is that the movement work has been going on for a decade now. The most explicit point for most people to have some sense of it was when Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi Oprah, and Patrisse Cullors used the hashtag Black Lives Matter in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing. Now, each one of those organizers had been part of often black-queer-led work with domestic workers in other kinds of essential workers in communities around the country in an effort to both bring attention to the health disparities that these workers labor under the exploitation of their workplaces, and the potential threat of state violence, because of the way that the communities they come from were being over policed in the first place.
So I think it's important to just remind everyone, that there have been people laboring in the fields and gardens of this country, to build capacity, to see the humanity of those most suffering long before the pandemic came about. And it is that base upon which so many others are now opening themselves up to education, are joining teachings, are literally asking one, how did this happen and what can I do? So that's an element that I think just deserves a little bit of emphasis.
The other is that we just haven't named it, the president of the United States is a self described law and order president, has surrounded himself, between Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, with xenophobic and on the record white nationalists, who had pursued a vision of America that is wider. With fewer immigrants from parts of the world. They represent the global south, and has categorically defined people of Mexican ancestry and African American ancestry through racist criminalizing tropes. So what that means is that in terms of people being out in the streets and elements that Erica described as to why this moment looks the way it looks. A lot of people of every demographic see the president for who he is, see the politics that he's articulated, and have said enough is enough. And that's a good thing.
Thoko Moyo: We don't have much time left, so maybe let me end with sort of personally for both of you, how are you thinking about this moment? And how are you coping? Khalil we're doing this on a platform that allows me to see and you look exhausted. And I know that you've pretty much spent the last week sort of talking about these issues and providing analysis and commentary. I don't know why I said it but I feel that's a question to ask but maybe more useful for the audiences, maybe to hear a bit more about your work as well with the Kennedy School, you have an initiative on institutional racism and accountability. Do you want to just talk a little bit about that. And then Erica, I'm keen to hear from you as well, about your work in this particular moment.
Khalil Muhammad: Yeah, I'll keep it really as brief as I can. So the Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project, we call it the IARA project, attempts to close the gap between what individuals do and don't do and what politicians do or don't do. And it leaves people often feeling unable to contribute to change, because they feel isolated and oftentimes not satisfied with reading books and going to a protest. And then what happens? Well, they have to wait for an election. And there's a real gap between those two spaces.
And then of course, the way that our two party system leaves many people out of representation also means that there is a lack of satisfaction there. So I'm interested in this project and focusing much more attention on civil society. What is the responsibility of institutions in our private sector or public sector or nonprofit sector to pick up this work so that the individual who spent eight to 12 hours a day in these spaces can feel like these spaces are contributing to fundamental change. And so that's what the IARA project is about. It has started at home. I'll just mention a couple things. The Kennedy School has an alumnus, Bryan Stevenson, who has led a conversation about truth and reconciliation in this country established a lynching memorial and a museum to talk about it. Harvard Kennedy School is very proud of him. But the central message is that the narrative of racial difference in white supremacy is the narrative that shapes and defines our current reality. And until we come to terms with that narrative, and its deep, deep roots in our society, all of us are going to be complicit in these ideas, continuing to wreak havoc and kill people.
And for the Kennedy School, the Kennedy School itself has not come to terms with its own history by way of a couple of examples. The Kennedy School was part of an effort in the 1990s to bring police chiefs together and what did they come together and do, they came together to come up with stop and frisk, another version of it. Bill Bratton talks about this very publicly, he's proud of that legacy. And so for the Kennedy School itself to be part of the very infrastructure as a policy school, to me it seems like there's a lot to be learned about what it would mean to be honest about that. Because when you make a mistake, the best way forward is to admit it and learn from it.
So have we learned from it? No, we didn't learn from it because our curriculum doesn't require people to learn about race and racism in the United States or the world. It's an option. And so in a moment like this, it's quite striking that the leading policy school in the world can bring in 700 students a year and 650 of them can come out no smarter about how race and racism work in the world than the day they walk through the door, as if it doesn't really matter. And that's an absurdity that I think now hopefully will create an opportunity for change.
The last thing I'll say is that I'm the third black tenured professor in Kennedy School history. The fourth one will be here in the fall, but almost every one of those black tenured professors have labored alone at the highest levels of the organization while there have been black faculty working in adjunct or part-time, or as professors of practice over time. Why does that matter? Because if institutions are serious about change in the role that they play in anti-racism, then they need to invest in anti-racist leadership. It's not just about representation where there's a black person here or a black person there or a brown person there, those black and brown people need to be people who are actually committed to anti-racist leadership, not all of them, we can have a climate change expert who happens to be black. But if all your black people are not really committed to anti-racism, then you're using diversity as a management tool. So the fact that the first black tenured professor at the Kennedy School was a staunch conservative who rejected systemic racism back in the 1980s, during the Reagan era tells us something about the Kennedy School's only commitment to a certain kind of black representation. So we need a sharp break from the past. We need a new curriculum, we need honest truth telling about our own role in all of this and we need more anti-racist leadership at the faculty level, in the administrative level and to support graduate students who want to come here to do that kind of work.
Thoko Moyo: And Erica, what work are you doing? I mean, how are you coping? And what are some of the things that you're doing in your own work and research?
Erica Chenoweth: Well, I just want to just amplify and second everything that Khalil just said. We're in total agreement, and I'm with him on all of that. For white people right now, I think the key is to resist the urge to make it about us. It's important to stand with anti-racism and do anti-racism without kind of speaking for people and taking the mic. And so I think that is a part of what we can commit to in this moment. And I think it's really important for white folks to listen to what it is that black folks are asking for and then do it.
In terms of whether change is possible and what can keep us going together, working toward this common goal. Angela Davis used to say that we have to imagine that radical change is possible, and we have to act like it every single day. So it's pretty simple, if you think about it. And my work is fundamentally about how people who have been in systems of oppression of all kinds have basically risen up using their own resources, their own skills and their own creativity, to transform their system against all the odds, and millions and millions of people over the course of history have done that, have done it successfully or at least progressively, and any progressive change that we have seen in the world and any radical change that we have seen in the world has only happened because of that. So as Frederick Douglass used to say, power concedes nothing without a demand. And so we just need to keep demanding until power concedes.
Thoko Moyo: Terrific, you've both been absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. And for the people listening, we'll post as we always do a link to the Kennedy School and some of the work that we're doing around racial justice and some of the actions that we're taking at the Kennedy School. So that will be part of the link with this podcast. So thank you very much, both of you for your time.
Thoko Moyo: Thanks for listening. I hope you'll join us for our next episode. And if you'd like more information about other recent episodes, or to learn more about our podcast, please visit us at hks.harvard.edu/policycast.
Harvard Kennedy School has gathered scholarship from our faculty members and other experts in the School community on the topics of race, justice, protest, and policing.