"No There There": Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the Future of the LeftHistorians in the News
tags: racism, interviews, housing, urban history, radical history, social democracy, evictions
This is the second installment of Freedom Education, a seven-part series of conversations between graduate students and luminary scholars. Presented in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, this series considers reading, learning, and writing as politics. Read series editors Stuart Schrader and Nathan Connolly’s introduction here.
Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a professor in the African-American Studies Department at Princeton University. She studies racial inequality in public policy as well as Black social movements and community organizing. She is the author of the award-winning books Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership and From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and editor of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. In addition, she is a contributing writer and columnist for the New Yorker.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to discuss her journey through academia and the political moment we’re experiencing as a nation. While the country is struggling with incoherent and inadequate responses to the COVID-19 crisis, far-right terrorism, and an ever-growing housing crisis, local organizers and activists are building networks of community care to meet the needs created by decades of neoliberal policies that have abandoned cities. We talked about what it would take to extrapolate from these local efforts, rebuild public engagement and cooperation on the left, and move toward the kind of “social transformation” we need.
Raychel Gadson (RG): What brought you into a doctoral program and set you on your current trajectory that led to Race for Profit? What were you doing before entering graduate school?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (KT): I was working in Chicago, political organizing first, and then organizing with tenants. I worked for the Illinois Tenants Union as a tenant advocate. This meant that I went to court with people to try to stall or completely subvert their eviction.
I really loved that job. For a long time, I was just organizing and hanging out, doing things that people in their 20s do. I found this job, and I really liked it.
My boss, a lawyer, was so racist. Brazenly. Sometimes, it’s ambiguous racism. You’d ask yourself, was that racist? We went to court one day in DuPage County, a rich white county in the Chicagoland area. It’s a white suburb, and it’s the kind of place where all the Black people are at the courthouse. And my boss got into some altercation with a Black man in the courthouse. When we were driving back to Chicago—and this is a white guy who fashioned himself as a “liberal”—he said to me, “One day I’ll tell you the difference between niggers and Black people.” He says this to me while we’re just driving down the highway!
I’m sitting in the car, barreling down the highway, asking myself, “What happened in my life that has put me in this position where I have to like listen to this fucking nonsense?”
I needed to leave. But like most people, I needed the health insurance that this job provided, the pay that this job provided.
Also, I didn’t have a degree. I didn’t have a BA. I’d gone to school early on and dropped out a few times. First, I was interested in modernism and poetics, modernism and American letters, and then I had gone back for history. At the City College of New York, I took every history class. I think I took 35 history classes. Finally, they said, “Okay, you have to take some other classes. You have to do something else. You can’t just keep taking history classes.” So I left. I didn’t have a degree.
But we don’t have a party. That doesn’t mean we need one big organization. We may need a few big organizations. But we need organizations!
There’s a proliferation of little groups, and NGOs, and foundation-based organizations. That’s all fine, but they are not necessarily in touch with each other. There’s very little generalization that goes on in our movement. We have no publications, which is a way that you influence debate. Even within the movement, everyone just says, “Oh, you’re preaching to the choir.” This is nonsense! Within the left in the United States there are a million fucking different ideas about what we should be doing! “Elections!” “To hell with elections!” “Let’s throw everything into the Democratic Party.” These positions are real. But debates that exist in the left have no space to be deliberated upon. People get on social media to either ignore or insult each other’s political ideas and opinions, but I’m saying if we want to be impactful in building a mass movement, to shape and direct politics in this country, then something radically different needs to happen.
You can see it with some of these political debates. Any number of polls will tell you that close to 75 percent of Americans want some kind of nationalized healthcare. You go to Congress and it’s like you’ve asked them for full communism. It’s like you’re a Maoist guerilla from the hillside if you ask for that. There’s a mismatch.
And how could there not be?! Our Congress is dominated by millionaires. I think 50 percent of the people in Congress are millionaires. In the Senate, almost everybody is a millionaire. There might be one billionaire. Joe Biden’s a millionaire, even though he’s from Scranton.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the median income is what, $70,000? And that’s skewed! That’s white people! Black people? $47,000. The idea that this is the richest, most powerful country on the planet—and people are trying to live on $47,000 a year? Or even $70,000?
That’s what’s crazy with the white-privilege claim. They’ve arranged it so that you have these millionaires and billionaires running the government, and then everyone’s talking about how privileged these people making $70,000 a year are!
Is there racism? Absolutely. Does it mean that all these white people have advantages over Black people? Sure. No doubt. But if you think that is the extent of the fucking problem, then get a clue. These clowns in Congress are laughing all the way to the bank as they do the bidding for, to be crass, the capitalist class that is running things!