Summary: Democracy in Black addresses the ‘values gap’ between the claimed idealism of equity and democracy and the reality of history.
One of the problems with many White people in thinking about issues of race is that Black and other racial groups are still ‘other’. That ‘other’-ness is otherness in part because of the assumption of monolithic thinking. As with every topic, the more you know about an issue, the more nuance that you can see. The more comprehensive your approach to an item, the more variance within the subject that you can identify.
If you discuss Christianity, you have to ask what about Christianity is universal and what is particular to a subgroup. Catholic and Southern Baptist responses to one issue may be virtually identical, but nearly unrecognizably different in another. The very nature of worship and what the centerpiece of worship service of oriented around is different between Southern Baptist and Catholics, but they do still both worship the same God.
Democracy in Black is a political philosophy of societal change. Glaude is the Chair of the African American Studies Department at Princeton. He is the current president of the American Academy of Religion. His Ph.D. is in religious studies, and this is a book informed by Christianity. However, it is more focused on the methods and theory of cultural interaction and politics. In some ways, I think this is probably a book written a couple of years too early. It is rooted in a discussion of the role of race in the Obama era, and that is a critical discussion. But it does not fully engage with the racial backlash that gave rise to Trump.
Glaude wants to talk about values more than racism. It is not that racism is not shaping our values, but that the gap in our values is more extensive than mere racism, at least as many conceive of the meaning of racism.
“We talk about the achievement gap in education or the wealth gap between white Americans and other groups, but the value gap reflects something more basic: that no matter our stated principles or how much progress we think we’ve made, white people are valued more than others in this country, and that fact continues to shape the life chances of millions of Americans. The value gap is in our national DNA.”
Merely discussing racial gaps in wealth, education, health, or other areas often reveals how we think about race. There are those that continue to deny that actual disparities exist. Some admit the variations but place most of the blame on individuals. Others suggest that racial differences are rooted in history, culture, systems, resources, or some mix of many different causes. But Glaude, while not glossing over the complexity, wants to ensure that we see that these disparities are not abnormal, but ‘who we are’.
“Most Americans see inequality—and the racial habits that give it life—as aberrations, ways we fail to live up to the idea of America. But we’re wrong. Inequality and racial habits are part of the American Idea. They are not just a symptom of bad, racist people who fail to live up to pristine ideals. We are, in the end, what we do.”
One of the most common complaints about the 1619 Project from the New York Times is that the project roots slavery as one of, if not the most important feature of US history. Glaude would fully embrace that rooting because slavery and the belief in the superiority of White skin and culture are pervasive in US history.
But like Michael Eric Dyson’s book The Black Presidency and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, part of what is most helpful for me is to see the internal discussions within the Black community about how to approach the world we live in. There is some uncomfortableness in being a voyeur on these discussions. The point is not to watch the talks abstractly but to genuinely learn about the history and systems of the Black as well as the White community.
One of the more critical sections of the book is Glaude’s discussion of the importance of the role of Black institutions, especially the church. That is, of course, not a new subject since the rise of Trump. Many people have been discussing the same issue because an unintended consequent of pluralism is the destruction of institutions that empower ethnic communities, not just of Black churches, but also institutions, languages, traditions, and cultures of many different ethnic groups.
“What will happen if these institutions disappear altogether? What will provide us with the space to imagine ourselves differently and to courageously challenge white supremacy in this country? Or, as James Baldwin put it, “what will happen to all that beauty?” Baldwin asked this question as he grappled with the political nature of race. Color, for him, “is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.” The political reality was and remains that as long as white people valued themselves more than others because they were white and refused to examine their habits and assumptions, others would have to come together, build institutions, and act politically on the basis of color. The question about the status of “all that beauty” is one about what our experiences tell us about being human, and how they offer a pathway for democracy in which the lives of black people matter as much as everyone else. As white supremacy digs in its heels, as the complexity of black identities betrays the lie that all black people are alike, and as the economic crisis continues to devastate black America, we can’t help but ask “what will happen to all that beauty?” We haven’t reached any kind of promised land. We stand between lands, desperately holding on as we see so many people we love fall into poverty, go off to prison, or end up in the grave. In other words, declarations that we no longer need black America without a systematic dismantling of white supremacy amount to requests that black people commit collective suicide.”
One of the positive and negative features of Chicago, when I lived there, was the ethnic communities. There is excellence in that; cultural values are empowered, the restaurants are authentic and not just ‘fusion.’ But there is also ethnic prejudice that exists in those communities, as well as about those communities.
Democracy in Black is a call to empower Black (and other ethnic communities) while at the same time breaking down prejudices that keep neighborhoods or people apart. It is a clear call to see the inherent white supremacy (by this, I mean the overvaluing of white skin and culture in his understanding of values gap, and not just White Nationalism or racist organizations.) Part of the point of Glaude’s call to understand the values gap is to see that every time we view this gap as an aberration instead of intentional creation, we further entrench the intentional ‘disremembering.’ (For more about this understanding of disremembering, David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory is an excellent introduction.)
The irony, of course, is that the active forgetting—the disremembering—is one of the crucial ways white supremacy in the twenty-first century sustains itself.