‘If We Don’t Look at the Larger Structural Issues, We Can’t Begin to Solve the Problem’

The December 25, 2015, CounterSpin reprised three interviews dealing with the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a lightly edited transcript of those interviews.

Robin Kelley

Robin Kelley: “Stand Your Ground rules were already embedded in the system, in the culture, from the beginnings of the nation.”


name: “1. CounterSpin Robin Kelley “, formats: [“mp3”], mp3: “aHR0cDovL3d3dy5mYWlyLm9yZy9hdWRpby9jb3VudGVyc3Bpbi9Db3VudGVyU3BpbjE1MTIyNUtlbGxleS5tcDM=”, counterpart:””, artist: “”, image: “true”, imgurl: “”

MP3jPLAYERS[4] = list:MP3jPLAYLISTS.MI_4, tr:0, type:’MI’, lstate:true, loop:false, play_txt:’Play’, pause_txt:’Pause’, pp_title:’FAIR’, autoplay:false, download:true, vol:80, height:71, cssclass:’ ‘, popout_css: enabled:true, colours: [“#fff”, “rgba(201,207,232,0.35)”, “rgb(241,241,241)”, “rgba(245,5,5,0.7)”, “rgba(92,201,255,0.8)”, “transparent”, “transparent”, “#525252”, “#525252”, “#768D99”, “#47ACDE”, “”, 600, 200 ],
cssInterface: “color”: “#525252” ,
cssTitle: “left”: “16px”, “right”:”16px”, “top”:”8px” ,
cssImage: “overflow”: “hidden”, “width”:”auto”, “height”:”71px” ,
cssFontSize: “title”: “16px”, “caption”: “11.2px”, “list”: “12px” ,
classes: interface:’ verdana-mjp’, title:’ left-mjp norm-mjp plain-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp’, image:’ Himg right-mjp’, poscol:”, ul:’ darken1-mjp verdana-mjp med-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp left-mjp’ ;

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: Robin Kelley is Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times, among other titles. We spoke with him in July 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. CounterSpin’s Peter Hart asked about Kelley’s contention that it was really Martin, and not Zimmerman, who was on trial.

Robin Kelley: Trayvon Martin was always the one on trial because the question became: “Did he actually have a right to be there? Did he look suspicious?” In other words, was racial profiling actually justifiable, given not just recent burglaries in the neighborhood, but just the whole conception of African-Americans and Latinos–in this particular case, young black men–being a threat, and actually embodying criminality. This is something that the jury bought.

And in fact what I find really curious is that for all the debates about the jury instructions in “Stand Your Ground,” the one instruction they got long before they entered the courtroom was who’s a predator and who has a right to own property and be present. In some ways, George Zimmerman became the protector of the neighborhood. No matter what Trayvon Martin’s relationship was to that community, he was always going to be the outsider, and that is how he was tried.

Peter Hart: And there’s this deep history–and you go through it in the column that you wrote. To not be surprised by this verdict is just an acknowledgment that we have seen things like this happen again and again. The circumstances are not always exactly the same, but there is this commonality.

RK: Right; it is like deja vu. It’s amazing: If you just take 2012, 136 black people were shot and killed by police or vigilantes. Unarmed people. Three hundred thirteen were killed, altogether, by state or state-sanctioned violence. If you take the whole history of just the last 25 years, if I start naming names, we will be here for three or four hours.

And in many cases where there’s state-sanctioned violence, or vigilante violence, it’s a very similar scenario. You have an all-white jury or predominantly white jury; police officers or vigilantes are acquitted; and usually the defense for the shooter is that their life was in danger, they thought the person had a gun, there was evidence that they most likely were about to commit a crime. And so this has happened over and over again.

This is why one of my concerns is that if we focus, politically, so much on Stand Your Ground laws–which I think we should, because they are very important–what ends up happening is that once we eliminate the laws, we think we’ve solved the problem. But this kind of violence and these kinds of verdicts long predate Stand Your Ground, because Stand Your Ground rules were already embedded in the system, in the culture, from the beginnings of the nation. That is, that those who represent a kind of settler/colonial reality, the folks who came here and settled and occupied the land, were the ones who laid claims to the land, laid claims to citizenship, and everyone else is a predator or a threat to property or properties.

PH: One of the more frustrating aspects of some of the analysis has been seeing people almost speak past each other. There’s this strictly legalistic framework that argues that there was no other verdict that could be reached based on the law in Florida and the evidence at hand. And that can be used, and I’ve seen it be used, to stifle discussions of broader issues of racism and racial justice: Zimmerman “could not be found guilty”; all of these other issues are being grafted onto an “imperfect” case; and this is the work of what the Washington Post editorial page [7/14/13] called “hucksters and political demagogues.” We can’t talk about race and racism unless a pure example comes along where there’s no ambiguity.

RK: Right. It’s a weakness in the analysis, because these are not contradictory positions. I read a piece recently, I think it was from Huffington Post, where someone was arguing that you’ve got to take race out of it, because the real issue centers on the jury instructions on Stand Your Ground laws. When, in fact, the reason we have Stand Your Ground Laws has a lot to do with race and privilege and the way the criminal justice system is set up.

So the thing is, you can do both. You can make the argument that ALEC-supported laws are dangerous, need to be repealed, need to be challenged. You can make the argument that the prosecution made a terrible mistake by not making race a centerpoint of the argument when the defense, actually, did that. But this ends up, if you leave it there, you end up kind of picking beans. When, in fact, if we don’t look at the larger structural issues, we can’t begin to solve the problem–because this is a problem that goes back 150 years.

PH: The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen [7/15/13] created quite a bit of controversy over this, because he wrote a column essentially defending racial profiling: Following young black men around just makes sense, and stopping and frisking them makes sense, because they are the ones who are committing crime. And I thought it was so telling, because an establishment voice could make this explicitly racist appeal based on, as you put it in your column, based on this assumption that black men are up to no good, so you have to keep an eye on them. And of course his response was, “Don’t you dare call me a racist.” What do the discussions of this trial and those kinds of conversations tell us about “post-racial America”?

RK: Well, post-racial America means–I’ll quote a friend of mine; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote a very important book which talks about racism without racists. This is not a new phenomenon, but what it basically means is that by claiming that there is objective evidence that certain people engage in certain kinds of behaviors that are cultural, you basically say, “Well, I’m not being racist, I’m just looking at the facts.”

“Post-racial” means that we are not going to have a racial analysis of racial justice or injustice. In other words, we are going to eliminate race altogether–and that in itself is a racial argument, because what happens is, Richard Cohen’s kinds of claims depend on associating a small group of people’s behavior with the entire group–now, if we took the same logic, then any older white man with a gun should be considered a threat, as in the case of this kid that was killed in Milwaukee [AP, 7/23/13]. But there’s no way that any behavior on the part of a small group of white people would be projected on to the whole “race,” but the same thing happens for black and brown people, for Arabs. So racial profiling is always about nonwhite people, because whiteness is considered the norm.

Post-racialism is about acknowledging that there’s only one legitimate citizenry, and that is those who are the settlers. Everyone else has to prove their citizenry, their worth, their value, and the fact that they are not dangerous. This is sort of where we are. We accept it because we think it’s making us safer, and it’s not. It actually does the very opposite, in that it undermines democracy in very, very direct ways that are dangerous, not just for people of color, but for everybody.

PH: We’ve been speaking with Robin Kelley; his column on this, “The US v. Trayvon Martin: How the System Worked,” appeared at numerous outlets, including CounterPunch. Robin Kelley, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RK: Thank you very much, Peter.

Malkia Cyril:

Malkia Cyril: “There is no path to victory, to change, without the visibility and representation that media provides.” (photo: Naomi Ishisaka)


name: “1. CounterSpin Malkia Cyril “, formats: [“mp3”], mp3: “aHR0cDovL3d3dy5mYWlyLm9yZy9hdWRpby9jb3VudGVyc3Bpbi9Db3VudGVyU3BpbjE1MTIyNUN5cmlsLm1wMw==”, counterpart:””, artist: “”, image: “true”, imgurl: “”

MP3jPLAYERS[5] = list:MP3jPLAYLISTS.MI_5, tr:0, type:’MI’, lstate:true, loop:false, play_txt:’Play’, pause_txt:’Pause’, pp_title:’FAIR’, autoplay:false, download:true, vol:80, height:71, cssclass:’ ‘, popout_css: enabled:true, colours: [“#fff”, “rgba(201,207,232,0.35)”, “rgb(241,241,241)”, “rgba(245,5,5,0.7)”, “rgba(92,201,255,0.8)”, “transparent”, “transparent”, “#525252”, “#525252”, “#768D99”, “#47ACDE”, “”, 600, 200 ],
cssInterface: “color”: “#525252” ,
cssTitle: “left”: “16px”, “right”:”16px”, “top”:”8px” ,
cssImage: “overflow”: “hidden”, “width”:”auto”, “height”:”71px” ,
cssFontSize: “title”: “16px”, “caption”: “11.2px”, “list”: “12px” ,
classes: interface:’ verdana-mjp’, title:’ left-mjp norm-mjp plain-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp’, image:’ Himg right-mjp’, poscol:”, ul:’ darken1-mjp verdana-mjp med-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp left-mjp’ ;

MP3 Link

JJ: The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, and the resulting protest, would probably have received some media coverage, but the amount and the tenor of that coverage was decidedly shaped by the intervention of black social media, who, along with other activists, made Brown’s killing a watershed moment in the fight for racial justice. We talked about the role of media at the time with Malkia Cyril, executive director for the Center for Media Justice.

Malkia Cyril: Yes, I mean, the lingo “black Twitter” isn’t about the company at all; it’s about the hundreds of black blogs, independent black blogs and black bloggers, websites, individual pundits that use the social media platform to micro-blog and talk about what they see as the primary issues affecting black communities. And one of the reasons that is so important is because these journalists, black journalists, have been slowly excluded and marginalized in mainstream media.

The number of black journalists that have been able to work in mainstream media has decreased over the last ten years significantly, and what we find is that both these journalists and the community journalists that we’re talking about on Twitter have found social media to be an outlet, to be a way to share their work in a way that wasn’t able to happen on CNN, MSNBC or any of the other cable news outlets, because cable is owned by mega-corporations and doesn’t allow for the kind of independent voice that a more social platform on the internet allows for.

So black Twitter, reminiscent of and reflecting the black blog, an independent black voice, that is what really brought the story of Ferguson to the majority of black audiences.

JJ: On the one hand, you want to say it’s not the technology that’s key–I mean, media and other powers could have tried listening to black people if they were writing on parchment–but at the same time, the technology and the kind of communication that it makes possible is something different, isn’t it?

MC: Absolutely. The decentralized nature of the internet allows for a level of democratized voice that we’ve never seen. I mean, the internet as a platform, as a vehicle for voice in black communities, has become one of the most powerful ways to bypass the exclusionary and discriminatory mainstream media. And because of that, because of its decentralized and democratized nature, black people are very conscious of the need to maintain their online and digital voice.

JJ: Well, let’s talk about that fight. We know that for corporate media, this story is going to go away; every racist act in corporate media is an anecdote. We’re told that things “raise questions” when they might more appropriately be said to answer them. We hear, “Gosh, this doesn’t look like America,” when it looks exactly like America. And Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently about the politics of changing the subject, you know, “Let’s talk about the black folks killing each other.”

All of this is why, even when decent coverage happens, it feels like reinventing the wheel, and it points up the need for a sustained space to have a conversation that doesn’t just serve as corrective for that dominant narrative and stop there, but moves forward. So what is the state of play on the fight to have the internet be that sort of space?

MC: Right now, as the people of Ferguson are on the front lines demanding justice for yet another murder of another young black man unarmed, black people are also on the front lines to maintain the right to speak online about the rampant police brutality in our communities. And one of the front lines that black people are fighting on is the fight for the open internet.

Black communities across this country are saying loud and clear that they want to keep the internet open. We understand that the only way–the court in Verizon v. the FCC said very clearly–the only way the Federal Communications Commission can enforce nondiscrimination rules online is to reclassify broadband as a Title II common carrier service.

Now, let me explain that for a minute, because people say, “What is Title II”? Title II simply means that the internet should be treated as a public utility; it should be regulated like a public utility. Some organizations are concerned that if we regulate the internet as a public utility, it’ll kill innovation, but what black communities know very well is that it’s two things:

One: Public utilities, when are they truly public, are secure and reliable, so that’s number one. We want a reliable platform for independent voices and treating it like a utility, regulating it as such makes it a civil right that we can access publicly, so that’s number one.

Number two: Some organizations and individuals have been concerned that if we treat the internet like a public utility that a future commission, an FCC commission, a future Congress will come along and take that away, and to that I think black communities are very clear.

When we fought against segregation in education, we did not accept anything less than the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. There were rulings prior to that, there were court cases for more than a decade prior to that victory, but we didn’t accept any piecemeal, half-baked legislation. We only took what was morally right and just, and that was an end to segregation in education, and that’s what we’re talking about right now.

Ultimately, reclassifying broadband would ensure no segregation online, that all voices were able to join the public conversation, and that black voices in particular were able to be raised around issues like police brutality, like the incident in Ferguson, and that’s what we’re fighting for.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: Used to be when you told someone you were working on media policy, they would come back with, “Oh, well, I do real activism, I’m in the street,” and media is somehow an ancillary issue. That day’s over, isn’t it? Not everyone can work on every issue, but the separation of media policy issues from other issues that we care about is not a meaningful separation….

MC: It was never a meaningful separation, and civil rights activists in the 1960s knew that very well when they took television news station WLBT to task for their failure to cover segregation in the South. And in fact that case, the case of WLBT, became the defining case that allowed for public comment in media policy processes. So civil rights organizations have long been an advocate for media as a civil rights issue.

It’s only as media and telecommunications have become so lucrative, it’s only as telecommunication companies have used the buyout of our communities as a public relations strategy, that these issues have become technocratic, wonky and separate from the core issues of social justice.

What we know, what Ferguson shows us, what it showed me, is that in fact that there is no path to victory, to change, without the visibility and representation that media provides. As long as that media is owned, operated and controlled by the largest internet service providers, the largest cable companies, the largest private families, the black voice is in jeopardy; and if the black voice is in jeopardy, then black freedom is in jeopardy, and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re not fighting for some back-end technocratic issues, we’re fighting for the cause of black freedom, we’re fighting for the same cause that all the black newspapers right after slavery were fighting for, we’re fighting for an end to any kind of system that violates or limits our voice.

And that is what we are talking about here today. It’s not about media policy; it’s about real justice.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Malkia Cyril from the Center for Media Justice, online at CenterForMediaJustice.org. Her recent article, “Thank You, Black Internet, for Bringing #Ferguson to Me” appeared in the Huffington Post, among other outlets. Thank you so much, Malkia Cyril, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MC: Thank you for having me.

Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein: “When we think it happened by accident, we then think there is nothing we can do about it.”


name: “1. CounterSpin Richard Rothstein “, formats: [“mp3”], mp3: “aHR0cDovL3d3dy5mYWlyLm9yZy9hdWRpby9jb3VudGVyc3Bpbi9Db3VudGVyU3BpbjE1MTIyNVJvdGhzdGVpbi5tcDM=”, counterpart:””, artist: “”, image: “true”, imgurl: “”

MP3jPLAYERS[6] = list:MP3jPLAYLISTS.MI_6, tr:0, type:’MI’, lstate:true, loop:false, play_txt:’Play’, pause_txt:’Pause’, pp_title:’FAIR’, autoplay:false, download:true, vol:80, height:71, cssclass:’ ‘, popout_css: enabled:true, colours: [“#fff”, “rgba(201,207,232,0.35)”, “rgb(241,241,241)”, “rgba(245,5,5,0.7)”, “rgba(92,201,255,0.8)”, “transparent”, “transparent”, “#525252”, “#525252”, “#768D99”, “#47ACDE”, “”, 600, 200 ],
cssInterface: “color”: “#525252” ,
cssTitle: “left”: “16px”, “right”:”16px”, “top”:”8px” ,
cssImage: “overflow”: “hidden”, “width”:”auto”, “height”:”71px” ,
cssFontSize: “title”: “16px”, “caption”: “11.2px”, “list”: “12px” ,
classes: interface:’ verdana-mjp’, title:’ left-mjp norm-mjp plain-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp’, image:’ Himg right-mjp’, poscol:”, ul:’ darken1-mjp verdana-mjp med-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp left-mjp’ ;

MP3 Link

JJ: Black Lives Matter addresses more than police violence, which of course happens in a societal context. There’s also a demand to recognize other policies and practices that oppress and marginalize black Americans. As media moved to Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s April 2015 death after arrest, we talked about other aspects of that societal context with the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein.

Richard Rothstein: Well, we have a myth in this country that we have what the lawyers call de facto segregation, that we created these neighborhoods–like the inner city of Baltimore–that are almost all black, that are poor, segregated from mainstream society, by accident, either because black people were too poor to move to the suburbs, or because there was private prejudice, or because it was white flight of people who didn’t want to live near blacks.

And although some of that is true, the bigger cause, the most important cause of segregation is public policy that was deliberately intended for the first two-thirds of the 20th century to separate black and white families. And segregation was a government policy, it was racially conscious, it was not the unintended consequence of benign policies. It was designed by federal, state and local governments to segregate our communities. This is true in every metropolitan area in the country.

Now in Baltimore, in the early 20th century, Baltimore actually passed an ordinance defining which blocks blacks could live on and which blocks whites could live on. When that kind of ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1917, the mayor of Baltimore set up a committee on segregation to make sure that even without the ordinance still being in effect, that housing inspectors and health inspectors would enforce segregation, and if any family in a white neighborhood were to sell to a black family, the housing inspectors and health inspectors would make sure that the black family could no longer live there. And this kind of thing went on at the local level for many years.

Then the federal government played a major role in explicitly segregating neighborhoods in Baltimore and throughout the country. The first civilian public housing program began in a deal under the Public Works Administration; it was a New Deal program to create housing for civilian populations, and it was segregated. The director of the Public Works Administration in the Franklin Roosevelt administration established what he called a neighborhood composition rule, which was that public housing could only be established for people of the race in the neighborhood where the public housing was established.

In fact, many of the public housing projects were established in integrated neighborhoods; they tore down integrated neighborhoods and created segregated neighborhoods in their place. That’s one of the things that happened in St. Louis, for example, that lead to the kind of situation we have in Ferguson.

That continued; public housing continued to be segregated throughout the 20th century up until the mid-1950s. In 1949, President Truman proposed a massive expansion of public housing programs in this country; at the time, there was still a civilian housing shortage for whites, not just for blacks. And in order to try and defeat his public housing proposal, Republicans in Congress put forward what they called the “poison pill amendment.” That was an amendment that would require public housing to be integrated–knowing that if the amendment passed, Southern Democrats would no longer vote for public housing, and the entire public housing program would be defeated.

So liberal Democrats in the Senate and the House, led by people like Hubert Humphrey, campaigned against the integration amendment, because they argued that if the public housing was integrated, there would be no public housing at all.

And this was true throughout the country, not just for the South. So segregated public housing was created throughout the country.

The biggest federal policy probably was the policy of the Federal Housing Administration, which financed, starting in the early 1940s, builders of subdivisions, mass production builders of places like you’re familiar with in Levittown, New York, or Daly City in California, and subdivisions everywhere in between. They financed builders to create subdivisions of single-family homes in the suburbs on conditions that they be sold to whites only. That was an explicit condition of the Federal Housing Administration financing of bank loans to developers.

So while whites and blacks who were of similar incomes, returning war veterans for example, working-class families, could have afforded to buy into the suburbs, only whites were permitted to do so. Blacks were consigned not only to urban ghettos, but to segregated public housing in urban ghettos, and those are the kinds of policies that resulted in what we see in Baltimore today, what we see in St. Louis and what we see around the country in the last 50 years.

One more thing: In 1970, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration was a fellow named George Romney, the father of the recent presidential candidate. George Romney understood everything I just described to you, as did most people at that time; we’ve forgotten this history. George Romney said that the federal government created a white noose around inner-city ghettos, and it was the job of the federal government now to untie that noose, and George Romney began a program which he called “open communities,” in which he denied federal funds to suburbs that refused to desegregate.

One of the first test cases he made of this policy of denying federal funds for sewers and park lands and water projects was Baltimore County. He told Baltimore County that it was not going to get any more federal funds for any urban projects unless it repealed its exclusionary zoning ordinance, the ordinance that prohibited the construction of multi-family dwellings in the suburbs, unless it accepted public housing with African-Americans, and unless it accepted subsidized low-income housing. Baltimore County was one of the first places that he tried to do that.

Eventually George Romney was reined in by the Nixon administration, because there was a white backlash to his desegregation policies, and Romney himself was eventually forced out as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and we’ve had nothing as aggressive in way of desegregation since.

So this history was once well-known; it was once widely accepted and understood that segregation was not an accident, but a purposeful creation of state, federal and local government, and we’ve now forgotten it, and we think it happened by accident. And when we think it happened by accident, we then think there is nothing we can do about it. Whereas if we understood that this was the product of government policy, we would understand that there are government policies that could reverse it.

JJ: And maybe it should go without saying, but of course the connection between housing ownership and the accumulation of wealth is absolutely critical, so these policies explain even more than where people live.

RR: Well, that’s correct. When you concentrate the low-income population in an area, of course they become more low-income, because they don’t have access to jobs. And as you probably know, in the 1950s jobs began to move from urban areas out to suburbs. Because African-Americans were concentrated in a noose, as George Romney said, in central cities, they had no access to the jobs that were being created, so the community became poorer than it was before.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute. You can find his work on their site; it’s epi.org. Richard Rothstein, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RR: Thank you.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.