From Reaction to Reflection

We know that racism is structural--what vision for change will prevail?

In 1962, James Baldwin described what it was like to make the turn from childhood to adulthood as a black man. His male peers, he wrote in the New Yorker, seemed

lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was `the man’—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. 

It’s hard to read this passage and not realize that Baldwin’s essay, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (November 10, 1962), might have been written today. For all the progress that is said to have occurred — dismantling legal segregation, voting rights, and the movement of some African-Americans into positions of power— “the man” is still alive and well. And sometimes that man is a woman.

The remains of a burned police car, lower Manhattan, June 1, 2020. Photo credit: tatiana/Shutterstock.com

In the wake of protests that have put anti-black racial violence at the forefront of the news, we at Public Seminar have gone from reaction to reflection. Our authors are re-engaging the intellectual production and vision of the Movement for Black Lives and immersing ourselves in their vision for structural change. We begin this issue with a reflection by Musa al-Gharbi, who reminds whites who seek to be part of the solution that they are part of the problem too. Following on a series of essays that he has published in Public Seminar and elsewhere, al-Gharbi asks elites, among other things, to stop ruminating on how white people experience racism in themselves and others, and focus instead on the “behaviors, institutional structures, and allocations of resources” that reproduce violence.

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Next, we look at the arc of our crisis, reprising and linking all five episodes of Jonathon Catlin and Benjamin P. Davis’s “Sentencing the Present.” A chronicle of how quickly our world changed in twelve weeks, it takes us from pandemic to police abolition in 34 short essays. Catlin and Davis will end (or punctuate, we hope) their work with a reflection next week on what they learned from the project.

Next, we embark on what we think we do best: scrutinizing the political possibilities that have emerged from almost two weeks of peaceful marches, insurrection, and critical thought moving at lightning speed. Jeremy Varon writes about his friend Martin Gugino, a peace activist pushed rudely to the ground by Buffalo police, and now part of the iconography of state cruelty and indifference. Peter Dreier reminds us that today’s protests are the culmination of ten years of organizing and resistance. Micol Siegal explains why reform is not enough, and the police must be dismantled. Sid Tarrow disagrees: abolitionist movements catalyze transformation but have been historically prone to fracture and division, too easily dismissing the value of reform. Desmond King and Rogers Smith look beyond the failures of the Trump administration and imagine what national leadership could look like at this moment. Finally, John Stoehr argues that white Americans are starting to see their country as black Americans see, live, and die in it: could we see regime change in these vital challenges to authority?

But not all violence is public: some of it is intimate, a counterpoint to and a reflection of a violent public sphere. In a review essay, Kevin Mumford explores the sexual violation of enslaved African-Americans by whites, a form of domination hidden from historians in plain sight. And we close with Robert Jensen’s meditation on how pornography does not just deliver orgasms to a man trapped by patriarchy, but a more dangerous fantasy: the illusion of “total control over himself and women.”

In the coming days, we will perhaps see that the Covid-19 crisis made the urban rebellions not just inevitable, but possible and necessary. We will watch possibilities for living in new ways and challenging authority, dismissed just the day before as impossible and naive, become real. Can there be regime change?

We fervently hope so.

Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical