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July: Justice, Part II
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interviews

Call It What It Is

by LaShyra Nolen
© Documenting Ferguson

interviews

The Boiling Point

by Dr. Elwood Watson
June 15, 2020

This interview with Dr. Elwood Watson, historian, public speaker, and cultural critic, professor at East Tennessee State University, and author of the recent book, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

frank | Would you start by giving us a background on your work? 

Dr. Watson | I am a professor of history, African American studies and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. I have been here for 23 years. I focus on the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture, and I write about current issues and current events through that lens. 

What are you thinking about as you watch this moment from your perspective? 

Well I’ve written a lot about this. I’ve many books on violence against black bodies. My most recent book, “Keeping it Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America,” is a book of essays about race in present day era America. 

This is an extreme moment. This is the boiling point. People have had enough. It's George Floyd. It's Breonna Taylor. It's Ahmaud Arbery. Its ongoing senseless murder after senseless murder. It's a blatant disregard for black lives that is unacceptable in 2020. With the protests from people from all walks of life, people are making it clear that black lives do indeed matter. 

One of the larger questions about the moment is this narrative around what counts as peaceful protest, what counts as violent protest, does one negate the other, etc. You wrote in one of your essays, that black activists are continually asked to subscribe to a form of respectability politics. How do you see that theme tie into this continuous questioning about the right way to protest? 

Putting on a suit and tie doesn’t change anything. In that essay specifically, I was talking about how we’ve seen certain Black figures ascribe to respectability politics, but, of course, the supremacists, the bigots don't care. It doesn't make a difference.

I’m not saying don’t be civil, but appealing to white respectability is not going to stop racism. 

People think playing by the “rules” gets you ahead, but the rules have always been different for black people. Black people have a certain set of rules that apply to them. White people have a certain set of rules that apply to them. 

And there’s a sense of white denial of how those rules advantage them, which leads us to today.

I don’t think it's denial. I think white people very well understand. Not all white people are removed from the reality of black America. Sure, some are in genuine denial, but there are also others who know the truth, but are trying to maintain power. When you talk about race, white people can get extremely defensive. They tell you – “it's in your head or it's not that bad.” 

But there exists literature and studies and data. There are things written from black writers, and white writers. If you want to know what is going on in the black community you can go out and find it. There is no excuse. But people have a tendency to find out about things that they want to find out about, and I don’t think it's any different with racism. 

Why do you think white people are reluctant to do that? 

History is very ugly. It's not a pretty picture –  in order to unpack it, it requires a recognition of racism, sexism, and all these things that make people uncomfortable. 

Building on that idea, today, the Press Secretary, while decrying the “violence” of the current protests, held up the March on Washington and MLK as the gold standard of “acceptable” protest looks like. It seems to me that there has been a tendency to repaint the history of black struggle in a way that is palatable to white america.

That happened to MLK among his peers as well. When he went to talk about race and inequality in the south, he was quite revered, but when he went on to talk about racial and economic inequality, housing discrimination, police brutality, hyper segregated neighborhoods in the north and other regions of the nation. The stark socio-economic class disparities that existed across racial lines in America. The disproportionate number of lower income and poor young men – White, Black, Latino etc, who was actually doing the fighting in the Vietnam war – the same people (so-called White liberal allies, fellow black middle class leaders, some black journalists such as Carl Rowan and some clergy) who supported him suddenly wanted him to stop talking and told him to be quiet. By 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., turned into a pariah in many quarters. The same people who had supported him at the beginning, turned against him in the later years of his life. 

Do you think that indicates, then and today, that there is a more “socially acceptable” way to talk about racism, one that kind of precludes a larger examination of economic struggle or other social issues? 

Personally, I don't think there is a right way to talk about racism.

I think the only right way to talk about it is honestly, correctly, directly and frankly. 

You can’t talk about racism without talking about economics. Black people are politically marginalized and economically marginalized. There is no way to talk about the Black experience currently or historically without talking about economics and systematic racism. Period.

It seems like it might be easier for people, mainstream media, people on the periphery of the movement, to look at a specific, horrible injustice, like the murder of George Floyd and say, “that is bad, that is obviously racism,” than it is to look at the picture whole and extrapolate on the economic injustices that are fueling the movement right now. 

There are a lot of people who are going to march because of something galvanizing like the video. I don’t know if you got the chance to see it, but it's a very violent video. It's an obvious abuse of power. Mr. Floyd was calling for his mother. His oxygen is cut off. In certain moments, it looks like the officer is grinning, almost smiling. It was sadistic! That is what really upset and outraged me. Any reasonable person who sees that is going to react in some manner whether it be marching, donating to progressive social causes or otherwise. 

One positive development is that the protests that are happening today are very diverse. They include people of all different races, from all walks of life. They are much more diverse than they were in the 1960s. There are a lot of journalists who are quick to draw comparisons between today and 1968, but I think that is a little too simplistic. We have a whole different set of problems today than we did in 1968. Yes. We have a lot of very similar problems, but the dynamics in America are a lot more racially diverse than they were in 1968. And there are a lot of things that have happened over the recent years that paint a very different picture of America including the election of the nation’s first Black president.. 

What else do you think about when comparing this to previous historical movements? 

Of course the big difference is social media. There was the March on Washington in 1963. There was Rodney King in 1992. There were all these events and controversies that occurred but you didn't have a 24/7 hours news cycle. 25 years ago, what happened with George Floyd might not have been heard outside of Minneapolis.

Today, such incidents receive the kind of sustained drumbeat, energy, and laser focused attention because of social media. Anyone can be a detective with their phones. It has been a very useful tool in exposing some of the injustices. 

But that's the other jarring part of it, because the cop knew he was being taped. And the cop in question, Derek Chauvin, had 19 previous violations before this deadly incident. Again, he knew that he was being taped, and that shows you that he simply did not care. That was very troubling. It shows you how arrogant he is, and how immune he thought he was. I don't think he meant to kill the guy, but the fact is he did. He had his leg on Mr. Floyd’s windpipe for 9 minutes. That is totally unacceptable! 

That is one of the most startling parts to me, that he knew he was being taped and he didn't care. That he has seen this play out before, and that he assumes immunity. 

Yes. It's atrocious. 

And on top of all of this, black people are dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19, suffering from high unemployment, ongoing discrimination in housing, jobs, being deprived of adequate educational opportunities etc. The injustices go on and on. People just can’t handle it anymore, understandably. There are a lot of things that are culminating right now. 

It’s very inspiring to see people (some, who are in some cases, putting their personal health and safety at risk) in this global pandemic protesting in such large numbers, supporting Black people. To see black people responding and letting other people know that the current state of affairs is not acceptable. 

To demand change. To say that we need to see immediate change and solutions. We need to end police brutality. There at least needs to be background checks. We need to reexamine police unions. You can’t allow police officers with legitimate infractions against them into our communities. And then there are larger structural issues that black communities face – voting access, health care, education.

As far as I am concerned there needs to be a Marshall Plan for black communities.