Eddie Glaude Jr. is a James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. In addition to being a renowned scholar, he is a public intellectual and political commentator who examines the complexities of the American experience in the tradition of James Baldwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Glaude is the author of many prominent and bestselling books including Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul and Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
Elijah Dahunsi: There seem to be two central, conflicting visions within the discourse of racial progress: race-consciousness and colorblindness. Which vision most resonates with you, and why?
Eddie Glaude Jr.: The race-conscious approach. It seems, to me, rather odd to hold the view that one can resolve the issues of racism without recourse to the language of race. If harms have fallen on the shoulders of people who have been described as Black or African American, for no other reason than because they’re Black, and the remedy doesn’t allow for a specific address for those who bore the harms because of that fact, then it seems, to me, disingenuous at best. I hesitate, though, because I believe the race-conscious remedy can open the door for us to live in a world where race is no longer the determinant of our life outcomes. That doesn’t mean this new world should be colorblind. Why is the precondition for my full entry into American life that I leave the specificity of who I am at the door? Why do I have to wash my face blank? I refuse that upfront.
ED: How do the politics of cancel culture shape the effectiveness of using the language of race toward racially progressive aims?
EG: Cancel culture is a complex and vexing topic. We find ourselves in a moment of transition, where ways of talking and ways of interacting with each other are in flux. And whenever social arrangements and norms are in flux, people try to figure out what the boundaries are. It’s certainly the case that we are in a moment where people can’t just say whatever comes to their mind without being held to account. There are some folk who believe that they should be able to say whatever comes to their mind without any notion of accountability. They believe that you should be able to be racist, ableist, and sexist without being held to account. I disagree with that.
I also understand that as we try to figure out how we’re going to be together differently, we’re going to overreach at times. There are going to be some people who virtue signal, who think that we need to throw people away because of mistakes as opposed to creating the conditions under which people can learn to be different.
Let’s use a historical analogy. The Jim Crow South collapses. It’s no longer the case that you can walk around calling people the N-word. It’s no longer the case that you can call an older Black man “boy” and an older Black woman “auntie.” If you’re an old man who has grown up in this world and refuses to change, you have to realize that the world has shifted, and you can’t walk around doing that anymore.
We’re in that flux, that interlobular where we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to deal with each other and an America that is decidedly diverse—where some folks are uneasy about the fact that the majority of Americans are Black and brown. We’re going to have to work our way through the uneasiness. This process is not reducible to a problem of language. It is actually bound up with moral questions about what kind of human beings we take ourselves to be. I’m still trying to grapple with the sexism and homophobia that’s in me, and I’m still learning to be a better human. To me, that seems to be a good thing, but I think that there are people who want to be comfortable with their prejudices. We’re going to overreach, but I’m prepared to risk overreach as we stumble toward a new way of being together.
ED: Does the degradation of democratic institutions fundamentally change the ways in which we call negative societal trends to account and stumble towards racial progress?
EG: I wouldn’t solely blame institutions for the contraction of a vibrant public space where Americans can engage in reasoned arguments about who we are. We’re so siloed in this country. Our information ecosystem is siloed. Residential segregation has left us siloed. Political partisanship maps onto racial divides. One’s political identity is a proxy for one’s racial identity in some ways. We are so siloed that it is very difficult to engage in the deliberative work necessary to build the world we are stumbling towards.
I think our siloed information ecosystems make this difficulty particularly vexing. When the media is fragmented and ideologically overrun in certain areas, then we’re not getting the information necessary for us to do the work that democracy requires of its citizens.
So the short answer is that I don’t think the institutions are faltering alone. I think the public space is also faltering. I don’t know if, outside of our siloed communities, we have a clear conception of what the public good is anymore. The country is on a knife’s edge, and we see it at every turn. We have to admit this if we’re going to orient ourselves to any substantive effort to change it.
ED: Where exactly will this change come from?
EG: I’m not a prophet, but change will likely come from a number of different spaces. Historically, substantive, democratizing change in this country has always come from movements grown from below. I’m not sure what that will look like in our current context. Oligarchs continue to get richer, and workers continue to become more vulnerable. Representative government is becoming more and more a kind of fiction composed of a gerrymandered House, dysfunctional Senate, imperial presidency, and politicized court. Greedy and selfish corporations with no obligation to the polity pursue profit at every turn, destroying the planet in the process.
It seems to me that if there’s going to be substantive change, it has to come from everyday ordinary folk giving voice and vision to a different world and organizing accordingly. But with what I’ve just described, this will be a tremendous challenge.
ED: How can students across the country take on this challenge and engage in the process of building and growing this movement?
EG: Electorally, you’ve already demonstrated your power. In the recent midterm elections, democracy would’ve been lost if it wasn’t for millennials, Gen Z, and Gen X. For the first time in a long time, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z outnumbered baby boomers in the election process. So how you make yourselves known politically is important. I often call you all the catastrophic generation. You have come of age in the midst of cascading crises. You know the place is broken, and you must decide to either reach for discourses of order or conceptualize new ways of being in the world. As you make yourselves known electorally, you have to make yourselves known in environmental justice movements, focusing on climate change. You’re going to have to make yourselves known in terms of broader questions around policing, taxation, and the like.
ED: What book and media recommendations do you have for our readers as they think through the ideas and actions necessary to change society?
EG: I’d encourage everyone to read some James Baldwin. And throw a little Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in there. Consume as much media as you can across a number of different platforms. And while you’re doing that, take a look at Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.