Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

“The world as it is is not the world as it should be,” said scholar and author Eddie S. Glaude Jr.  who, as the Harris School of Public Policy celebrated the start of Black History Month, looked both backward and forward to gauge where things stand now for social and racial justice movements.

Glaude, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, entwined history, policy, and politics for the sweeping view he provided during “Action NOW: Social Movements in the Floyd and COVID Era,” on February 2. It was the first in a series of Harris Black History Month events

Moderated by Alaina Beverly, assistant vice president for urban affairs at the UChicago Office of Civic Engagement, the hour-long program included brisk discussion as well as a question-and-answer exchange with virtual attendees.

The power of social movements is Harris’ theme for all of this year’s Black History Month programming, with each event aiming “to facilitate meaningful conversations about the Black experience in the United States and around the globe,” said Michelle Hoereth, Harris’ assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, who introduced Glaude.  

The conversation with Glaude, she said, “will help us understand where we are at this moment in time.”

Glaude described COVID-19 as “like a blue dye shot into the social body, revealing where all the ills are located in American life.” And he devoted much of his time to exploring the reaction to the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020, the embrace of movements like Black Lives Matter that followed, and the retreat from that embrace that he sees in 2022.

“In the middle of a pandemic raging, people from all walks of life, young and old, Black and white, of all range of ethnicities flooded into the streets to protest Derek Chauvin’s murderous cruelty,” Glaude said. “We heard calls for ‘defund the police’ and we saw a wide swath of Americans embrace the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

There was talk of a racial reckoning, and in some ways the nation was “finally confronting the ghost of its past,” he said.

“The outpouring itself, I want to suggest, stood alongside the organizing,” he added. Grassroots organizations were doing work before, during, and after Floyd’s murder. And that work before helped mobilize the outpouring of civic energy — even though many caught up in that outpouring were perhaps, he said, captured by “the spectacle of it all.”

A Black Lives Matter mural on the streets of Frisco, Colorado, in July 2020.

“How we account for, or how we think about the state of social movements is in some ways, tethered to or bound up with how we think about movements generally. … What draws our attention?”

Drawing attention in the aftermath of the Floyd protests, he said, is the pace of retreat — and the disremembering that accompanies it. 

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act? “It's dead in the water, in my view,” he said, adding that “President Biden right now is making his way to the city of New York to stand next to Mayor Eric Adams to talk about gun violence and policing, to in some ways reaffirm his commitment to increase the funding of police.”

“Think about the kind of jarring discord between that utterance and where we were,” he said.

With examples from history including Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, Glaude noted that “when the country seems to be on the precipice of substantive change, in my view, Americans double down on their ugly; we double down on this belief that white people have to matter more than others, as I've written in Democracy in Black. We double down, in effect, on the value gap.” Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul was published in 2017.

“At every turn, when we are on the verge of…giving birth to a new America, the umbilical cord of white supremacy is wrapped around the baby's neck, choking the life out of it. We are in the middle of that betrayal now.”

Alaina Beverly

Beverly asked a question of particular resonance for Harris students: how can policy help right this ship? 

“The first thing we have to do,” Glaude said, “is to tell the truth that racial inequality was the result of deliberate policy. And we have to be just as deliberate in undoing it as we were in making it.”

Listing examples ranging from redlining to banking policies to school segregation, Glaude said that “in order to be anti-racist in our policy making, we first gotta tell the truth about how policy produced the world that we currently inhabit.”

To cap the discussion, Beverly asked for a call to action and urged Glaude to “include some hope in it, if you would.”  

Glaude, whose most recent book is the New York Times bestseller Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, said he has learned from Baldwin that “hope is invented every day.”

“You have to figure out how to swing those feet off the bed and plant them on the floor and get up and keep fighting,” Glaude said. “It feels Sisyphean, where we're constantly rolling this boulder up the hill. But we realize that the power is not in the end, but in the beautiful struggle of pushing the boulder itself.”

Also, he said, “understand the power of imagination.” The world may not be as it should be, but “we come from a powerful tradition,” he said. “There was nothing about the condition of the slave which would lead her to believe that she could be anything but a slave. But the imagination allowed her to see beyond the opacity of her condition and to withstand its brutality and imagine and fight for a different world.” 

“It is in the going toward, not in the wake,” Glaude said, “that is the source of our salvation.”