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Grief, Grievance, and Race in American Politics

2020 was a year defined by loss. Loss of life, of jobs, of opportunities. On this episode Sarah talks with Juliet Hooker, a political theorist and professor at Brown who has been thinking a lot about how feelings of loss affect not just our psyches, but our politics. Her newest book project, tentatively titled “Black Grief/White Grievance,” aims to shed light on how exactly these feelings intersect with matters of race, class, and history, and how they ripple out to our politics (for both good and bad) today. You can read a transcript of this episode here: [https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ep0OFfCll8LbajR2ITb8x_b2cFVW2dd9/view?usp=sharing]
Transcript

SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin, Twenty-Twenty was a year defined by loss, of life, of jobs, of opportunities. Juliet Hooker is a political theorist and Professor at Brown, who's been thinking a lot about how these feelings affect not just our psyches, but our politics. As Juliet explains feelings of loss can be a powerful political catalyst.

Her newest book project tentatively titled Black Grief White Grievance, aims to shed light on how exactly these feelings ripple out to our politics, for both good and bad. This was one of those conversations that afterwards man, I felt like I was reading every news headline differently and seeing Juliete's ideas in so many of the contentious political debates we're having. I hope after listening you feel the same Juliet Hooker, thank you so much for talking with us on Trending Globally today.

JULIET HOOKER: It's my pleasure. Thanks for asking me to be here.

SARAH BALDWIN: I want to talk about your most recent work. Even though you've been talking about racial justice and racial bias and white grievance for a long time, but let's talk about your current book project Black Grief White Grievance. So can you talk about what is political loss and what's its role in a Democratic society.

JULIET HOOKER: I should say that this project comes from being struck by a historical moment in which you have enormous mobilization around racial justice against police violence. And enormous amounts of attention suddenly being paid by people nationally to a crisis that really was ongoing which was police violence against Black people and other people of color. And thinking about how particularly the families of the people who had been killed by police emerge as such powerful icons, let's say or drivers of mobilization.

At the same time, you had this equally prominent discourse of white grievance, that was propelling particularly a segment of majority white voters and citizens to really see themselves as people who were suffering disproportionate losses within the United States. So for me it was the conjunction of these two, on the one hand a narrative of loss that's really very deeply felt I think. But at the same time is not really equivalent to this other ongoing form of loss, that's really very material very concrete and irreparable if the loss that people are mobilizing against is in fact death. It's people who are actually killed by the state, there's no way to repair that.

So it was really interesting for me and it made me think about what the role of loss is politically and how we think about what our obligations are in regard to loss in a democracy. And so the project is really trying to think through this question of how laws becomes mobilized politically. Now, I think the other question that you ask is about, what we should do with loss or what the role of loss is in democracy. And here I think one of the key premises of the project is really to say, we tend to think about democracy as this thing that empowers us to be active. To participate to enact our preferred policies to push for the policies we support.

But in fact, what that means because we are in political project that is shared with other people is that, we can always win. There are times and other people will win, there will be some sort of policy debate and we will not always prevail. And one of the qualities of a democratic citizen is being able to accept loss.

SARAH BALDWIN: You talk about the politicization of white grievance. What you said mobilization earlier to counter gains, and I would say real or imagined by people of color and to understand that I guess we need to talk about what gains. Can you explain what you mean, I love this phrase you use when you talk about the distorted political math used to calculate black gains and white losses and the paradox of the Obama era.

JULIET HOOKER: Absolutely, I think that the Obama era is really crucial, because I think it distills a lot of the trends that we're seeing right now. So the election of a single black officeholder albeit to the highest political office in the land was somehow greeted for some as this moment of displacement, this moment where suddenly there was a complete transformation of the US political system. And that of course isn't what happened.

And if you look at the Obama era, Obama comes in after the Two Thousand and Eight recession and presides over a period of trying to recover from that economic crisis. And in fact, if you look at who suffered the greatest losses from that recession it was actually people of color, and they had the slowest recovery. The Obama presidency is also when the movement for Black Lives really becomes very prominent. So it's also a time of ongoing mass incarceration, police violence. It's also an era when you have a gutting of the Voting Rights Act that's happening at the Supreme Court.

So you have this rolling back of previous legislation that had been enacted to try to equalize access to political power. So even though when you look partirially, this is not to say right that there weren't any material losses for white working class people or middle class people, but there were greater losses by nonwhites, by people of color, who are in the middle class, who in the working class during that era. And so there is a paradox there, that you have this reaction to these what are in many ways symbolic gains at a time when you're actually having greater material losses.

So part of the question for me for the folks who say that, it's economic anxiety that's driving the move towards white grievance. It's like well, there's a lot of economic anxiety happening with people of color. Why aren't they being radicalized, if that's really the answer and it's not. And the answer is that it's not simply economic anxiety, it's what political scientists have called social standing.

This sense that you are in a more advantageous position, than other groups. That is one of the benefits of white supremacy. That you can always say, well, I have a greater social standing than these other folks and it's a sense of that slipping away. So it's a sense of the relative advantage that's disappearing perhaps.

SARAH BALDWIN: Is it important and if so why? To distinguish between symbolic loss and material loss.

JULIET HOOKER: So this is for me as a way of talking about what I call this distorted racial political math that's happening, in terms of seeing somebody else gain as your loss. But I think that we need to recognize a couple of things. One is that, I'm not saying on the one hand that calling something a symbolic gain or loss means that it's not important. So I'm not saying that because it's symbolic, it's somehow not meaningful.

And it's also true that there is a connection between the symbolic and the material. But at the same time one of the reasons that I turn to those categories is because I think it helps us think about what are the real claims that we as a democracy and as a political community need to actually respond to. So one of the things that I argue is that, if folks feel like there is an economy that is deeply unequal and that is not working for everyone. If that claim is understood in general terms and is made in general terms that's something that we can say, maybe this is something we need to look at.

But if what you're saying is what I am particularly upset about is that I don't want these other people to make gains, even if that means myself actually forgoing gains in order to prevent them from getting them, that is not in a Democratic system that is committed to some of egalitarianism. That is not a normatively acceptable claim. So I think the other reason that I think the distinction is important is because if you look at some of these central debates that are happening, when you think about things like the culture, wars or things like that.

One of the things that you see is that, as much as people say that it's economic anxiety that's driving, a turn to white grievance, it's actually often these symbolic gains that are the ones that are getting people super mobilized and energized. Everything from Harriet Tubman possibly being on currency which is one of my favorites. Is like, why do we care who is on a currency bill or something like the current controversy over Dr. Seuss Books. It's these kind of often symbolic things that then seem to become these real drivers of sort of anger and resentment and grievance.

SARAH BALDWIN: And I'm glad you brought up the Harriet Tubman thing because we could talk about all the ways that that's ironic, that move to put her on a piece of currency. But also notably that it's not that big a deal, so like to get exercised about what you call paltry gains is pointless it seems. And certainly impedes any sort of progress. But I'm glad you came back to this idea of democracy and a democratic society because you've written that white dominance has resulted in a narrow political imagination, that constrains the way whites understand citizenship. Could you just elaborate on that.

JULIET HOOKER: So I think that one of the key legacies for white citizens of living in a democracy that has been shaped by white supremacy is the way in which it constrains white political imaginarily and conceptions of freedom and conceptions of justice. So if you think about the anti mass protests. I think these are a really good example, where what we see is this notion that for the people who feel oppressed by having this public health mandate to have to wear a mask. The idea of freedom that they're deploying is that, I have to have this untrammeled ability to do whatever I want irrespective of the consequences on other people.

That my freedom means untrammeled liberty even at the cost of others. And I think we can trace that back to moments when, for example, white rioting or white vigilante justice. I mean really explicit white violence was really normatively accepted and to this idea that freedom meant be able to exercise dominance over others who weren't full citizens and being able sometimes to act in these extralegal ways. And so I think what I'm saying is that, it means that we have these distorted conceptions often of what freedom is or what other political values might be.

It also means, for example, if you look at accounts of what the state should be. We look at its role as primarily being to enforce punishment to be coercive and punitive. And so when we're faced for example, with a pandemic and we need the state to step in and provide things like care and provide things like health. We don't know what to do, because we've been taught, we've been conditioned to see the state either as this enemy is trying to impinge on our own individual liberty by telling us what to do or we've been trained to see it as the instrument of imposing domination, of imposing punitive policing and enforcement on people that we see is criminal or potentially criminal et cetera. And so we don't have a conception of the state as the thing that can help us thrive and that can help us be safe, but in a non-public safety way but rather in a public health sense.

SARAH BALDWIN: I've been thinking about what would it take to have people see that the health in the large sense of the word of the polity is in everybody's interest like, your gain is not my loss. And I was thinking about how you can talk about racial justice so that a threatened white person doesn't freak out and become deaf. And I don't mean that for the White person's comfort, but more like to make progress in actually having a conversation and maybe shifting a mindset to this more solidarity oriented way of comporting ourselves as citizens.

JULIET HOOKER: One of the things here that's important to realize is that, the way in which white political imaginations have been shaped by white supremacy hurts everyone. It doesn't just hurt people of color, it hurts white people, white citizens as well. Is something like the way the majority white protest in Portland, which was in a Blue City with a Democratic mayor were nevertheless greeted with a lot of force and very repressive response. And I think that one of the things that points to is having police that are unaccountable hurts everyone.

And so I think that part of the way to think about how we try to have those conversations is to say, maybe we need to move away from this zero sum thinking and instead really stop and think how these potential changes are actually policies that might help everyone. I also think part of what is required is having people be willing to accept that they are not going to be centered and their concerns and their needs can't always be centered in national politics and local politics and state politics. And I think that that is both a difficult message, but it's also one that I think is important to acknowledge, for example, when we celebrate things like the activism of Black women in securing the turning Georgia blue in the Twenty-Twenty presidential election and securing those two Democratic senators, that then allowed for the passage of the current COVID relief bill.

If that is monumental national policy that is going to help everyone, and it was brought about by these kind of local efforts on some right. That we also have to honor that not simply by saying, oh, let's recognize the work of Black women and the labor of black voters, but also that recognizing that means is paying attention to the issues that are important to them. The issues that they are arguing should be at the center of a national agenda.

SARAH BALDWIN: I know that you study not just American democracy, but I wonder if you could share your thoughts on what it would take for liberal democracies, whether here or in say Western Europe, South America to become truly egalitarian when it comes to race. Is any democracy doing this well?

JULIET HOOKER: I would turn that question around and put it a little bit differently, which is to say that historically no democracy has done this well. And that's to me not necessarily to be pessimistic, but to say maybe what we need to do is be more realistic about how democracy is functioned in practice up to now. The political scientist Michael Hansen has this book in which a recent book in which he talks about how if you look at the practice as opposed to the theory of democracy. What we see is that, even going back to ancient Greece democracy has always coexisted with inequality in all its forms.

And in particular he traces how contemporary liberal democracy has been entwined with various forms of racial inequality. And so I think that the issue that raises for us is, a little bit more humility about what we've been able to achieve. So one of the things that is interesting to me precisely as someone whose scholarship has been particularly on Latin-America is to say, this is a really interesting moment when what we are seeing is this sense of the US being the benchmark for democracies is really not tenable. So it's in a way exposed US democracy is a much more fragile and having many of the same problems as in societies and countries that we thought of as being much less Democratic than the US.

And I actually think that that's a salutary thing, because I think a little bit of humility and a little bit more sense of there's work to do on US democracy could be a good thing. There are places where you're seeing, I think some interesting openings. So Chile, for example, they are writing a new Constitution and that was interesting because they have in part have a history after the quote unquote "transition to democracy" of over pressing Mapuche indigenous activists and using anti-terror laws to criminalize their protests and their movements.

And what was interesting is in the mobilization in support of the referendum to have a vote on whether to write a new Constitution is that you saw many of these protests people, there was the Mapuche flag waving, and they became really a kind of emblem of some of these new forces, including young people, students, feminists who were saying, we need to rethink the basis on which we have been thinking about politics in Chilean society and really make a break with the past. And so I think that one of the interesting things about this moment we find ourselves in is that, there's a lot of fragility of democracy, but there's also a lot of mobilization.

I mean even in the US, you see a lot of mobilization people are mobilized and some of it is not good. The people who are mobilizing to overturn the election, that's not in my view a positive development for democracy. But I think is the more engaged people are, the more people are demanding that democratic institutions really be responsive to them, that's where I see hope.

SARAH BALDWIN: We know that when gains are made or perceived for Black people in this country, there has been since reconstruction backlash and as recently as we've seen it as recently as Trump's election, five years ago. And so Biden recently in his inauguration speech called for unity and he was pretty explicit about condemning white supremacy. Is that going to or has it already sparked another round of white victimhood/wars.

JULIET HOOKER: I think the election of Obama really sparked this kind of crystallization of white grievance, it reemerge with a vengeance, if you will. And I think it's been ongoing during the Trump era and it continues. I mean, the interesting thing about it is, s you think about it is that even during Trump's presidency when you had a president who was quite willing to say racist things to implement racist policy when you had almost complete control of the government during the first half of his presidency, people still managed to find ways in which to feel aggrieved and displaced and under threat.

One of the biggest threats right now is actually this sense that Biden's win was illegitimate and I think that is, is it a threat because it points to a possibility where a percentage of people in the United States will consider any win by somebody who they see as advocating for multiracial democracy for racial justice as illegitimate. And that's a problem, because it means you've moved from saying, we can have a discussion about what constitutes the policies that we pursue or let's say we agree that racial justice is a good thing, but we have differences about how to implement it and now you move to simply saying, anybody who is promoting that is necessarily illegitimate and trying to displace the right for America or what you see as the core of the US political system.

So I think backlash is ongoing. I think it was important that Trump was denied a second term. I think that was an important step, but I think racist backlash is ongoing and I think it's going to take folks who don't want that to be the vision of the US to really continue to be engaged and fight for an alternative view of a multiracial democracy. That's the only way to do it. And I think it will take ongoing concerted resistance and confronting this project of white grievance to really prevent that from happening.

SARAH BALDWIN: Juliette thank you so much for talking with us today. It was really a great conversation.

JULIET HOOKER: Thank you for having me.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Ilina Coleman, our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Sara Baldwin, if you like us leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or if you have a friend who you think would like the show, tell them about it. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

About the Podcast

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.