Interview by Neil Roberts
Photograph by Dana Smith
Political theorist Juliet Hooker ’94 discusses movements, monuments and the long struggle to achieve racial justice.
Where are we now? That question was the starting point for a Williams Magazine interview that Neil Roberts, chair and professor of Africana studies at Williams, conducted in August with Juliet Hooker ’94, professor of political science at Brown University. Hooker, originally from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, first came to the U.S. to attend Williams. Roberts has family roots on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Both are political theorists who had to blaze their own paths in the study of Latin American and Caribbean political thought during and after graduate school, where the focus was primarily on Western thinkers. And both are now distinguished scholars in their field, having helped to bring a hemispheric perspective to the study of political theory. They met via videoconference to discuss how their work impacts and is impacted by a country and world now rocked by a pandemic and—as ever—divided by racial inequity and injustice.
Neil Roberts: I’d like to try to make sense of the current mass uprisings against racial injustice in the U.S., and to discuss the catalyst effect they have had across the country and across the world, which has put the Movement for Black Lives front and center. What do you believe is the significance of the movement, particularly now?
Juliet Hooker: It’s important to recognize the magnitude of the losses brought by this pandemic and the fact that this is the backdrop against which the current mobilizations for racial justice are taking place. The rhythms of people’s lives have been disrupted, and the pandemic has exposed systemic, structural inequalities in all aspects of American life. Add to this the fact that the pandemic has not impacted all racial and socioeconomic groups the same—Black, Latinx and Native American folks have been disproportionately affected. This loss was ongoing before the mobilizations over the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others. Yet the Movement for Black Lives predates these most recent protests. It comes on the scene with the Ferguson protests after the death of Michael Brown [in 2014]. They changed the way people think about policing, and that didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen because of the Floyd protests. The Floyd protests happened because of this ongoing organizing work, just as police killings have been ongoing. Attention is now shining on the problem of police violence as state violence and on how it connects to other forms of racial injustice. Addressing police violence doesn’t simply mean reforming the police but really trying to grapple systemically with racial injustice. For me, the significance of the Movement for Black Lives is our ability to reframe the conversation to a broader one about what racial justice entails. What would it mean to invest in Black communities, in Black lives, as opposed to simply investing in policing? We’re reckoning with the fact that we live in a society still deeply riven by racism and that it’s not a superficial, self-contained problem that we can address by reforming one institution.
Roberts: How can we make sense of this reckoning when trying to figure out not only issues of Black life but also Black death? There’s a belief that the United States was founded on anti-Black racism, and if that is historically the case, then the question becomes, can we ever get out of that racist system? There is a pessimism about it being possible to systematically unsettle and restructure polities founded as Herrenvolk racial states. [Ed. note: The German term, meaning “master race,” pertains to forms of rule based on racial hierarchy.] While I believe it is possible, there is evidence that leads to Afro-pessimism. I think there are lessons, both wonderful and challenging, [coming from] outside the U.S., that might have ramifications for what’s going on here now. How does your scholarship help us to stretch our imaginations?
Hooker: Since the era of enslavement, of independence, there have been organized Black and Indigenous movements in Latin America against racism, struggling for racial justice, even if they weren’t always visible or acknowledged by national elites. We have to avoid the temptation of thinking that there is a manual for how to overcome racism in, say, three simple steps—as though if we read a certain book, we’re all going to know how to become anti-racists. Angela Davis said that we’re working for a goal we may not achieve in our lifetimes. Yet you have to work for it. We’re not going to dismantle a system overnight, especially one that was centuries in the making. But we have to keep doing that work.
Roberts: Your important research speaks to the need to think about race and racism hemispherically. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, often framed as the quintessential American thinker, never saw himself only in U.S. national terms. Where can we look for models of what to do and not do in struggles for racial justice, equality and freedom?
Hooker: Our resources include the folks who came before us who have been doing that work, some in conditions that seem even more discouraging than ours. I take inspiration from the archive of Black activists and thinkers and intellectuals who have been trying to dismantle white supremacy for generations. You mention Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave and who helped bring about abolition and emancipation in the United States, even if that didn’t end up leading to full freedom. In Latin America, meanwhile, the mythology is that there’s no racism. Because there is a history of racial mixture, people take that to mean that we don’t see skin color. But nothing could be further from the case. Latin American societies are pigmentocracies. That is, the closer you are to whiteness, the more advantaged you are, and the farther away you are from it, the more you tend to be at the bottom of the social, political and economic order. In Latin America, societies deny racism and argue that taking race into account is itself racism. That’s why grappling with Latin American examples is so instructive for this moment in the U.S. It points to the idea that simply trying to be post-racial is not going to solve the problems of white supremacy and racial inequality. The question becomes, how do you tackle historic and ongoing racial injustice when a large percentage of the population is invested in thinking that racism is no longer a problem?
Roberts: Your remarks lead to me to reflect on your book Race and the Politics of Solidarity. Could you discuss that work and its arguably ongoing significance?
Hooker: My first book was published in January 2009, right after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. In it I argue that we tend to believe in political solidarity—this idea that we have care and concern for other citizens, which is how we make decisions in common for the good of all. But in fact race has shaped and distorted political solidarity, so instead we have what I call racialized solidarity. Race impedes us from seeing people who are racial others as equal citizens who deserve the same level of care and concern. For instance, I saw a poll in late August that said that something like 60 percent of Republicans thought that upwards of 170,000 deaths from coronavirus is an acceptable level of loss. My question is, would that be acceptable if those losses were mostly white Americans from red states? Or is it acceptable because they’re seen as racial others, folks that we don’t see, know or have close ties with? A central problem for democratic politics is this question of how we come to see people we think of as “different” as deserving the same amount of care and concern that we reserve for those we see as “like us.” But when the book appeared, we had just elected the first Black president, and the reaction was, “Hmm, are you sure about that? Haven’t we moved past race?” It’s hard to remember now, but in 2008, 2009, there was this sense that the U.S. had solved racism. We had elected a nonwhite person. Of course, Obama’s election was followed by this enormous racist backlash that culminates in the current presidency and where we find ourselves today.
Roberts: That backlash reaffirms the argument that one can’t talk about being anti-racist, or moving to post-racialism, without actually getting rid of the racism part and the structures connected to it. Your current project engages facets of these ideas in the form of Black protest, white grievance and the politics of loss. Can you say a bit about that?
Hooker: I’m thinking through this question of loss and how loss shapes democratic politics. So much of Black politics has been catalyzed by Black grief over different forms of Black loss, often Black death: lynching, the violence that people opposed with nonviolence during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the current moment of protest against police violence. Black grief has taken center stage in Black politics, and it’s had a mobilizing effect. Today, people are literally putting their lives on the line by protesting in the middle of the pandemic. You can’t simply grieve or have a loss that doesn’t become political—you’re required to engage in political activism to try to get redress. But that in itself precludes certain forms of grieving. Part of my project grapples with this question of what mobilizes people politically and how we might think about Black life and Black death as a result. The other side is looking at questions of how white folks have dealt or not dealt with loss. The book tries to think through what happens when members of the dominant group aren’t accustomed to political loss. This manifests in a politics of white grievance, so that the mere election of a Black president is felt by some as a loss. Just the potential election of the first female president is felt as a loss. There becomes an investment in a certain dominance that folks have been accustomed to, because, historically, they have been part of the dominant group. Even if they’re suffering materially from inequality, they have had access to psychic or other forms of symbolic dominance.
Roberts: You pose several difficult questions. Does one have to experience loss to achieve racial justice? Do we need to literally put our bodies and lives on the line to achieve justice and equality? What are we prepared to do to struggle to have polities perfect themselves and live up to the ideals that they claim to espouse? Can we, then, return to the idea of backlash from the dominant group?
Hooker: That backlash comes when social, economic or political dominance seems under threat. We see that in the debates around statues and monuments. Why are folks so invested in monuments from the long-ago Civil War to Confederate leaders who most people don’t remember? Why would you be invested in keeping a statue of somebody who defended slavery and fought to enslave other people? It’s not about the specific statues or monuments but about what they represent. They were initially erected to mark public space as white space, as racially demarcated space, and to celebrate the re-inscription of white supremacy and the defeat of Reconstruction after the Civil War. When white people continue to be invested in them, they become markers of past eras of racial dominance. It’s nostalgia for a moment when that dominance wasn’t in question, when one didn’t have to suffer potential political loss.
Roberts: Right, so there’s a sense that after the Civil War in the U.S., there was a concerted attempt to pay homage and recreate a philosophy of history regarding certain ideals of the Confederacy and figures related to it. And then we had numerous prominent scholars writing books about the rise and fall of Reconstruction, which in many respects were accepted revisionist histories until, for instance, the publication of polymath W.E.B. Du Bois’ magisterial work, Black Reconstruction in America, in 1935. Du Bois deftly pushed back against that Lost Cause thesis. So, where do we go from here? What do you think is the most important takeaway in terms of where we find ourselves now? What do we need to do to think about alternative futures?
Hooker: We need to be prepared for the fact that this is a long struggle. We’re not going to suddenly persuade everyone to take up the cause of racial justice. We need to rethink how society is organized and how we think about relationships between different groups. We tend to have a zero-sum approach to this: A gain for someone else feels like a loss for me. I think we need to reorient our thinking to: What are the ways in which—even if I’m part of the dominant group—I, too, lose because of the white supremacist system? What are the ways in which I should be prepared to cede some unearned advantages in order to create a more just society? How do we make this a society in which the state is concerned with caring for its citizens rather than repressing and policing them? That would benefit everyone. And how do we do that without asking the people who are already suffering violence from the state to be the only ones to take up that struggle? What responsibilities do we have as people who are maybe less directly impacted by police violence to become involved in efforts to change those injustices? This will be a long-term struggle that requires us to change the way we think about what kind of society we live in. We need to be unafraid to imagine a different way of organizing social, political and economic life.