Who do I mean when I say "my people?"

On early BLM with Daniel Bessner

Over the course of the last three months, I’ve had four conversations with Daniel Bessner, professor of international studies at University of Washington, who interviewed me about my “intellectual origins.” We’ve covered a great deal of ground, from the me being a student of economics in 1970s, to the place I’m finding myself in today.

Below is a segment from the final conversation in the series. We talk about my early reactions to Black Lives Matter (I wasn’t feeling it), and the tension between my efforts to empower Black Americans and my not wanting to set ourselves off apart from the rest of the American polity.


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BESSNER: It’s been a real pleasure, a real highlight of my intellectual career so far, honestly. 

Last time we got up to 2012 and so we’re entering what I would say is the more recent period of Glenn Loury’s intellectual development, a period that has actually been chronicled on Bloggingheads itself. I’m hoping someone will make transcripts of these conversations and deposit them in some sort of archive because they’re really useful historical material. 

People might have heard what you think of BLM or wokeness, but what I’m trying to do here is have you reflect on how these recent turns might fit into your larger intellectual trajectory given what we’ve talked about in the past. 

So I was thinking that we would start in 2014 and the rise of Black Lives Matter, which is a movement that you’ve criticized pretty significantly on this podcast. What I would like to do is have you reflect on what was your initial response to the first BLM protests. 

In particular, how do you place them within your larger understanding of Black American history and particularly your own encounter with the Black community, trying to reflect on why you’ve adopted quite a critical stance toward BLM and where you see the movement going wrong and how your history informs your understanding of Black Lives Matter?

LOURY: God, you put Black Lives Matter right at the center of it. If I had known that I might have canceled the interview. (Laughs.) Just kidding, just kidding. 

Such a big panoramic question. I should have come to expect that from you, Daniel, and I know there will be iterations here so we’ll have a time—I mean you can’t just answer in one gulp to something like that.

Of course not.

I want to start anecdotally, which I think can also be very powerful. 

(And thank you for those kind words about the value of what we’ve been doing here at the Glenn Show. I mean I’m very honored to have you say that because you’re a serious scholar, etc. But enough.)

I have a friend, his name is Christopher Lydon and he’s a radio guy and a podcast guy, talks about ideas and culture and stuff. He was based in Boston, I assume he’s still in Boston, I’ve known him for a long time, since the early ’80s. And he did a PBS show for a long time, a radio show, where he would interview people. 

Chris is a very decent guy, a very thoughtful guy. He belonged to a Black Baptist church, Twelfth Baptist in Boston. Back in the day, when I was a Christian, we would commiserate around some of those issues as well as around the intellectual scene. A liberal Democrat for sure, but thoughtful—“but,” you see.  (Laughs.) Thoughtful. 

And I can remember—I’m not sure exactly what the year is, I want to say it’s right after Trayvon Martin because that’s when I think things really get going, I think it’s 2012 or something like that—and he’s all excited, he’s so excited about this phenomenon, about this movement.

And he had a show where he asked me to come and participate in the studio, which I did do, and there was a very fine young scholar, African-American from Tufts University, a historian who was also a part of this show, and there were callers. And they were all excited: “This is a movement, this is a movement!” 

And gosh, but I wasn’t feeling it, I wasn’t feeling it as this revolutionary thing. 

So these queer black women—I mean this was the tone of the talk—have launched something, and this is a new generation, but it’s a civil rights movement, it’s going right after oppression, and I didn’t really feel it, on both sides.

Neither did I feel that—as horrible as what happened to young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, he lost his life—and that’s a whole rabbit hole that I don’t want to go down right now, what actually happened to Trayvon Martin; George Zimmerman was acquitted; blah, blah, blah. We could spend a whole thing talking about that. I’ll bracket that. I certainly did not have any perspective on what had happened to Trayvon Martin at the time. I just took it as given that he was gunned down by George Zimmerman in some kind of inappropriate way.  I just want to bracket that. 

I still wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling movement at all. 

So on that side, the offense, the nature of the offense—Black men being gunned down—I was skeptical about that as something that you would put on a par with what I actually experienced as a young person in the 1950s, and especially in the 1960s, of a movement. So now a movement was being started and there was just something ephemeral, something insubstantial about it, something faddish, something a little bit of a mass kind of mentality that I was skeptical about. I didn’t necessarily see the movement.  

I cringed when Obama said, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” 

When Obama was managing and navigating the very difficult problem of how to lead the country and speak for the country at this moment of crisis, I cringed a little bit because I wasn’t quite buying the narrative. 

The narrative was that we’re at a latter-day moment of racial domination which is finally being called to account by a mobilization from the bottom of the people’s voice. And I didn’t buy that. 

So I’m in the studio there with Chris and with the young scholar, whose name I don’t recall unfortunately, from Tufts—a fine historian—and they’re all effervescent, “We’re present at the creation” is kind of what the feeling was. And I just wasn’t buying it. 

And maybe it’s an echo of what happened in 2008 with the rise of Barack Hussein Obama—and Chris and I had a thing about that too, as it happens—maybe that’s the reason I’m remembering it in this way, because these are the feelings that I was having as I was moving away from the left, away from a sense of defining myself in terms of opposition to racism… In 2008—“our time had come, we are the ones that we’ve been waiting for, hope and change”—there was all of that Obamamania which I felt a little bit skeptical about (although eventually I got on the bandwagon for Obama). It was a kind of politics I wasn’t sure that it was touching the ground. 

I say, on both sides: neither did I feel the sense of the kind of profound political galvanization that people asserted was true, I didn’t feel it; neither was I attracted by the movement. 

I don’t think there’s any way that I can say that that’s going to be pretty or that’s going to be nice. I worry that I’ll sound so culturally retrograde when I say that the constellation of forces…

I’m not just talking about sex, I know that’s what people think I’m talking about.  They think I’m talking about sexual identity. That’s part of it. I’m not going to deny that that’s part of it.

They are against capitalism. Okay.

They don’t particularly love America. I know that you and I, Daniel, don’t necessarily agree on all the particulars of nationalism and whatnot, but I’m just telling you how I received them. 

There’s a generational thing. I’m in my seventies, what do you want me to do?  These are kids. Snotnosed kids if you want to get me in an unguarded moment. 

It’s like, “This is not your daddy’s civil rights movement.”

There’s this documentary film about Michael Brown that the Steeles, Shelby and Eli Steele, have made, and they have a lot of film in there. And one of the scenes is a young fellow who is outraged about the Michael Brown situation [saying this phrase]: in other words, “Don’t expect decorum from us. Don’t expect reverence from us. Don’t expect solemnity from us. Don’t expect any kind of religiosity from us. There isn’t going to be any kumbaya here. We’ll burn this motherfucker down if we need to.”

That was the spirit.

It was not an appeal to any transcendent cooperative national enterprise. It was specifically juxtaposed to “your country,” “your statues,” “your canon”, “your narrative.” 

They’re against the nuclear family. Of course, they cleansed the website now, so it’s only the Sean Hannitys and the Tucker Carlsons who will tell us that Black Lives Matter initially had a kind of “what are our principles” up there, among which were “we’re against the nuclear family.”

It’s full of all kind of what I think of, in my seventies, as postmodern nostrums and cliches, really. I mean the critical race theoretic, the intersectionality kind of talk…

So I just was not feeling it. They weren’t attractive to me. They didn’t represent what I wanted to affirm. And I didn’t see the moment as one of the kind of… You know, we need a movement to protect Black people from the cops? I think that’s absurd. I mean we could go into that, but…

Anyway. I’m rambling on, I’m rambling on. I apologize.

No, not at all. 

So there’s an effectual dimension which is just the generation gap in some sense, literally the clothing and the style of rhetoric.

It sounds like you think there was an empirical problem as well, that the claims didn’t reflect empirical reality in some sense. Am I getting that correct?

Well, that is correct. I don’t think the claims reflect empirical reality. I think they’re sensationalized and opportunistically seized upon. 

That’s why I say, “Movement, really? A movement against police brutality?  Come on, give me a break.” That’s what I think, really.

I mean, a country of 300 million people, a handful of incidents. I’m not saying there’s nothing, nothing, nothing to talk about, but I’m saying: really, Michael Brown is Emmett Till? You’re not serious. 

Neither is that history nor is it politics.

And then another thing that I’m hearing, and I might want to dig down on this one a bit more, is that it seemed like—offense might not be the right word, but what you found a bit distasteful was the rejection of what I would refer to as a historian of the cold war liberal project to present the United States as some sort of melting pot that transcends ethnic identity, transcends racial, gender, sexual identity, so that everyone becomes an American. Is that also correct? 

That was not what I had in mind as I spoke, but it is correct. I only touched on that briefly when I said they don’t love America, or whatever words I said. I definitely chafe at the alienation from the national project which I take to be a defining characteristic of the movement.

So that’s not just a straight ahead narrative about kumbaya, we’re going to all melt together and get along. I think that’s a very complicated set of issues about identity, assimilation, and whatnot.

But yes, I’m much friendlier to the racially-transcending, seeing African-American as not an indigestible kind of—more like an ethnic group—that the meaning of the blackness as a distinctive characteristic is malleable and it can evolve over time.

Obviously, that’s a big, big subject and we could talk about it at length. I’m not giving it justice at all here.

So just a quick comment that I want to make. It’s interesting because I think you have a very complex relationship with what might be termed afro-pessimism.

In an earlier conversation you said there was something right about Malcolm X who said, “No one’s going to help you.  You’ve got to do it yourself.” 

But at the same time right now you’re saying that that afro-pessimism is unwarranted when we’re talking about this racially transcendent image utopia of the United States.

I think you put your finger on something that’s very profound, I really do. 

As it happens, it’s come up in my own public intellectual practice recently because I’ve developed a relationship with Robert Woodson Center in Washington and 1776 Unites which is the project that they’ve launched. And I could talk about that a lot, but the main thing that I want to get across is: it’s Black empowerment. It’s a kind of self-help in the spirit of Booker T. Washington which presupposes a kind of substantiality to race and racial identity, Black community. 

Now, Woodson is not only Blacks. I mean, he has relationships and he works with community organizations across the color line, but the history, animus, and spirt of it is very much a Black empowerment. Not Malcolm X, Nation of Islam, but Booker T. Washington-esque. 

And I sit on the kind of council, giving advice to Bob about the thing that he’s doing and I put my finger on this very thing that you’re talking about, which is that, on the one hand, we want to affirm a kind of colorblind philosophy. I’m not saying that in a stick figured way, I’m not being simpleminded about it, but I’m saying, we want to look beyond race. We want to talk about the American people and not just about Black Americans. We don’t want to pit the groups against each other, etc.

On the other hand, we’re rooted in race. We are a racial phenomenon. Our identities are why we’re here. We want to uplift our people. 

So when we use that first person plural that’s an ambiguous antecedent. “Our people” refers to multiple collectivities, and it’s a very difficult problem and I’m not sure that I have my hands on it really. 

I think that I may be in danger of giving into a kind of contradiction, an internal contradiction in my own political practice because I am, at some level—you call it afro-pessimism, I want to say I’m seizing the existential imperative of self-determination. That doesn’t necessarily make me pessimistic. 

On the other hand… Whatever it is—if it’s Colin Kaepernick, what I want to say is, “Man, don’t use the national anthem as the place to express your disaffection because we need all the people.”

I’m not against Colin. If he wants to protest, he can protest. What I’m against is pitting this symbol of the country against the aspiration for African-Americans not to be killed by police. That I think is a mistake, or at least it’s not a way that I want to go. 

So I want to frame the police brutality problem in a generic way. I don’t want to racialize it. In part, because I don’t want to racialize the discussion of crime and punishment more broadly since that’s got two sides to it. That’s a difficult conversation. If you want to go down the road of racializing who gets violated, who gets offended against in this country, who does the offending—I’m not sure we want to keep a racial tabulation on that kind of thing. You can’t necessarily confine it just to talking about how police interact with unarmed citizens.

But in any case, the point I’m making is that, on the one hand, I do want to embrace a kind of Black agency informed by our history and culture—“our history and culture” being a reference to African-American experience—but I also want to place the social problematic within a framework of a kind of nationalist sensibility. 

It’s the American project. In other words, there is no world court at which the claims of African-Americans are going to be resolved. It’s not going to be the United Nations that does it. It’s going to be the American polity, the American organic political mechanism. 

We could go into reparations, for example, but I have a very similar concern: it’s the commodification of African-America’s claims within the larger American framework that I worry about, the transactional nature of formal reparation acknowledgement. 

I’m not just talking about a stipulation that an act of Congress might make.  I’m talking about hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars of federal money programmatically administered, institutionally structured in the country. This is Social Security magnitude public agency on behalf of a racial project. I think that’s a deep, deep, deep mistake for the country and for “my people,” meaning Black people.

The point I’m trying to draw—and now I think I’ve probably made my point—is that, on the one hand, I want Black people to rise up and seize responsibility for our lives, on the other hand, I don’t want Black people to set ourselves off apart from the rest of the American polity and build our politics around that kind of oppositional framing. And that’s a subtle…

I’m not sure it’s contradictory, but I’m not sure it’s not.


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