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Paul Jay speaks with john a. powell at the Tides Foundations’ Momentum conference in San Francisco
about racial exclusion and possible solutions to marginalization of black America.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re in San Francisco at the Momentum Conference of the Tides Foundation. We’re speaking with John Powell. He’s the director of the Kirwan Institute for the study of race and ethnicity. Thanks for joining us again, John.

JOHN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: So in the first segment we described the problem of inner cities’ structural poverty, but very interesting what you were talking about, structured, you could say, affluence in white suburbs outside the big cities with very deliberate investments from the government level to create these oases. The solutions are what? And then why aren’t they already in place? ‘Cause I know some of what you’re going to say, and some of it’s so rational and obvious. It should have been national policy decades ago. But what needs to be done?

POWELL: A number of things need to be done. First of all, we need to have a very deliberate discussion in America about the condition we’re in and the racialized impact of the condition. And although we’re talking about cities, it’s actually true in rural areas, also, when you talk about how opportunity is distributed, how it’s constructed, the role of government in terms of creating opportunity. Why do we bail out Wall Street and punish Detroit? Those are policy decisions. It just so happens that Wall Street is the whitest, male-ist industry IN the United States. Detroit is one of the industries that opened itself up to black Americans. And yet—so there’s a racialized input, a racialized consequence of saying we’re going to bail out Wall Street and we’re going to require Detroit to restructure and then punish them.

JAY: Although certainly it’s something structural within the society. In fact, if Wall Street was all black, it would still have wanted it, just the power of finance capital.

POWELL: Well, no. Race plays a big—. If you look in terms of what industries the government and society support, there’s oftentimes a racial subtext, whether it’s welfare, whether it’s—. So, for example, we have—you know, I’ve asked people in our audience, how many of you get government subsidies in your home? A lot of—you know, a middle-class environment. Nobody raised their hand. They think it’s bad—that’s government interference. And yet if they take mortgage deductions on a home, they don’t think of that as government subsidies. So you have this history of anything that goes to non-whites as being somehow a government handout, but if it goes to whites, it’s a tax relief or whatever. So there is a racial subtext that’s important. And it’s important to basically be very deliberate: what kind of society do we want to live in, and how do we get there?

JAY: Well, then, if one of the solutions, then, is to have an open conversation about race and its connection to class in America, how do you judge President Obama on this? ‘Cause he doesn’t talk about this very much.

POWELL: Well, I think President Obama is trying to basically adopt some of these programs through programs [inaudible] conversation. I think that that’s shortsighted. I think that we’re talking about looking at the work that our structures and system is doing in terms of producing racialized outcomes. When we talk about race in America, we always talk about racial prejudice and is racial prejudice going up or down, and we only talk about racial prejudice in the context of what someone consciously believes. There’s some signs that say about 98 percent of our emotional and cognitive process is unconscious. We don’t talk about that at all. We don’t talk about what work structures are doing in terms of producing outcomes. So a conversation is not the conversation of the 1960s or the 1980s; it’s a much more sophisticated conversation.

JAY: But it’s also not just a conversation [about] belief, because, I mean, to some extent there’s only so much you’re going to do about subconscious belief. But there’s something quite objective called, you know, “several billions of dollars of stimulus money” that’s going to be a big fight. Does this stimulus money go into dealing with the infrastructure of inner cities and schools and transportation system? Or, I don’t know, to suburbs our highways?

POWELL: Right. Well, this is exactly right. I will say two things. One, we should spend the money to connect America. We should build one America that’s inclusive. And in that inclusivity we have to recognize that some populations will need more in order for them to be connected to the growth and prosperity and sustainability of America. So not everybody’s situated the same. That has to be part of the discussion. We all want to get someplace, but we start from different places. Two, the unconscious stuff is objective. We can measure it now, and this is what’s new. We can measure it. We know we can basically see when people are making decisions that are affecting their behavior unconsciously. So we have to do both. We have to sort of look at making structures work for us and looking to see in their interaction—not because someone intended, but in their interactions, are they producing racialized outcomes that’s inconsistent with our stated values? And I think if we ask that question, we’ll find oftentimes they are.

JAY: Now, in the recent controversy, the academic that was arrested by a cop on his own porch and [inaudible] White House, Professor Gates.

POWELL: Professor Gates. Professor Gates. He’s a friend of mine.

JAY: There was quite a debate, especially the African-American community, about, you know, all of a sudden we’re talking about systemic racism as it relates to the police. But, again, does this conversation—isn’t there a responsibility on the part of this administration, and others, of course, but to raise this more publicly? Because even there it became sort of an elite conversation, like, “How dare you go after one of our professors.” We don’t hear, “How dare you go after, you know, kids every day in the streets.”

POWELL: Yeah, this is a complicated conversation. [inaudible] here you have one of the most prominent professors in the country, a professor at Harvard. But there’s also a little bit of thing of saying if he’s not safe—. He’s not middle class. He’s not poor. He’s upper middle class. He’s part of the elite. And if he’s not safe, who is? So you’re right; it’s not enough to say let’s protect him. But let’s really look and see what’s going on with policing, with the criminal justice system, with the schools, with jobs all across the country. You know, we’re here in San Francisco at the Momentum Conference. As I walk around the conference, I see, you know, dozens and dozens and dozens of homeless people, a disproportionate number of [whom] are black men. What’s that about? And I’m sure some of them are veterans. What’s that about? So it’s not enough. Instead, the conversation with Professor Gates is: is the police racist or not? And, again, when they ask that question, they’re focusing on 2 percent of his conscious cognitive and emotional behavior. It’s too narrow of a conversation.

JAY: So in terms of going forward and dealing with some of the solutions, what are three concrete things that President Obama should try to accomplish in his first term, how to actually change lives in inner cities?

POWELL: Well, I would say three things is this. The president is a bully pulpit, has a huge voice in terms of helping America sort of understand. Now, he can’t do it by himself, and he’s—as I say, he’s the president of the whole country. But race is about the whole country. It’s not about black people or Latinos or Asians. And the mistake that people make is that that’s about them; it’s not about us. People don’t understand that the electoral college, which all of us live with, is about race. People don’t understand that the anemic union movement in the United States is about race. People don’t understand, in 1948, when President Truman tried to have universal health care when other countries were doing it, it failed because of race. So race is about the institutions. And President Obama needs to help the country understand that if we’re going to be the shining country on the hill in the 21st century, we need to bring all Americans involved. And that’s about race. And it’s not just simply—.

JAY: But I think you said something very interesting here. You said President Obama has to understand. Maybe I misunderstood. You say he has to help the country understand. But does he not have to understand? It’s not clear from his own discourse that he gets it, frankly.

POWELL: Well, I think that it’s hard to know, and I don’t want to sort of psychological—you know, [inaudible] psychological analysis of him. But my sense is that a lot of people around him and the pundits all believe that you can, one, adopt these outcomes through universal strategies without the conversation. I think that’s a mistake, a serious mistake. And that, two, there’s this assumption that when you talk about race, it polarizes America, and it’s best not to talk about it, let’s just do it. We need to have a different conversation.

JAY: Which, interesting enough, is not what happened during Katrina.

POWELL: That’s right.

JAY: In fact, the open conversation about race and class during Katrina actually helped unify the country. There was widespread public opinion. How come we’re just starting to talk about this?

POWELL: So it’s not a question of should we talk about race; the question is how. And we’re not very skillful [inaudible] society. So in many conversations about race, whites leave the conversation feeling guilty and blacks and Latinos leave the conversation feeling angry. And, again, part of this is because people focus mainly on interpersonal stuff and not institutional staff.

JAY: Okay. So, institutionally, what else this administration needs to facilitate and make happen? They’ve got all this money sitting there.

POWELL: Well, something very concrete. And we have a website called If you look at the large major investment this country made in the 1930s that created modern America, it did it in such a way that it exacerbated racial differences—not because it said it, but that’s the way it played out. Take the military, for example. Where many Americans—something like 11 million Americans went to college under the G.I. Bill, but almost all of those Americans were white men. So it exacerbated differences.

JAY: This is your argument about opportunity—a whole class of people now get higher education and they’re mostly white.

POWELL: Exactly. And almost all men—98 percent of them are men. So we need to say we need to close that gap. We need to grow the country, but we need to close the racial and gender gap that exists in this country that’s been structurally put in place. We should be very deliberate about that. We’ve been pushing OMB, the Office of Budget and Management, to keep racial data, to say part of our goal is not to repeat the mistakes of the New Deal, which exacerbated the racial gap, but to close the racial gap. So that’s one thing. We need to sort of reconstruct cities and regions so that they’re connected, so the suburbs and cities are not at war with each other, that we do it through transportation, we do it through housing. I’ll give you a very concrete example in terms of housing. The largest production of affordable housing in the United States is done through the Treasury Department on the Low Income [Housing] Tax Credit. They favor building housing in distressed communities. And family housing are largely for blacks and Latinos. And then we have something called No Child Left Behind that says you should try to get your kid into a good school system. Well, if you build housing in distressed areas, you built those houses in areas where schools are likely failing. These are government policies. This is not 20 years ago; this is today, spending billions of dollars isolating black and Latino children from high-opportunity schools. We should change that. It doesn’t cost money. We should just basically say some percentage of those schools, some percentage of those housing, should be built in a school system where children are already performing well. So that’s the second thing that we should do. And the third, as I already mentioned, is that we should really have—and President Clinton started this, but it got short-circuited because of other problems—we should really have a national dialog about where we want to go, a dialog that’s about all of us, a dialog about America, and then be very deliberate in terms of laying down platforms to get us there.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview we’ll talk about are you being heard, and if not, why not. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with John Powell.

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john a. powell is Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He previously served as the Executive Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He led the development of an “opportunity-based” model that connects affordable housing to education, health care, and employment. He is one of the co-founders of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and serves on the board of several national organizations. Prof. powell has taught at numerous law schools including Harvard and Columbia University. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.