In 2001, Cincinnati police killed a 19-year-old Black man named Timothy Thomas, sparking an uprising that shook the city for four days. 19 years later, in the city of Minneapolis, local police officers killed George Floyd over an alleged counterfeit bill, catalyzing a nationwide rebellion. Much of the discourse surrounding racist police killings have focused on perceived flaws within the institution of policing itself, but explanations for the consistency and pervasiveness of police violence cannot be found within police departments alone. Police operate within a system of race and class-based segregation, wherein Black, Indigenous, and migrant poor people are rendered surplus populations marked for the extraction of revenues by the state in the form of fines and fees. The lives of George Floyd and Timothy Thomas themselves exemplify this in cruel relief. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez interviews historian Robin D.G. Kelley on the links between police killings and the system of racial capitalism. This interview took place shortly before Kelley’s delivery of the 2023 George Floyd Memorial Lecture at the University of Houston.
Production: Nelly Cardoso, Michael Ma
Post-Production: Michael Ma
Robin D. G. Kelley: I’m Robin D. G. Kelley, I’m a professor of History at UCLA, and someone who cares about the world. I guess that’s the only way to describe it. I write books?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, you care a lot, it shows in the incredible work that you do. And, Robin, it’s a real honor to be sitting here with you. We got to meet one time in person, back when I was a grad student at the University of Michigan, and now we’re here at the University of Houston, where you are going to be delivering the 2023 George Floyd Memorial Lecture. And by the time that The Real News viewers and listeners see this interview, that lecture will have been on our YouTube channel for the better part of a week, two weeks. We’re going to – Even though you haven’t given the lecture yet, as far as when this video comes out – We’re going to build on this incredible lecture that you’ve shared with me and that I’m really excited for audiences to get to hear. I could listen to you read the phone book, frankly, and I’d be interested in it, but there’s so much incredible history and thought in this lecture, as with everything that you do.
And we’re not going to rehash everything that goes into this lecture. Again, if folks haven’t already, I highly recommend that they go back and watch your lecture, and we’re going to be building on that. But I wanted to ask you if you could talk us through your process of meeting this task of delivering the 2023 George Floyd Memorial Lecture? And why Cincinnati in 2001 and the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, why did that moment in history stick out to you as the moment to mine and analyze here in 2023?
Robin D. G. Kelley: No, that’s a great question. First of all, I hope I’m up to the task, because it’s such an honor to be invited to give, basically, the second George Floyd Memorial Lecture after Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who was my hero and mentor in many ways. This talk I’m giving actually comes out of a book I’m trying to finish right now, called Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem, which looks at the relationship between premature death and racial capitalism. So basically, each chapter deals with a death; a death that’s premature, but a death that’s a product of the violence of racial capitalism – Not just in terms of police violence, per se, but administrative violence, bureaucracy, tax abatements, corporate crimes, finance capital. All this stuff leads to death.
And in the case of Timothy Thomas, part of what I want to talk about is what led to his death. He was one of 15 Black men killed between 1995 and 2001, but there was something about his death that really was a catalyst for the rebellion. It’s a accumulation of things, and –
Maximillian Alvarez: These are deaths of Black men killed by the Cincinnati police?
Robin D. G. Kelley: …Exactly. And, of course, these are more than deaths, but these are the deaths caused by the Cincinnati Police Department. And he was killed in a neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine, which was in the process of going through gentrification. For me, it’s a personal story, because Over-the-Rhine was the epicenter of the Cincinnati rebellion, and I was there a year after giving a talk at a space called The Center for Community Engagement, which was created specifically in response to the rebellion. So I’m right in Over-the-Rhine, in a building that’s been renovated to create this social space for people to come together and talk.
And I saw the aftermath. I studied in Cincinnati. I worked with the late Thomas Dutton, who’s an amazing radical architect who’d bring students to Over-the-Rhine. And what he was trying to do was stop gentrification by getting his students to renovate some of the burned-out buildings to house the homeless. And, by the way, that neighborhood had the largest concentration of homeless people and houseless people, but also it was a center of a place called the Drop-Inn Center, which was a shelter, but more than a shelter, it was a political space. And Thomas Dutton was very close to that. I had witnessed this, I had seen Cincinnati, I had been writing about Cincinnati since at least 2004, 2005. Manning Marable, who was my colleague and friend, he’s from Ohio, we’ve talked a lot about Cincinnati over the years.
It’s a special place, but it’s also a place where the Cincinnati police were put on notice. They had a very long history of racist violence, not unlike other cities, but it was pretty extreme. And as a consequence of the rebellion, all these grassroots movements as well as mainstream civil rights movements, were able to force the city into a collaborative agreement to try to reform the police. And it worked for about, maybe, a month. I’m being generous; it didn’t work at all. But some things did change, but they didn’t change permanently; they changed temporarily. And then you get an uptick again of police violence, of misconduct, defunding of the civilian complaint process. And it’s back to business as usual.
And part of what I’m going to talk about is how the history of police violence and the history of the gentrification of Over-the-Rhine converge to create this toxic moment, which then perpetuates police violence in those hotspots where capital is trying to move certain people out, increase the value of the land, and take it back. That’s largely what it’s about. And there’s a conclusion or some lessons that I will talk about in this talk.
Maximillian Alvarez: Even before getting to the conclusions, right? Establishing the basis of an analysis here there’s so much there that you demonstrate in this lecture about the Cincinnati uprising, and that reveals the heart of racial capitalism. And I can’t help but see and feel the connections to where we are right now at the University of Houston. Of course, George Floyd grew up in Houston, in the Cuney Homes projects down in the Third Ward.
And in understanding the role that that plays in who George Floyd was, the world that he inhabited, connecting that to the system of racial terror, police violence, extraction, and the policing, and the conversion of entire human populations, predominantly poor, working class, Black, Brown, Indigenous populations into this discardable surplus. I was wondering if you could talk a bit again for folks who maybe have started to develop – Since the George Floyd uprisings in 2020 – More of a systemic view of police violence and the role that the systematicity of police oppression of Black people, particularly Black men, how that connects to these economic things that you’re talking about? Like the gentrification of places like Houston and Cincinnati. Walk us through that a little bit more.
Robin D. G. Kelley: Yeah, the best way to illuminate it is just to compare George Floyd’s life with Timothy Thomas’s life. When you break it down, both of them – And not just both of them, but their friends – And this is important, that the whole community had targets on their backs from the time they were born, at least from the time they got to grade school. Part of Timothy Thomas’s story is the fact that he was being chased down because he had 19 tickets, and outstanding warrants because he couldn’t pay those tickets.
Maximillian Alvarez: All misdemeanors.
Robin D. G. Kelley: All misdemeanors.
Maximillian Alvarez: But he couldn’t pay them and they became a warrant.
Robin D. G. Kelley: Exactly. And a couple of them are like, he got tickets in absentia because he ran when a cop said, wait. And he ran. Of course he’s going to run. I grew up in neighborhoods where you run from the cops. The fact that he has an accumulation of tickets, bureaucratic administrative violence that he’s dealing with, and extraction, because he has to pay those tickets. And when he can’t, a warrant goes out. And of course the value of the price of the ticket goes up.
The case of George Floyd, from the time he was a teenager, he was targeted. If he wasn’t selling drugs, the assumption is that he probably was selling drugs. Part of George Floyd’s story is how many times he was stopped, harassed, assumed to be doing something that he shouldn’t be doing, up to no good, and then moving through a system where he actually had dreams. He was a great athlete, he thought he was going to make it into the pros, whether it’s basketball, football. It wasn’t that he was in the wrong crowd, it’s that his crowd was already targeted. Everyone was being stopped.
And then once the possibility of leaping out of that environment diminished, what choice did he have? Low-level sales of drugs, which of course today, all kinds of corporate figures are making money off of cannabis. But in those days, that’s not how it worked. And it doesn’t work that way either for most Black people. In many ways they were caught in the crosshairs, whether or not it’s the Third Ward, which was over-policed. And we’re in the Third Ward now. Over-policed, not necessarily subject to certain areas of hypergentrification; or in Over-the-Rhine that was subject to those.
The history of Cincinnati and the history of Houston are very similar in that these are hypersegregated cities segregated by race and by class. And not only that, but in the neoliberal era which they both emerged in, it’s one where you have a disappearance of a social safety net. The youth programs that provided employment that – When I was a kid, because I’m older than both of them – were available. Those basically disappeared. Public housing, which should have been a public good, became a space for the perpetuation of violence and an informal economy that really didn’t benefit people. It kept people alive to a certain degree. The environment itself wasn’t conducive to being a kid, and to be a kid and make mistakes. Because that’s the other thing: if you look at both Thomas and Floyd, they went through this world doing great things and making mistakes along the way, but those mistakes proved to be fatal; fatal in terms of the long-term trajectory of their lives.
There’s a really important lesson here about things that are old-fashioned. Segregation is not just about separation of Black people and Brown people from white people. Segregation is the reproduction of a certain violence and economic inequality that’s grounded in not just the spatial distinction, but in the ability to turn that spatial distinction into capital for those who are not living in those ghettos. There is money to be made off of the George Floyds and Timothy Thomases all the time, and not just in the drug trade; there’s money to be made in terms of police budgets, there’s money to be made in terms of ticketing, and that’s municipal and city funds. There’s also money to be made in hyper-security. There’s money to be made in the way that they extract tax dollars through regressive taxes like sales tax, to pay for stadiums.
That’s part of the story I tell, about who pays for the stadiums? Who pays for the Fortune 500 companies that are able to be attracted to cities like Houston and Cincinnati? Who pays for those tax abatements, those tax deductions and things that allow that to happen? And they pay, and then they go to prison, and then they pay again. George Floyd goes to prison a few times and everything’s minor; it’s an accumulation of felonies and arrests. Then you think about when he came out of prison and how he then had the burden of paying court costs and other things that are associated with arrest. You basically pay for your probation officer, you pay for all this stuff. Where’s the money come from? It is an absurd system in which they squeeze the poorest of the poor of everything. And what do they get? They get debt. And meanwhile, cities go into debt to pay for all the police misconduct and all the wrongful death suits, and all these complaints. And who pays that debt? Again, poor people pay that debt.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, The Real News is housed in Baltimore, we see this all the time. It’s the average citizen, Baltimore’s a majority-Black town. We’ve been losing population for decades but for many of the same reasons that you describe in your lecture about Cincinnati. There’s actually a great documentary that my colleagues Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, along with local legendary journalist Jayne Miller, produced on the history of tax subsidies for developers in the city, and why Baltimore has struck upon the genius idea of just giving millions and millions and millions of dollars in tax abatements away to rich developers that are coming out of the general fund, that are coming from the pockets of poor and working Black Baltimoreans, right? To build high-rises on the waterfront that they’ll never be able to live in, and also to pay the payouts for the abuses of the police who are abusing them. So you start to see just how the people living the closest to the bone are the ones who bear the majority of the costs.
And I wanted to again ask a very dumb and leading question, but it’s the one that I imagine is on people’s minds who are still trying to understand this, is why? Why is it in the interests of a capitalist economy to build, maintain, and perpetuate this system of class hierarchy and racial segregation, and extract so much from the people who have so little?
Robin D. G. Kelley: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, because the free market’s a myth. Fundamentally, this belief in the free market, that somehow competition and price is determined by need, it’s all a myth. What keeps capitalism afloat is what Marx called a primitive accumulation, which is not primary accumulation, in the sense that it’s a thing that started it all. It’s a thing that’s perpetual. It continues to this day. Because capital’s always losing profit through this continuing loss of surplus, and the decline of profit, rate of profit, they have to figure out ways to shore it up. And that’s what the state’s for.
Because the one thing that this all has in common, everything we’re talking about, is that the state is the arbiter. The state determines law, it derives state violence. It’s the mechanism that determines tax policy. It’s not the free market. And race has a lot to do with it. It’s not the inherent, intrinsic values of a particular racial group. It’s the fact that certain groups of people, whether they’re identified as immigrants, descendants of slaves, or whatever, have been devalued; psychologically, in terms of how people perceive them, socially. And that devaluation allows all these other people to allow it to happen.
Think about it. If a lot of white working people, who actually suffer from the same system, can see the Timothy Thomases and the George Floyds of the world as their comrades, then they’re like, we would never allow any human being to be treated that way. They wouldn’t do it. But instead, if they’re the source of fear, or the perceived drain on the economy, when in fact, they’re the source of capital’s drain, then you’re not going to see them as potential comrades, or allies, or people who you have to care for. And that’s why it keeps perpetuating, because capitalism’s always losing, capitalism’s always failing. And the way to save it from failing is to keep extracting and exploiting the least of us, in terms of our access to resources.
And that keeps happening. But there’s always a thorn in the side, and that is the people who are the victims of that extraction and violence just don’t sit still. They refuse to accept it. And that’s why you get the Cincinnati Rebellion. That’s how you get the LA rebellion of 1992. That’s how you get Miami in 1980 and ’81. That’s how you get all these different struggles that erupt. That’s how you get Minneapolis in 2020 and the rest of the world. The question is, how do you sustain that? And how can you actually win enough power to be able to stop the process? Because it keeps coming back.
Maximillian Alvarez: I want to end on that by returning to that question of the myth of capitalist efficiency and how it connects to everything that we’re talking about here. But just to build on that last point, one of the things that I admire so much about your work is that you pay deep, loving attention to naming the figures of resistance and the organizations that come out of moments of resistance in certain times, certain places. The people in the community, the youth who are challenging the old guard of the standard-bearers of politics in the Black community, on the left, so on and so forth. And I was wondering if that’s more of the historian’s training in you, or if there’s something deeper there, on an ideological level, that is worth underlining for people?
Because it feels to me like the opposite side of the coin to a refrain that I’ve been hearing more and more from people at protests, or people on the left, or even just regular people who don’t necessarily have a concerted angle to their politics. What I see more and more people saying is that the systems that are oppressing us are not these opaque, faceless monoliths; but the people who are operating those systems, the people making decisions in high offices, in government, in private industry, in the military-industrial complex, they have names and they have addresses. And so you’re seeing people show up to the houses of Supreme Court justices like Brett Kavanaugh, or even the mansions of CEOs like Jeff Bezos, or the CEO of Norfolk Southern after the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine. So I wanted to ask you if there’s more of a political commitment for you to naming those figures of resistance, like in places like Cincinnati in 2001, as opposed to, I don’t know, fetishizing resistance as this supra-individual thing that just erupts out of history?
Robin D. G. Kelley: Well, that’s part of the answer to the question, but it’s a great question for two reasons. One, if you go back to the first part, there’s a tendency, unfortunately, of naming the corporate leadership as a chimera of the system. In other words, you begin to think about these individuals as evil, selfish, greedy. And then as a movement you start to identify the individuals, as if we could remove this person from power, it’s going to solve the problem. So on the flip side, it’s almost dangerous to focus on so much. Although I believe in names. You have to name names. But as long as we remember that behind those names is a whole lot of other names. And not just names, but systems and structures that matter.
I don’t think it’s an accident that when we look at the last 30, 40, 50 years, really, of movements, the most visionary radical movements that we’ve witnessed have emerged in opposition to liberals, not conservatives. It’s the Johnson administration, Obama, Clinton. These are the folks who we now, liberals at least, try to resurrect. Shit, they’re trying to resurrect Reagan. So yeah, we need to go back to that. When in fact, there was a reason why these movements emerged. So that’s that side.
And the other side is – My first book was on the Communist Party of Alabama, which means I can name everybody. In a sense, you had to name people, because these were the people who really were nameless, and yet the most courageous people I’ve ever encountered in my life. And not only that, but in some of these movements, it’s not just one name. When you talk about names, you’re talking about aliases and all these other things. And I say that not to be facetious, but to make a larger point that for them to put their name out there is risking their lives for these movements I’m writing about. For me, acknowledging that a people’s movement is made up not of bodies, but people, and that people have histories, they have experiences, they have backgrounds. The only way you can see the arc of a movement is to actually figure out exactly who those people are, and how they entered the arc. Where’d they come from? What do they do? Who are their people? As Ella Baker would say.
And so I’ve always named people. One of my favorite people in this lecture is this kid named Derrick Blassingame. At 14 years old he formed his own organization against civil injustice. When he’s 14 years old he’s out there saying, misleadership of the NAACP, misleadership of the Urban League, we’re going to come with something new. 14. Who does that, right? He didn’t join at 14, he formed an organization.
There’s all these people who take these stands who need to be acknowledged, not only just for the purposes of recognition, because that’s important too, but for us to understand how people are in motion. You’ve got to know who they are, who their people are, where they came from, what obstacles they confronted, and also, over time, how they’ve been able to see the world differently. That’s not about an accumulation of individuals, that’s about being in a social movement where they collectively are able to figure out things that they couldn’t figure out before. Because you don’t always figure things out from books. Books help, but being in motion – Whether in the streets, or in community centers, or in church basements, or in jail – that is the education that allows you to see things that were purposely hidden from you.
Maximillian Alvarez: I was really struck when you said one of your essential goals is to show people, not just bodies. And I feel like that’s one of the reasons I’ve always felt a close kinship with your work, and it’s one of the principles that I try to live by with the work that I do, especially interviewing workers from around the US and beyond. I’ve said many times that my goal of that coverage is to make it impossible for people to ignore the whole human being behind every name tag and job title, for a number of reasons. The more you humanize that struggle, the more you humanize the cold monster of capitalist exploitation and see the real costs on people, individuals who have other dreams like George Floyd did, who have much more to give than just the bare physical input that their body can give at an Amazon warehouse, but they live in a system that reduces them to nothing more than that. So I have two parts to this question, and how it connects to that –
Robin D. G. Kelley: Before you say that?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah?
Robin D. G. Kelley: This is why you are the real news. See, Max, seriously, this is why The Real News is the only thing worth watching. And I really mean that. Because you do succeed in breaking down what is left of the left academic wall. The wall that’s put in front of us to make sense of things by removing people and removing the messiness and giving us some structure, when what we really get is a skeleton and not the organs. See, I’m watching The Real News for the organs.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you, brother, that means more to me than you’ll ever know, I really do appreciate that. I was thinking after reading your lecture – I don’t know why my mind went here – But again, – Thinking about that question of efficiency, and the role that the fiction of capitalist efficiency plays in the violent maintenance of racial capitalism. Where the ideology that the free market is ultimately the most rational, self-correcting, and efficient means of distributing resources, goods, and services, so on and so forth. It may stumble a bit, but ultimately, the market is more dynamic than a planned state economy.
It brought me back to a warehouse I worked at as a temp in Southern California, in the City of Industry. This was in 2011, and our family was in the midst of losing everything in the wake of the recession, including the house that I grew up in. I’d graduated from college with a degree that apparently meant jack shit in the middle of a recession, so I was working as a temp at this warehouse. 12-hour days. And I remember getting into it with the VP of the company who came onto the warehouse floor to chew us out, saying that we were being inefficient. And at this point, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was like, I’m not taking shit from this guy. So I made him the target of all my pent-up frustrations, and we got into a yelling match in front of the other workers. Because what he was saying was that we weren’t being efficient enough and all he meant was we’re not going fast enough. And I said, efficiency doesn’t just mean speed, it means speed without mistakes. You guys just keep bringing in new temps without giving them proper training and then we spend time correcting everyone’s mistakes.
But what I realized later is that we had two very different definitions of efficiency. We were talking past each other because he was still very much in that mode of you people are nothing but raw physical energy to be thrown at a problem. Treating you better, improving the quality of your work, giving you more proper training so you make fewer mistakes; that didn’t even enter his calculus. And I feel like there’s an interesting potential for merging what so many folks, including yourself, have pointed out as the gross inhumane inefficiency of racial capitalism and the daily experiences that so many working people have. Where they themselves are seeing how inefficient these operations are, how much waste there is in the system.
I hear it from Chipotle workers who are chronically understaffed. Their bosses know they’re understaffed, their bosses aren’t even really trying hard to hire people. And we all see it as customers, because anyone who’s walked into a Chipotle in the past year has seen most of the stuff isn’t available, there are three frantic people running around, everyone’s pissed. That’s systemic, I’ve seen it all over the place. I see it at Starbucks. I see it in hospitals where nurses have unmanageable nurse-to-patient ratios; education, where teachers have class loads of 35 to even 40. The railroads were a big thing we covered last year, where we’re moving statistically less freight than we should be. We’re running workers into the ground, and we’re pissing off shippers by charging astronomical rates. But the railroads are more profitable than ever.
And by bringing us around this final turn, do you think that with the passage of time and the continual degradation and rapacious quest for profit that we’re seeing in so many areas of our lives, is there a way to harness that to the political message of, this system is not only monstrous and inhumane, but it is deeply wasteful?
Robin D. G. Kelley: That is the question. And it’s interesting, because one of the major sources of this is Frederick Winslow Taylor. He’s the main person associated with labor efficiency through time-motion studies. So the idea is – And that’s why Taylorism is a terrible thing – Taylorism is not even good for capitalism, but the belief is it’s good. And this is why. Taylorism is all about trying to reduce labor to machines, to parts of machines. So, instead of having one person with the knowledge to do something, you have five people with knowledge to do one thing. And that’s the one thing they do, repetitive, repetitive motion. Because the idea is that if you can just know how to do one thing you don’t need to be skilled. And if you’re not skilled and you’re doing one thing, you’re not really using your brain to its full capacity.
So what ends up happening is you get situations like the warehouse you’re working in, where the idea of Taylorism is to increase efficiency by reducing labor costs. And you do that by paying people less, and having fewer people to do the same thing. And it’s really stupid when you think about it. What’s lost? Think about all the imagination and the brain power that comes with making something, or doing something, or delivering something. That’s why so much of labor struggles in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century have been around labor control, workers’ control. Because the idea is that we’re the ones making stuff, we actually know how to do it, and we can do it better than you.
And I’ll give you a beautiful example of this in the healthcare industry. Nurses are being slammed. It’s just tragic. And this is being slammed with the task of caring for people. It’s life and death. And you’re making one nurse do the work of five or six nurses. So a dramatic example is Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in the late 1960s, early ’70s was a terrible place, people were dying. Nurses were overworked, doctors were overworked, doctors wanted a change. Why? Because they were trying to extract more money and profits from the labor. So the Young Lords come and they take over the hospital. They take it. And they’re like, this is liberated territory. And the doctors are like, yeah! And the nurses are like, yeah! And they reorganized a dilapidated hospital with outdated equipment and turned it into something efficient. And they create Lincoln Detox, which is the most efficient, non-chemical way to detoxify people from heroin through acupuncture and acupressure.
So all I’m saying is that in this moment that we’re in, what we’re seeing are people who actually have the wherewithal, imagination, planning, to make things, and do things, and live a good life, and actually create better products, and make things available. But to do that means the massive corporate profit that CEOs and shareholders expect, they’re not going to get that. Instead, they’ll actually get health and safety, and people happy, and people working, producing a really good product.
But instead, mass production basically means they’re producing things for only one purpose, and that is to sell and move those commodities. So they mass produce things that we don’t even need, which is also part of the waste. So you’re making stuff we don’t need, you’re making people work in ways that are totally inefficient, that actually damage the body, damage the mind, that underuse our mental capacity. And then those people who can’t get jobs in that system end up going to an informal economy, or end up in prison. So we have 2-plus million people in prisons – That’s not even jails and all the other stuff – Who I know are smarter than half the people on the Supreme Court. I know that for a fact. I can prove that. And they’re there, and what are they doing? They’re in cages, often in solitary, for hours upon hours doing nothing. Or they’re working for pennies, or they’re putting out fires for a dollar a day. What a waste of human potential. And that’s not even the socialist position. Of course it’s socialist in a sense, but even the capitalists don’t realize the waste of human potential.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s why I asked, again, I’m thinking about that in two registers. And we’re talking about one is that working people: poor working people and oppressed people, who themselves make this system run and who, as we’ve already said, bear the majority of the costs of that system, are in the best position to say, you’re not even doing the most efficient job of achieving the goals that capitalism says it wants to achieve.
And that’s what made me think about it in the context of places like Cincinnati or Houston. It’s like, if you want to raise property values and encourage investments, there actually are much more efficient ways to help the community that’s there and see them as agents of that change, as opposed to just people in the way of what the developers want. And all of that money that is squeezed out of poor and working residents to bankroll the building of a new stadium, and give away with tax abatements for developers, and so on; there’s already so much waste in that system. Much like at the warehouses and these hospitals, even in terms of achieving what the system says it wants to achieve for us, we’re already wasting so much potential.
But on the deeper level is – And this is where I wanted to end, and you already walked us up to there – As I think about the larger existential question of how we treat life, particularly the lives of poor and working people and I look around and I see all this squandered potential, all this wasted beauty that you write about very well when you’re talking about people who are victimized by the police. And that’s like what I thought watching, again, the horrific footage of George Floyd being murdered by Derek Chauvin. It’s what I thought reading your lecture on Timothy Thomas and Cincinnati. And I was thinking about the lost potential for futures that were too poor, and oppressed, and tired, and exploited to even dream of because we’re limited to the prerogatives of bare survival.
And I kept coming back to this famous quote by Stephen Jay Gould that I’ll read here, where he wrote, “I’m somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain, than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” And I wanted to end by asking about that, of how, out of this relentless violence, and pain, and waste, we can also help people see the cost that all of us bear for just squandering all of the potential of people like George Floyd, and the people, like you said, the 2-plus million who are currently housed in the prisons.
My colleague and comrade, Eddie Conway, just passed away. That man was sitting in prison for 44 years. Imagine how much better the world would’ve been if he was able to organize on the outside for those 44 years, and all the people’s lives he would’ve touched? So I wanted to end on that note, if you had any thoughts on how we can also bake into the lessons we learn, the struggles that we’re engaged in, that helps people understand the potential for making the world over again that lives within all of us, but is squandered by the viciousness of racial capitalism.
Robin D. G. Kelley: Right, oh, what a question. What a great quote, too. Three things: One, there are a million Gramscis in prison right now, so remember that. He wasn’t singular. They may not have prison notebooks, but there are million Gramscis in prison that we can learn from. And some of the best lawyers on the planet are locked up. That’s just a fact.
Two, we live in a world that treats the planet the way it treats its people. So when we think about the existential threat of planetary destruction, we’re doing that to people. It’s one and the same. And we should think of the – Let’s call it what it is, let’s call it genocidal. And not just in this country, but around the globe, the ongoing genocide to basically extract value and surplus from people. And at what cost?
And third, in thinking about someone like George Floyd, who, when he was in grade school, dreamed of being on the Supreme Court. And I think to myself, boy, I would’ve preferred George Floyd over just about anybody on the Supreme Court. And what was lost in the process. Potential doesn’t mean that you wake up in the morning, or you’re born with the brilliance that could solve problems. Potential is the opportunity to study, to think, to learn, to make mistakes, to get support. And meanwhile, in this country, most of the people who run things are mediocre. Really mediocre. I work at a university where all the people who run things, this bothers me, are pretty mediocre. And imagine that they were able to be in a position that they’re in because they had the opportunities to study, to think, to make mistakes. So we need to rethink stuff.
And finally, which is tied to the last point, is that all of us need to think about Stephen Jay Gould’s quote, because many of us who actually are on the left, many of us who are, in some ways, in the same position of being treated as refuse, also don’t have the confidence in people like themselves to run things. C. L. R. James wrote this pamphlet called Every Cook Can Govern. And I still get into debates with people like, no, that’s not true. Of course it’s true. You think about ancient Greek society, even though it’s pro-slavery and all that other stuff, the idea that governing is something that is like lottery, like it’s your turn comes up and you have to govern? That makes perfect sense. But it only makes perfect sense if you actually believe in the capacity of people to be able to make decisions, to learn, to study, to make mistakes.
And this is what perpetuates it: we’re still locked in a faux meritocracy – Or I should say technocracy – A combination of those two things where we think that someone needs credentials, or some connections, or some special insights to be able to make decisions for us. And it’s amazing how, ideologically, when you live in a republic that’s anti-democratic, which is called the United States – I’ll debate anyone saying this is a democracy – But it’s one in which it’s anti-democracy, and it’s also based on whatever representative democracy. That is to say, you pick the person who has the most money, who has the best ads, to basically make decisions for you, and you don’t even talk to them. That’s what this thing’s called. But if we believe in that as a culture, then it’s very hard to think about the folks working, picking cotton, being able to have the capacity that Einstein has.
And that’s the point. So we have to make a leap. It’s not just the powers that are pulling the wool over us, it’s about the ideological weight of expertise, and how fake it is, and how we have to leap. Because that system of expertise, the system of full meritocracy, it’s all the things that determine, again, human value. How much people get paid for what they do. Why should a CEO, who really doesn’t do that much, get paid 500 times more than the person who’s actually making the thing that the CEO’s responsible for? And most CEOs, what do they do? Some of them go to jail because they’re corrupt. Some of them lose money, billions of dollars for companies, and end up getting another job. Some of them have affairs, and in terms of their morality, they’re willing to fire people on the left-hand side, but give kickbacks to their friends. Who wants those people to run our world? I’d rather go through any maximum security prison, or any reform school, or whatever to find people who have that capacity, and just live a different world.