Eddie Glaude, professor and chair of African American Studies at Princeton University, is one of America’s leading intellectuals on democracy, religion and race.
He released his most recent books, including “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,” just ahead of the 2016 and 2020 elections. They examine how racism contradicts and still thwarts the promise of democracy. When he thinks What the Future, Glaude sees a better America through achieving a multiracial democracy.
Kate MacArthur: How would you describe the state of American democracy today?
Eddie Glaude: Fragile, on a knife’s edge, on life support.
MacArthur: Have you seen any signs or deeds that will help catapult us toward a more inclusive democracy?
Glaude: Absolutely. When we look at the protests in the middle of COVID-19, see the cross-section of Americans in the streets, think about the coalition that shaped and informed this past presidential election. When we look at the data around people and how they’re thinking about race and the economy, folks are clamoring for something different. The real hard work begins now. How will we imagine a new society where everyone is affirmed?
MacArthur: You’ve suggested a revolution of value around how we view government, how we view Black people (and ultimately the idea of white people) and what matters to us as Americans. What might that revolution look like?
Glaude: We finally have to leave behind this idea that white people ought to be valued more than others, and that’s going to require us telling different stories. We saw this during the protests around George Floyd, as people attacked our public monuments, our Confederate monuments and the like.
In order to change what we value, we have to give voice to a different kind of moral and social contract. That we’re not just simply about economics, where the only thing that matters is profit and material acquisition. That every American should have decent housing and a living wage, that we should all have access to quality healthcare and that moral contract actually evidences itself in how we budget. In other words, we budget our values, and we think about a transformational government. That’s my ivory tower, utopian vision of a better America.
MacArthur: Can such a revolution be done peacefully?
Glaude: I pray that it can. It rarely has been. People tend to think of social arrangements as a zero-sum game. That if we’re talking about a more just world, some people have to give up something in order for other people to live fuller lives, and folks don’t want to give up anything. I’m not suggesting that it can’t happen. In fact, I want to bank my all on a peaceful revolution of value. But I’m not naive.
MacArthur: Various experts have talked about needing to understand Latino and Hispanic voters more complexly. Yet some have said Black voters are easier to understand because they have a more singular racial experience in America. So how might these identity nuances shape our future?
Glaude: The short answer is this: If we root out racial bias in every aspect of our lives as best we can, then it seems to me that Black and Latinx communities, however complex they may be, will benefit immediately. And that’s going to require us being honest about how white identity politics distorts our democracy.
You see how I flipped it? The problem isn’t us. It’s the other way around. Because when we think about how do we address the complexity of Latinx communities, how do we address the complexity of Black communities, the question I’m asking is what sort of hell are they catching and why? When we begin to dig deeper into that question, we’ll see that there are reasons why advantages and disadvantages are being distributed in the way in which they are.
MacArthur: Do you think it’s time for a new Constitution?
Glaude: I’ve never been asked that question, and honestly, my gut reaction is no. It may require a different kind of preamble. Not that we tinker with the details of governance, of the structure of government, but a preamble that states our values in a much clearer way, perhaps.
MacArthur: What would make a major difference going forward for people in that way?
Glaude: The one thing I don’t want to do is to presume that I have the answer to that. I’m struggling like everyone else. If we begin to really value labor in this country and really address how race continues to hold the country back and really pursue a policy agenda that will benefit all Americans—even those 74 million-plus people who disagree with a Biden administration—then we can begin to shift the frame. We’re going to have to uproot the racist assumptions driving Reaganism in some ways. What that will look like policy-wise, I’m not sure yet. But I do know we have to break the frame.
MacArthur: How does capitalism fit into the democracy that you envision?
Glaude: Look, unbridled greed poses an existential threat to democratic life, period. My view is that any economic system that presupposes the necessity of disposable people is, by definition, wrong. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the importance of markets to improve the quality of life of everyday, ordinary folks. Part of what we have to do is understand that the moral and social contract that is needed in order to fix our broken society begins with the assumption that no human being is disposable. How we build an economic system that reflects that value is at the heart of my conception of democracy. And if we want to name it a kind of benign or moral capitalism, fine, but as long as it begins with that presupposition, then I’m on its side.