“The fiftieth anniversary of Angela Davis’s historic acquittal of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, charges that once threatened her execution, was little acknowledged this past June, but as a thinker she may be as influential today as she has ever been,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in an essay in our September 22, 2022 issue. Taylor argues that Davis’s contributions to the Black radicalism of the 1960s and beyond have often been overlooked, both because of her gender and because of her unwavering belief that capitalism is the fundamental cause of oppression in America and cannot be reformed.
There is an affinity between Davis’s work and Taylor’s—Taylor’s 2019 book, Race for Profit,which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History, detailed how economic policies putatively designed to uplift Black homeowners after the abolition of legal housing discrimination actually opened new avenues for financial predation and only further entrenched racial segregation and income disparities. A professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, former housing activist and organizer, and contributing writer at The New Yorker, Taylor writes about the most urgent political issues of our day—the housing crisis, abortion rights, police violence—as well as past and present social movements. We corresponded over e-mail this week about debates on today’s left, Reaganism, and what she’s been reading.
Willa Glickman: How did you come to focus on housing activism? And what led you toward academic work?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: When I moved to Chicago in 1998 the racial segregation across the city struck me like a brick wall. I had never seen anything like it, and I grew up in the South. So it began with an interest in how the geography of the city fed and shaped its political culture. I read a lot of books about Chicago and its politics, and then in 2005 I began a job with an organization that helped tenants circumvent their evictions in court. I was a tenant advocate and became well versed in Chicago tenant law. This coincided with the beginning of the housing crisis in Black communities, which eventually devolved into the full-blown housing meltdown in 2007. That crisis was mostly confined to homeowners, but poor and working-class renters are always in crisis in the private market. For me, the housing insecurity that pervades the lives of ordinary people is incredibly personal, and politically it is the epicenter of capitalism’s failure. My mom was foreclosed out of our house when I was twelve. We moved houses when I was in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, and then again in my sophomore year of high school—then I moved away altogether. My work as a housing advocate during the greatest catastrophe in the American housing market compelled me to understand why this could happen. After dropping out of college twice, I returned to school to finish my degree so that I could go to graduate school and answer the question.
Your essay describes disagreements about anticapitalism in the radical Black left of the 1960s. How do you think these arguments have changed (or not) among activists and academics working for Black liberation today?
What those debates in the 1960s were really getting at was, “How do we change this society?” There were some who may have felt that the problems confronting Black people were overwhelming, and so we should focus on those issues that we can control. Thus you get an emphasis on community control and community politics on the one hand, and on the other hand, some who delved deeply into cultural politics. Others, like the Black Panther Party or similar revolutionary Black nationalists, believed that capitalism is too powerful a force for us to try and work around, and that our politics must be geared toward fighting capitalism. But even that did not create a political consensus of what the struggle should then look like: Do we engage in armed conflict against the American state, as the Panthers once argued? Should we attack capitalism at the point of production in the nation’s factories, as the different expressions of the Revolutionary Union Movement argued? Or do we build a socialist movement on the basis of solidarity, which seeks to unite the different factions, as the Combahee River Collective argued in the late 1970s after radicalization had come and gone?
The debates have changed today but they are still rooted in the question of how to change our society. Now we contend more with whether we can use the money and resources of foundations and NGOs to build revolutionary or radical projects. What is the relationship of the radical left to the Democratic Party, a question very much alive in the 1960s but imbued with important differences today? The main difference being that fifty or so years ago, Black electoral politics was emergent. Today, we have lived through two terms of a Black presidency and the highest concentration of Black elected officials in Congress and beyond in American history. So the question of whether we can vote our way into liberation is no longer an abstraction. Most importantly, how do we build democratic, accountable political organizations that are truly representative of ordinary people? It was a crucial question in the 1960s and 1970s and it is the crucial question facing us today.
Are there scholars writing about Black liberation right now whose work you are especially excited by? Or thinkers from the past who are relevant again today?
The protests of 2020 revealed the extent to which our political movements or aspirations for political movements are at a real crossroads. Do we continue to place the vast majority of our hopes, expectations, time, and commitment in conventional politics that produce outcomes insufficient for the crises confronting our society and species? Or do we really begin to engage in the necessary project of rebuilding a radical, even revolutionary left that aspires to replace capitalist exploitation and oppression with the egalitarian politics and principles of socialism, mutual abundance, and collective commonwealth within a multiracial democracy? It seems starkly polarizing and yet these are the choices confronting us.
I think the abolitionist literature that is flowering today gives us a glimpse of these possibilities, and the challenges of changing the underlying architecture of our society on its own. This includes the works of Mariame Kaba, Derecka Purnell, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robyn Maynard, and of course the continued writing and public talks of Angela Davis, among a growing coterie of others. Then there is a broader constellation of writing and research that documents histories of struggle and the many contributions of Black radicals. The work of Robin D. G. Kelley remains crucial, especially the newest edition of his classic Freedom Dreams. The philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has written a critical book, Elite Capture, that everyone invested in rebuilding a radical left in this country must heed.
I’d also urge people to seek out the new edition of Saidiya Hartman’s venerable Scenes of Subjection; the historian Donna Murch’s newest collection, Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Racial Capitalism and the Movement for Black Lives; the writing of the political scientist Naomi Murakawa on race and the politics of crime; and Eddie Glaude’s readable Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
Are you working on any new projects?
There are two projects that I am at varying stages of work on. One looks at the transformations of the political and social life of Black America in the first generation after the civil rights victories of the 1960s. I am interested in the significant changes in Black life in the 1980s, when we have the maturation of Black elected officials after the first generation of postwar Black political power. I am curious about how the emergence of Black celebrity and a small but influential Black elite obscures the effects of Reagan’s drug war on the Black working class and Black poor, and the bipartisan war on Black women labeled as “welfare queens,” teen mothers, and other disparagements rooted in race and gender. I want to understand how the return of the nomenclature of a Black underclass helped to dissolve the bonds of Black America, while uniting a bipartisan and multiracial political class in supporting the drug war and ideologically dismantling the fragile American social welfare state. Both of these developments set the stage for the huge transfer of wealth from the bottom of society to the top that defined Reaganism but also came to define late-twentieth-century Democratic Party politics.
My second project is a kind of political biography of Angela Davis. I want to write a book that seeks to understand and expand the meaning of the “Black radical tradition,” as mediated through the life of Davis. She is one of the rare figures whose political life connects the most critical periods of Black radicalism. Her childhood among Black Communists organizing in Alabama prefigured the civil rights organizing that prevailed in the 1960s. Their work also gestured at the growth of the anticapitalist politics that were the heart of Black radicalism in the 1960s, powered by the radicalization of Davis’s generation. She famously joined the Communist Party, but through her involvement in an all-Black chapter along with her eventual imprisonment, she developed her own eclectic approach to politics that came to center the institution of the prison and the oppression of women as particularly important sites of political struggle. Eventually, for Davis, these politics developed into prison abolition and what she and her collaborators have described as “abolition feminism.” These are not just the political proclivities of Angela Davis—in her underappreciated role as a public intellectual, writer, and public speaker, she has helped to shape public consciousness and bring critiques of mass incarceration, policing, and the criminal justice system into the mainstream.