As the Trump administration hobbles and flails in the vague direction of Day 100 – 96 down, just 1,364 to go as of this writing – it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day incompetence and surreal ineptitude of The Donald and his Legion of Doom: e.g. Sean Spicer on Hitler; e.g. Jeff Sessions on Hawaii, e.g. the taxpayer tab for all those weekend jaunts to Mar-a-Lago; e.g. Trump’s historically low approval ratings; e.g. Trump’s oratory prowess and display of patriotism during the recent Easter Egg Roll.
But focusing on things like our Commander-in-Chief reviewing policy briefs in the Oval Office with Kid Rock and Ted “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” Nugent, would be to lose sight of what Donald Trump’s presidency has really been: a full-scale assault on America’s most threatened populations. From his bumbling attempt to strip 24 millions Americans of their health insurance to rescinding protections for transgender students to proposing a budget that cuts vital services for lower-income Americans to refusing to monitor troubled police agencies, President Trump has demonstrated a disregard – if not outright animosity – for our most vulnerable communities.
However, that disregard and animosity is certainly nothing new or unique to the Trump Administration. In his latest book, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, Marc Lamont Hill describes a growing group of citizens “made vulnerable, exploitable, and disposable” in contemporary America. In telling the stories of those regarded by the powerful and privileged as “Nobody” – people like the citizens of Flint, Mich., black men and women like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin, like Sandra Bland and Walter Scott – Hill places our current moment in historical context while offering an examination of race, class, and capitalism in 21st-century America.
Hill — a distinguished professor of African American studies at Morehouse College, host of BET News and VH1 Live, and a political contributor for CNN — spoke with The Millions by phone about police brutality, American Empire in decline, the importance of black bookstores, and the power of everyday people to change the world.
The Millions: Nobody was published while Barack Obama was president. The paperback comes out with a very different man in the Oval Office. Obviously, Donald Trump isn’t good for the vulnerable people you’re writing about in Nobody—but how exactly does he alter your thinking? Does he change the way we need to approach fighting the oppression of people “marked as poor, black, brown, immigrant, queer, or trans”?
Marc Lamont Hill: I’m not sure that he does. I think that’s what’s interesting. What I get at in the book is that we can’t reduce the condition of our nation or the plight of the vulnerable to a set of dispositions, a set of attitudes, or a small group of people with a particular point of view. There’s a deeper structural problem here. There’s a deeper institutional challenge that we face…I don’t ever think that a particular kind of tide turn or election outcome will alter the fundamental structural challenges that we face. If anything, it just reminds me that we have serious work to do, no matter who’s in office.
I do think, though, that Donald Trump represents a different moment. Part of the problem is that we’ve cried wolf so many times when a Republican runs for office. We say ‘Oh, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened in the history of America, and if we elect so-and-so the sky’s going to fall.’
TM: Meanwhile, Mitt Romney sounds wonderful right about now.
MLH: Exactly. And then you get a Donald Trump. And it’s like, oh wait, maybe the sky actually is falling this time. Even Republicans are saying, ‘Hey, this is not what we’re used to, what we imagined.’
The Donald Trump moment represents something different in that it may feel more urgent, and some of the battles that we fought in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s are now forced to be re-fought and some of the legal victories that we achieved are now going to have to be relitigated. The Donald Trump moment may represent a greater urgency and a kind of re-tracking of previous moments…Despite the darkness of the moment, we can still change. The thing that gives me hope is the fact that since August 9, 2014, we have seen a sustained and protracted movement of activists, of students, of clergy, who are changing the game. We’re watching social media become different in terms of its usage. We’re watching digital technology. We’re watching all of this stuff become something else. It’s an extraordinary moment with extraordinary possibilities. They say only in the darkness can you see the stars. The Trump moment is darker, but to me that just spotlights what’s possible even more.
TM: There are a lot of people who think the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner are part of a recent trend, a spike in police violence. But the truth is that the killing of black men and women by police is nothing new. What’s different—and you point this out in the book—is that now people have cellphones and they can take video and upload it to the Internet. I’m interested in your take on technology’s changing role as a tool in the struggle against oppression.
MLH: The fact that the technology exists in some ways underscores a deeper problem, which is around the ability of black people to narrate their own experience with credibility. Black witness doesn’t matter. The fact that black folks have been saying ‘Hey, we’re getting killed,’ forever doesn’t matter. We talk about police brutality, police terrorism. Every experience you’ve seen on these videos are experiences that are articulated by black people. And people say, ‘Oh, you’re exaggerating.’ I mean Rodney King. People in South Central L.A. weren’t shocked by that. They were just shocked that the police didn’t see the camera.
While some people are really excited about this moment, and there is reason to be, it’s also a reminder that black witness in and of it itself means nothing. That it’s only with the augmentation of the cellphone, smartphone technology, digital video streaming, that people believe us. And essentially, they’re not believing us; they’re believing their own eyes.
The problem is that when you live in a nation-state that is undergirded by white supremacy, by anti-black racism, and by really irrational narratives about black people, the video still proves insufficient. How many times did we watch Walter Scott run away?
He gets shot in the back and it didn’t matter. We watched Sandra Bland get harassed, it didn’t matter. We saw Eric Garner with his hands up, it didn’t matter. So, this technology is helpful in a certain way. It certainly helped, it was a mobilizing tool and an organizing tool, and it certainly gives us a better chance at quote-unquote justice than we would have without it. But I never want to overstate or fetishize technology because that suggests that the system is functional in the interest of justice, and all we needed was just a little more proof and we’d be in there, and that’s just not the case.
TM: In a previous interview in this series, Pankaj Mishra talked about the unfulfilled promise of neoliberal capitalism and democracy and how it fuels both terrorism and populist rage. In Nobody you talk about the role of neoliberal capitalism—that valuing of unrestrained profit for the few over the public good, which obviously leads to more citizens that are vulnerable and disposable. What are the historical processes that led us to this point where we’re devaluing everything except increased profits at all costs?
MLH: We’ve always valued democratic citizenship, and democracy is almost an obsession of America. What’s contested is what democracy looks like, how it’s constituted, and how we arrived there. And over the last few decades—not just here, but in Britain and other places around the world—the liberalization of the market, that is to say the unfettering of market forces, has led us to not just worship the market and to believe in the capacity of the market to yield all positive outcomes, but it’s also led us to equate unfettered capitalism with full-fledged democracy. And therefore, citizenship becomes consumership. And so, over the decades…you find an increased sense that to be a citizen is to be a consumer. The more access you have to goods and consumption, the more rich and full your citizenship is, the more fully realized your democratic project is.
The problem is as people don’t have access to capital, as they don’t have access to individual success and prosperity—which becomes the measure of progress; it’s no longer a collective vision, it’s no longer a valuing of the welfare state or a collective investment in the good of everyone, but rather individual success and merit—what you begin to see is the collapse of people’s faith in the system when they’re not accessing those notions of prosperity. If I look up 20 years later and I can’t work at the assembly line in Flint anymore and I can’t get a living-wage job anymore, I’m now thinking something’s wrong. I’m now thinking something’s wrong with the country. I’m thinking the country’s moving in the wrong direction. And it’s very easy under those regimes and under those moments to not blame the system itself because it’s easier to imagine the end of the world itself than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
You then blame all the people who weren’t there before, all the forces that weren’t there before, all the leadership structures that weren’t there before. You blame the black president, you blame the Mexicans, you blame the Arabs for taking the jobs. You don’t question the actual mechanisms of capital. You don’t question the oligarchies. You don’t question the one percent because you still aspire to be the one percent, even if it’s against all empirical evidence to the contrary…
If you normalize the idea that individual prosperity is the measure of who we’re supposed to be as citizens and that collective consumership is the marker of an effective democracy, then you end up in a space where 99 percent of us—certainly 90 percent of us—are going to be profoundly frustrated at all times with the condition of our democracy.
But again, you’re not looking at the machinery of capital, you’re looking at all these other factors, which are really symptoms and not the problem itself, not the illness itself. And that’s how you end up with a Trump in office: because you’ve got a bunch of poor, disenfranchised people who decide to choose a billionaire to lead them out of the economic disaster—when Trump’s economic power and value itself hinges upon the accumulation of mass amounts of wealth at the expense of most people; when his market logic demands a small group of people having a whole bunch of stuff, when efficiencies demand that the job that was once in Flint is now in East Asia, that the job that was in Ferguson, Missouri, is now in the Far East. When that happens, you’re signing up for more of the same problem, but it makes you feel better. It’s like when your eye itches and you keep scratching it. It’s like this isn’t working, but nothing else is, so let me just keep scratching it, because this is supposed to be working. And that’s what’s happening right now.
TM: In the book, you say the perfect complement to the current neoliberal economic moment is a turning away from community—people are more isolated, they’re more fragmented; you don’t have to leave your house, everything is online and everything is delivered. How does that shift exacerbate the war on the vulnerable and how can community help the fightback?
MLH: We are always at our best when we’re organized. We’re always at our best when we’re connected and we’re working together and building together. The problem is the forces of neoliberalism…at the discursive and cultural level, they value the individual so much more—we live in the age of the selfie. Everyone’s the star of his own show. Everybody’s the big attraction of their timeline. Everyone’s going live. Everyone’s doing all the stuff that pulls people away, because we’re only thinking about the self. But then the material conditions of community are also dismantled. So, the community bookstore can’t exist anymore.
The public experience we previously imagined—and however flawed and romanticized it was, overly nostalgic it was—there once was a café, there once was a salon, there once was a Masonic Lodge, there once was even a street corner—where we would stand on 125th Street or 52nd Street in Philly or wherever—and we would talk and we would engage and we would build with one another.
I spent my childhood in black book stores engaging ideas. The problem is there’s no black bookstore anymore, because Amazon comes, and Amazon comes because it’s cheaper, it’s more efficient. Big-box retailers break down the mom-and-pop stores. They break down the local places. Even the local corner store that would exist, you know? And we’d hang out in front and talk shit, right? But there’s no corner store anymore because there’s a Target up the street where I can get a flat-screen TV and a pack of steaks and my prescription filled all at the same place. The way community is engaged is now much more routinized, it’s much more mechanical, it’s much more technocratic where these big-box retailers all are online. And so much of the physical interaction and connection that we had has now been replaced into the digital sphere.
I’m not saying the digital sphere can’t yield its own kind of rewards. But we’re still figuring that out. We’re figuring out what it means to form community in a hashtag group. We’re figuring out what it means to organize digitally. We’re figuring out what it means to have even a reading group on Facebook. A book club on Facebook. All of it is different now because of technology, but the market exigencies may push that to happen. So, we’re dealing on multiple levels with the way that neoliberalism kind of shifts and shapes our realities.
TM: Given that so much of Nobody is about police violence against black people, you probably spend a lot of time talking about race and probably a lot of that time — like this interview — is spent talking to white people. Do you find that fatiguing, or are you hopeful about the willingness or ability of white people to examine their privilege and work towards dismantling white supremacy?
MLH: Hopeful might be overstating it. I’m not pessimistic, though. I believe ultimately in the power of everyday people to change the world. I don’t mean that as just some kind of liberal cliché. I legitimately believe in the people and I legitimately believe that with the right organizing, the right political education, we can do anything. Getting white people to abandon whiteness is—that might be quixotic, you know? I mean, it’s incredibly difficult to get anyone in power to yield their power and privilege and control. I mean, getting men to dismantle patriarchy. Getting straight people to dismantle homophobia. It takes more than a notion.
I think that’s the challenge—that it’s counterintuitive for people to do that. So, what do we do to get them there? We need some level of interest conversion. We need to convince people that ultimately, the center can’t hold; that ultimately, capitalism will dismantle or will break down; that ultimately, the environment will suffer. Ultimately the jobs will leave. That ultimately, none of us can succeed like this. That white supremacy can’t hold itself. That ultimately, these white people who are looking for—who are using white skin privilege as a kind of property and as a kind of capital ultimately are going to be disenfranchised, like the white worker who votes for Trump. We have to convince them through political organization, through political education, through activism, through teaching, and through a kind of revolutionary patience that it is possible to change all of this and to make a world that’s better for everybody, but that they have to think long term and not short term.
I believe that it’s all possible. It’s just a hell of a job. So, I’m not optimistic. I don’t believe that it’s just going to happen, but I am full with hope. That’s probably the best way to put it. I’m not optimistic about it, but I am full of hope. That’s all we have.
TM: If we look the state of America—with Trump’s racist travel bans, the ICE raids, Jeff Sessions, the budget Trump put out, the gutting of the EPA, the spike in hate crimes, the rise of the Alt Right, it’s hard to see a happy ending. Where do you think we’re headed? Is there a tipping point that we’re traveling toward—
MLH: Well, you could argue that America is an empire in decline.
TM: For sure.
MLH: Where that ends, is up to us. I believe we can dictate where we go. We’re headed in a very dangerous direction, but the ship can be rerouted. It always can be rerouted. Where we’re going right now is a dark morgue, but I think, again, we need a sense of history. If we think that we were moving in the right direction and then November 8, 2016 happens, then we’re fundamentally wrongheaded about that. That makes us think that if we could have just elected a Hillary Clinton, if we could have just put in a Bernie Sanders, the world would be totally different. And that’s simply not true.
We need a bigger view of the world, a bigger analysis, a thicker analysis. If we do that, we can turn these things around. But to your question, yes, right now, at this moment, given where we’re headed economically, socially, culturally, politically, morally, we are moving in the wrong direction and it’s not going to end anywhere good for any of us. This is indisputably an empire in decline, but it doesn’t mean that end has to be as dire as it would be if we don’t do the work.
TM: What do Americans need to do to survive Donald Trump?
MLH: We need to resist. We need to resist. At all times, in all ways, Americans must resist. We must resist the idea that we respect the office. We don’t have to. We have to respect his humanity. But we have to say this office, as it stands, is not worthy of respect and it’s an imperial throne, and we have to resist it. We have to resist through the electoral process. We can’t wait until the next presidential cycle to resist. We have to resist at the local level and the national level. We have to build coalitions that resist. Politicians don’t have feelings; they have interests. And we have to make it so their interests converge with ours, so that it’s safe for members of Congress to vote down a bill, that we make it safe for them to filibuster, that we make it safe for them to make Donald Trump’s life a living hell. Not at a personal level, but at the political level. And not winning will automatically be a personal hell for him.
We have to resist on the streets. As our Syrian or Somali or Sudanese brothers and sisters get turned away, we have to fight to bring them back in. As we’ve seen the assault on civil liberties, we have to push back. We have to fight at every turn. We have to resist through our classroom teaching. We have to resist through the books we write. We have to resist through everything from what we name our children to who we hang out with to the kind of art we make. We have to resist at all times.
My Palestinian brothers and sisters have a word called sumud—and sumud is steadfastness. We have to be steadfast. You know, steadfast means that resistance doesn’t happen just at a march or a rally. It’s not just a momentary blip on the screen. It’s a lifelong commitment to resisting. If we can remain steadfast, then I think we win.