In our third stop of the fall tour, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the architect behind “The 1619 Project,” and Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be an Antiracist, joined Chris Hayes to examine the 400 year legacy of slavery in America. Together they examined the sinister discrepancy between the history of this nation as it *was* and the history of this nation as we are taught it, and discuss what that history then demands from us in this moment.
New York City listen for important details about our December 8th show! We have a new guest and details for how to win free tickets!
IBRAM X. KENDI: Can we have a country that’s called America or the United States in which it’s not sort of structured around racial identity, racism, and even white supremacy? Yes, but it wouldn’t look like this country.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Well, WITHpod listeners, before I present to you the third stop on our fall live WITHpod Tour which is today’s podcast we do have some updates on the final stop of the Fall WITHpod Tour, including a new guest who will be joining me and Tony Kushner, and a ticket give away as we are want to do. Both of those are available at the end of this episode, so listen to the podcast and then don’t turn it off in the end and then listen to that, and then listen all the way through till there’s nothing left. Zero seconds on the clock, that’s what we aim for here.
Today we have the Chicago live show, we recorded it on November 12th, in Chicago. To give you a little context, I think I mentioned this up at the top, but it was 12 degrees in Chicago, and I have to say, I lived in Chicago from the years 2001 to 2007, and each winter I thought that I would acclimate, and they would get progressively easier. But it got progressively worse, and I hated them each more winter, each one.
And when I got off the plane in Chicago, it was 12 degrees, which is not really a temperature you feel that often outside of the greater Midwest, Buffalo, Minnesota, Chicago, places like that. I had this flood or sensory memories pour back into me of late November, light early sunlight, in the Loop, in a puffy jacket, freezing my a-s off and all the moments of my mid-20s that I spent in that situation, including once with my friend from Alabama visited. Every time we stepped outside, he just howled like a stuck pig, like, Oooh.” Because it was so cold, he was so unused to it.
So that was the context for this, and the reason that I say that is because we sold out the House of Blues in the Loop for this conversation and there was definitely some part of me that was like, “Are all 500 people going to show up?” It was the coldest day for that date in Chicago by 15 degrees or something. I mean, this was November 12th, and the lows were five degrees, something like that. But because Chicagoans are a hearty folk and because they are used to the winter, they all have very big, puffy coats, everyone was there and Nikole Hannah-Jones made it in, and Ibram Kendi made it in on their planes, which I was worried about, too, because they had been a big storm the previous day.
Tiffany Champion’s flight got canceled, she had to rebook twice. But everybody made it in and everyone made it in the room, and it was an incredible venue. It was a totally different vibe than the Ace Theater, which is this enormous sort of old-style movie theater, and this was a music venue, and there’s all these tiers. There’s like four or five tiers, and there’s people sort of standing, and there’s a bar, and there’s people on the floor, and it’s a very, very cool and intimate vibe. And Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of “The 1619 Project,” staff writer at New York Times Magazine, and Ibram Kendi who’s a National Book Award Winner for “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” his latest book is “How To Be An Antiracist.” He’s a professor and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University.
Both of them and I had this incredible conversation about race, the legacy of slavery, and racism and Jim Crow, and what fighting racism in 2019 looks like. Like what it means to be an anti-racist, and the direction our politics are headed and why we’re in this particular moments right now in the era of Donald Trump, of this kind of anti-racist mobilization and how sustainable it is, and what the history of anti-racist coalitions look like in the country. And I’ve got to say, the crowd was just really great and attentive, and sort of on the edge of their seats. Lots of people came up afterwards to say how much they liked it and tweeted about it. If you have an opportunity to come to a live podcast, and I saw this humbly because I think that 99 percent of why this is the case has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the guest we have, and the setting, and the crowd.
But there’s really something special about them. They feel like, I don’t know, the closest thing I could compare them to is a really good church service, that sounds weird. They’re kind of, I don’t know, they’re sort of spiritual experiences, I find. Emotionally, they’re intense, they’re in intense in the best way. They’re really special, and I learned a lot from them, I love that sort of vibe and energy in the room. So you should definitely come check them out if you’re in a city we’re in, which includes New York on December 8th, more details about that afterwards. But without further ado, live from the House of Blues in Chicago, me, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram Kendi.
Chicago, what’s good? You guys are crazy, it’s 12 degrees outside, it’s 12 degrees outside, someone just said, “No.” No, it’s 12 degrees, I checked my phone, and you guys on a Tuesday night were like, “Let’s go talk about structural racism downtown.” Which I adore and admire. I love this city, I lived here from 2001 to 2007, my dad is a North Sider. My wife, Kate, grew up on the North Side as well, I’m a lifelong Chicago sports fan. It’s rough out there right now, Jesus Christ, woo, yikes, and I love this city. And I lived here in this city from 2001 to 2007, I’ll never forget actually being downtown 2001, early when I moved here, and I was in the Loop. I grew up in New York City and in the Bronx, and in New York City obviously is by no means some sort of racial utopia. In fact, it’s far from that, it’s one of the most segregated school systems in the country. The percentage of folks who are arrested who are black and brown is about 88 percent even though they’re about 60 or 52 percent of the population, there are all kinds of deep racial inequities in New York City.
So that said, I will never forget the moment, it was very early on in my tenure in Chicago and I was downtown, and I was, I think, waiting for the Red Line. I think on Washington Street, and I came down the steps, and I walked onto the platform, and I looked down the platform like this. And there was a northbound trains and there was a southbound trains, and on the northbound side it was all white people, and on the southbound side, it was all black people. And I looked at that image, and I thought to myself, “Man, that is stark. How did this happen? What caused this to be the case here?”
And that question lingered for a long time, it led me to do a lot of reading about both Chicago specifically, and over the years about the trajectory of the northern migration. The incredible book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which I would recommend to folks, that’s a great book, Isabel Wilkerson. Natalie Moore’s amazing book about the South Side, you guys read that book? That book’s an incredible book that you should check out.
And the thing about the history of all of this, even when you get a good version of that history, about how we got to that moment, how is it the case that in the 21st century, that platform in downtown Chicago looks that way. Even if you get a good version of it, even if you get a progressive version of it, even the version I got in very good public schools given to me by both teachers black, and white, and Latino, and Asian, it gets very sanitized. And the reason I think it gets sanitized is there is a kind of apology that is draped over all about it. Which is that, “Yes, it was bad back then, but they didn’t really know any better.” Right? Do people feel like that was the message they got? Not that it was okay, right? But, they were creatures of their times. Now, of course, when you think about slavery and the history of race in America, particularly as it pertains to African Americans, black folks in this country have known from the first moment, of course, what was up about the systems of racial oppression.
They have, at every moment as documented in a really beautiful essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones in The New York Times Magazine a few months ago, have been one of the most driving forces in American history to make the country live up to its creed. To make the country live up to the promises it makes of full democratic liberty and equality, that struggle and recognition has been there from the first moments of the slave trade and then in the aftermath of the Civil War and through Jim Crow, through today. But here is the thing that does not get told, I think, enough, there were white people who recognized how evil the system was at the time. I want to read you two quotes, all right? If I had them in memory, I wouldn’t be pulling out my iPhone. So these are two quotes, now these are both British folks who have a kind of motivation, this is during the time of the American Revolution, they’re looking somewhat askance at the colonists.
Thomas Day, observing the colonists, says this back at the time of the Revolution, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independence with the one hand, and with the other, brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” Samuel Johnson, famous Tory, and critic of the American Revolution put it more tersely, he said, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among drivers of Negroes?” The tell in the United States Constitution is right there in black and white in some of the clauses.
But it wasn’t just the Brits who recognized this when they were opposing the American Revolution. Thomas Paine, in 1775 writes a manifesto on the African slave trade, about the barbarity and the cruelty, how it’s shame to anyone that would call themselves a Christian. How debased it is, he founds the first anti-slavery society just a year later. In the constitution itself, there is a bright, blinking red light about them knowing how shameful what they were doing was, and it’s in the three-fifths portions of the constitution when it describes other persons that’s called political correctness. They didn’t want to say “slave” because they knew that slave was in some significant tension with the democratic commitments that they were spelling out in the preamble in the rest of the document.
And you march through the rest of American history in the first half of the 19th century, and during the Civil War itself, and in the Era of Reconstruction there are people like Wendell Phillips and Thaddeus Stevens, and Jane Swisshelm who ran a publication where black and white women worked side by side urging equality and suffrage for all. Men and women, black and white, until they were firebombed by white supremacist terrorists, there are people at every moment, white people, people in power, people agitating, who recognize the evil of the system of hierarchy and white supremacy that was in their midst. There are some things that you can go back, and you can say, “It’s not fair to hold folks back then to today’s standards.” Right? Like the question of how George Washington, with what his position on DACA would be, makes no sense, or Thomas Jefferson was bad on gay rights, right?
Those were not particularly live issues in the politics of the time, but this issue, this issue of whether we are equal to each other, whether everyone genuinely is bestowed with the virtues of dignity and liberty, that the founders own words talk about. That we have given lip service to through centuries, that has been a live and present hypocrisy in the eyes of people from the very first moment. And if you think about it that way, then history doesn’t get people off the hook, it’s not like they didn’t know better. They could have read Thomas Paine, they could have listened to Thaddeus Stevens during Reconstruction. They could have read Ida B. Wells and passed anti-lynching legislation back during the 1920s and 30s. People were calling it what it was, and that, I think is a huge part of why we are the moment we are at right now, in a kind of historical reckoning.
I mean, I don’t know if you feel this way, but it feels to me like the urgency of the history of this struggle, of a struggle for genuine racial justice and equality in this country feels more alive right now, has more bite and teeth to it than it probably has in my lifetime.
And that’s partly the work of intellectuals and writers, it’s partly the work of folks in the streets who’ve been mobilizing and organizing. It’s partly the manifestation of the election of the first black president, and the backlash and revanchist, reactionary movement in response that we are living through right now. All of that coming together at this moment, I think to force a lot of people of conscience to reassess what they know about the history, what the history says about what we need to do now, and whether it’s the case that history does not offer an excuse to those in the past. What that means for what we do right now, what it means for the commitments that we have as fellow citizens of all races to adjust society that undoes these pernicious hierarchies that have for so long dominated in a central way, the story arch of this country. So I wanted to come to this city, the city of the North side and the South side, and the West side, the city of that Red Line that has stuck in my head since I first saw it, to have a conversation with two extremely brilliant individuals who have, I think it’s fair to say, kind of devoted their life’s work, and they’re both young, so they’ve got a lot left.
They’ve devoted their life’s work to wrestling with precisely this question, what the history is, and what the history demands from us, and what the present must and could be. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a MacArthur Genius Grant award winner, among many other prizes she’s won. She is an incredible chronicler of segregation and desegregation, and the story of race and the structural racism in America. Her most recent efforts were the conception of “The 1619 Project” in the New York Times Magazine about the first slaves brought to these shores, and the legacy of that. She wrote that title essay, which is very, very beautiful and I would recommend to anyone. I understand, am I correct? That Chicago Public Schools is doing a 1619 Project curriculum? Yes? Nice, thank you, live fact check. I heard that just like five minutes ago I was like, “I’m going to use that.”
Nikole has also been a guest on the podcast before and is working on a book about school segregation, and joining Nikole, and I will be Ibram Kendi. His first book, called “Stamped from the Beginning” is an incredible work that I also would really recommend folks get their hands on. A sort of history of the conceptual architecture of white supremacy through the years, particular in certain eugenicists conceptions of it. It won a National Book Award, he has a second book, which is out now called “How To Be An Antiracist,” which is provocative and fascinating. And I think that no time feels more urgent to do the kind of wrestling that both of these writers and thinkers force us to do than in this very moment.
So please join me in welcoming Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram Kendi. How are you guys doing?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Fabulous, great weather.
CHRIS HAYES: Great weather, chill and balmy. So I thought maybe we’d start with why you have both devoted yourselves to this topic? I mean, there are many things you could write about, there’s many things you could devote your study to, and Nikole, you were a reporter for years reporting on a whole variety of issues. What has sort have happened within you as you sort of craft this oeuvre that makes this feel like this is the calling, the thing that you want to devote your intellectual energies to?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: The only reason I ever wanted to become a journalist in the first place was to write about race and racial inequality, and a confluence of things happened. But I was bused to white schools starting in the second grade, I was bused to white schools from second grade to 12th grade, and I literally saw the landscape of racial segregation through the windows of my school bus every day. As I left my black neighborhood and rode an hour to the richest and whitest neighborhood to go to school, and even as a young child, could notice how the closer we got to the West side where the white people lived, the nicer everything seemed to get. The houses got nicer, the roads seemed to be more repaired, there were parks, there were grocery stores, there were restaurants, and really wanting to understand why that was. And the experience of being one of a handful of black kids in a white school makes you aware of race from a really young age. And as a high school student, kind of two things happened, I took one semester of black studies class, my high school offered an elective class, in that one semester of black studies you got all of ancient African history, and all of black American history up till the Civil Rights Movement in three and a half months, and it was definitely a survey course.
But even that three and a half months was the most transformative, eye opening experience of my life because I learned more about the contributions and history of black people in that three and a half months than I’d ever learned. And I realized that that was intentional even at that age, and that’s also the same year that I joined my high school newspaper. And it was actually the same teacher, Mr. Ray Dial who was the only black male teacher I ever had, and I complained to him one day about how our high school newspaper never wrote about the 20 percent of kids who are bused into this white school. And how we faced a lot of stereotypes and misperceptions about us because we were from the black side of town. And he suggested to me either I join my high school paper or I shut up and don’t complain about it anymore. I’m an Aries, so if you issue a challenge, I will almost always take it even if it kills me.
So I joined the high school paper, also having this awakening around the experience of black folks and started a column called “From the African Perspective.” My first investigation was whether Jesus was white.
CHRIS HAYES: Cracked the case right open.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I could not prove he was black, but I certainly could disprove that he was white, which was really the point. I think at that point is when I understood that this was to be my calling. That as the founder of the first black newspaper in the country, the Freedom’s Journal said, “We wish to plead our own cause, no longer should others speak for us.” And I just understood at an early age the power of writing our own narrative, and I couldn’t have ever imagined being a journalist and not writing about black people and race.
IBRAM X. KENDI: I think I had a much longer road to this. But I think for me, it was first and foremost my parents who came out of the Black Power movement. So growing up in their household, in this black neighborhood in Jamaica Queens, of course, they regularly sort of talked about race and racism and, “We’re not happy with Ronald Reagan.” In the 80s, y’all know why, right? OK.
CHRIS HAYES: I think this crowd does.
IBRAM X. KENDI: So from their sort of instruction, I knew that there was a racial problem. And I think as I entered into high school and especially college, I was constantly trying to figure out what or even who was that racial problem? And more importantly, how this racial problem came to be, and so for me, it was a constant sort of search. And then I think part of the reason why I was searching for that was because, at least you talk to my parents, they’ll tell you that my favorite three words when I was growing up was, “It’s not fair.” So I had this very sort of clinical sort of conception of fairness and unfairness, justice and injustice. So for me, it wasn’t blurred, and it still isn’t blurred, and I think the older we get in many ways it blurs for us, but for whatever reason, it didn’t blur for me. But then I just really love black people, and pretty much my whole life I was raised in black spaces, and so I think as a result of that, everything I am is a result of those spaces and those people.
And then simultaneously being privy to the suffering of those very people and of those very spaces, I, of course, wanted to ensure that I was doing something to relieve that suffering, and then as I matured more politically, I began to see other people suffering simultaneously. Sometimes as a result of the same policies and policymakers, and so I think it sort of converged to, in a way, a deep love of humanity. So for me, I think it’s this sort of sense of, “It’s not fair.” And just loving humanity, because I think the greatest and most committed change-makers in American history and human history, I think had a very deep love just people. I don’t really like animals, but I really like people.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s something about this moment, I think, that’s really interesting on how we’re dealing with some of the history that has existed for a long time and has been in the record for a long time. And I’m curious what you think about what is happening and the way that we, and that we is fraught for a lot of reasons, but the way that the country is discussing or looking at the history of the central question in American life? About freedom and equality, what’s changed in the last few years or longer? What I’m always struck by is how cyclical all this stuff is. So you go back and you read stuff from 1870 and it’s like, “Oh my word, where was this?” What is happening right now?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I mean, clearly, Trump, right? But let me say this, all of these issues also predated Trump, and I think white liberals could ignore them as long as they felt they had someone in the White House who seemed on the right side of these issues. I’ll never forget during the Women’s March during Trump’s election, there were these white women who had this sign, and it said, “If Hillary were elected, we’d be at brunch right now.” And that’s kind of the fundamental problem. So Trump is easy because white Americans can feel good because they’re not that. And I think white American’s woke up the day after the election to the America that black folks have always lived in, and suddenly they wanted to understand, “Oh, this isn’t the country I thought it was because how could we elect someone who many consider to be a white nationalist, running on an openly racist and misogynistic campaign to the White House?” So there is this desire, I think, to excavate our history to understand how we got here in a way when people feel like someone who more aligns with not necessarily the values any of them live, but the values that they espouse.
I mean, hey, we’re not in one of the most segregated cities in the country for no reason, right? Most people who live in the city of Chicago consider themselves to be Democrats, yet a lot of the most persistent and egregious and immoral segregation in both housing and schools. So as long as someone was in the White House who they felt spoke the right language, but now we have someone who kind of openly speaks in white nationalist terms, I think there has been this desire to understand why. Ibram and I were both talking backstage about how kind of how “The 1619 Project” and his book “How To Be An Antiracist” landed into the world, and neither of us expected it to have the impact that it did. Part of it’s because the work is brilliant, but part of it is also, it’s the times that we’re in and people really wanting to have an understanding. And I started studying history at a really young age because history was always calming to me. When you look around and you see the conditions that black Americans are living in, and you see the narrative of why that is, but it doesn’t match the lived reality, right?
Like I saw how hard everybody in my family and everybody in my community worked, I knew, of course, that they wanted good schools just like anyone else, and they wanted to be able to fix up their housing like anyone else. And when you studied history, then suddenly the architecture of the inequality is revealed, and it’s calming because then you say, “Oh, so this does actually make sense, but not for the reasons that we’re told.” And I think that is a similar thing that is now happening to white Americans and other nonblack Americans. Even black Americans who have never been able to buy this idea of America but also didn’t have the language and the history to understand why things are like they are.
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah. I think the sort of Obama/Trump era were two eras that in many ways was sort of projected from a historical lens. And what I mean by that is, in many ways Obama’s political message was this idea of a more perfect union that we have been striving and marching forward towards racial progress, and that, “I and my election, and my administration is a manifestation of that racial progress.” So that political sort of project is deeply historical. So I think that then caused people to want to sort of understand that trajectory, and then the same thing happened, obviously, with Trump. His conception of history was a different way in which things had gotten worse over time, and that, of course, he was going to transform that and, of course, make America great again. I mean, what was ironic is the same sort of collision of historical viewpoints happened during and after the Civil War in which you had Civil Rights reformers making the case that the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era was a move forward for the nation, for the South.
Then you had former confederates and those who were trying to hold back up white supremacy in the country or in the South making the case that during the Reconstruction Era, white people were terrorized by these interracial, corrupt, particularly black voters and politicians. So, it’s been recast now, and so you’ve had two major political figures making an historical argument that is in deep contrast and, of course, I think that’s also caused Americans to want to look into those two histories.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s interesting, I had been, before Trump’s election, had been starting to read a lot about Reconstruction, and then after Trump’s election, felt really impelled towards the topic. And it is remarkable, some of the parallels because this sort of definitional question like, is it a democracy for all the citizens or is it a white man’s nation? Which was just called before, the country, during this time and you had people articulating explicitly those two visions. I mean, you can go chapter and verse among the Southern Confederate generals who then become appointed governors, or write those redeemer constitutions after they’ve used white supremacy to beat back Reconstruction. To say, “The Mississippi Constitution is being written to preserve a white man’s government.” But you also had people at the time saying, “The fate of the nation must be democracy for all its citizens.” And the thought that at that moment, violence, and terrorism, and white supremacy, and the argument for a white man’s nation won, haunts me because it moved back, right? Like this idea that the story of Barack Obama was presenting about progress, I feel like the reason we don’t talk particularly about Reconstruction is because things moved backwards.
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, and so what I would actually argue is that instead of us conceiving of this either or, either things have gotten better, or things have gotten worse, what’s actually happened is, it’s been both, simultaneously. So, I try to write about, indeed you have had racial progress over the course of American history, and we’re constantly taught that history in many ways. Even during the Jim Crow era, there were certain ways in which black people progressed, particularly as it related to sort of building black business districts, building black communities and sort of other sort of avenues. But then you also had the progression of racism in which you had racist policies, and racist ideas becoming more sophisticated over time. And now, you have some of the most sophisticated sets of voter suppression policies that have ever been implemented in this country, you even have some of the most sophisticate racist ideas.
I would argue that post racial theory is quite possibly the most sophisticated racist idea ever created and the reason why it’s so sophisticated, and what I mean by sophisticated is it causes people to consume, and believe, and hold, and latch onto racist ideas. That’s the purpose of racist ideas, for people to believe them, they have no other purpose. And what makes post racial theories so sophisticated is because unlike other sort of theories and sets of ideas that were essentially mass produced and force fed to people. What post racial ideas say to people, to everyday people is basically, “Racist policy no longer exists.” And it says that to people in a nation of racial inequity, in a nation of racial segregation. So then it causes the individual to be like, “Okay, why does all of these inequities and disparities exist if it’s not racist policy if it’s not racial terror? Then it must be something wrong with a particular racial group.”
So then the individual, based on their own sort of philosophy, their own conditions, their own life, their own history, develops their own racist ideas to explain their own experience. Which then becomes very difficult for us to essentially figure out what they really believe and let alone sort of undermine it.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s what Nikole was saying about the trajectory of the bus ride, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Because what’s happening is you’ve got structures that have been produced for hundreds of years that are produced because of the society we live in. Those structures are not visible on the bus ride, right? They weren’t visible to me as a New York City kid at age 11 or 12 about why on this side of 96th Street it was this way, and on that side of 96th Street it was that way. But the structures are real, but the lived experience then is just a constant set of messages about which group is doing what, and which group has what. And those messages are then reinforced by much more explicit things that tell people about how they should personally theorize all of this, and that gets in people’s heads.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So there’s two things that are happening. The easiest narrative is folks just don’t want better and folks should try harder. It is much more complicated to talk about 250 years of racial architecture through state policy, federal policy, private policy, white entrepreneurship, and to show all of the ways that these policies have been erected. That’s a very long conversation, it’s not a soundbite conversation, it’s not a kind of visceral conversation versus, “Well, my ancestors came here with nothing, and we made it, so why didn’t you try?” So it’s simple, and as human beings, we always like the more simple story. But then there’s also, I’m reading this book called Repair, about reparations and the scholar calls it strategic forgetting, and I love that phrase because that is also part of it. In order to believe that we are this exceptional nation, that we are the most liberatory nation the world has ever seen, there’s a lot about our history we have to deny.
Now, Reconstruction was 12 years, Barack Obama was president for eight years, these are very brief periods. If you look at the Civil Rights Movement, they were fighting for decades, but the actual time when the laws are changing is about a 15 year period. So, I would argue, I mean, I think you’re, we talk about this, more hopeful than I am, probably everybody’s more hopeful than I am. Where we are now is our natural state, and it is kind of the constant resistance of black Americans, of other Americans of color joined with some white allies to try to force us against our nature where we see these periods of progress. Almost always preceded by violence and revolution, and then we go back to our normal state, and this is our normal state. Yes, there’s always progress, I wasn’t born on a cotton plantation like my father, my father was not born into slavery.
But, progress does not mean justice or equality or that we are right, and I think after 400 years of black people being in this country, the time for marking incremental progress and patting ourselves on the back for that has been long over.
CHRIS HAYES: That idea that this is what’s normal, right? So there are these two stories, right? There’s progress, and then there’s either retrenchment or oppression or tyranny or terrorism, or slaughter, all of those things. That, I think it’s really true, right? So there are these two stories, unquestionably, and I think it’s also true that like the story we get is the progress story. That is the shape of everyone’s American history education is the progress story, like we got a little better over time, two steps forward, one step back. The idea that the tragedy is the constant, and the moments of progress or transcendence, or bursts of equity, that’s the exception to the rule, is, I even feel myself, feel allergic to it. For two reasons, right? One is that it’s so in tension with the story that we tell ourselves, but also because I think, you just said about hope and pessimism, it steers to pull me towards something real bleak.
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, and I remember there was this document that I think USAID produced in early 1950s during the Cold War, in which, of course, the United States was seeking to project itself before the decolonizing world as a nation that was making progress. And what was fascinating about this document is that it focused on the past, in other words, there was a time in which there was slavery and we don’t have slavery, and then the future. They didn’t really talk about the present, so even in “Stamped From The Beginning,” I talked about this past/future conception that people have because when you talk about the past and you make a case we can that, “Oh, well chattel slavery isn’t existing, or certain types of Jim Crow is not existing. So, therefore, we’re headed, future, in this great direction.” You don’t have to engage the current moment of inequality, of injustice, of terrorism, of disproportionate amounts of power in a particular group of people.
And I think that sort of narrative is the reason why, for me at least, when I write history, I try to fundamentally root the past in the present. So I’m trying to be less focused on the future because I see, at least in the way we understand race, it’s so past/future centered.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, when I give talks about school segregation all over the country, I show slides of white resistance to a handful of black kids going to into white schools even though their parents were paying tax dollars for those schools. And then I tell the people in the audience like, “Whatever side you’re on now is the side you would have been on back then.” And I think folks like to look back then and everybody was on the side of Civil Rights and Lord knows everybody marched with Dr. King. But now, when someone tries to rezone your school for equality or build affordable housing in your neighborhood, and you’re fighting that, then you would have been that parent out there violently picketing and protesting those kids now. So I think that’s exactly right, is we don’t want to deal with the present. Part of the reason is we don’t want to deal with what created the present, but also everyone can have clean hands if you’re only looking backwards. Everybody would have been on the right side of history looking backwards, but where are you now? What are you doing now? What side are you on right now?
CHRIS HAYES: Hey, it’s me back in the studio. I got into the answer of that question, “What side are you on right now?” With Nikole and Ibram, and we’ll hear that answer right after this break.
Trump’s and Trump’s politics is very recognizable to me as a New Yorker of the 1980s, when the city was in the midst of this real intense Law & Order reactionary kind of seizure, and there were these battles. The Guardian Angels who were white vigilantes who would roam the streets, there was Bernie Goetz shooting young black men on the subway as a kind of folk hero. I mean, that’s the world that Donald Trump, I mean, in a literal sense, came out of. And in the world of the Trump rally, I’ve covered local meetings in white liberal places on a proposed homeless shelter, or affordable housing, and those rooms sound and feel a lot like that, right? Like when it starts to bite close to home, that stuff is closely held, it’s real closely held, what I want to do is kind of dig beneath what that impulse is, right?
Because your book, Ibram, is about the moral neutrality of racism colludes with evil because moral neutrality in the face of racism is evil because racism is evil, then anti-racism is what we’re called on to do. How do you view the place that that thing is coming from, whether it’s in the school board meeting, or it’s in the Trump rally or its in the structures of American governance?
IBRAM X. KENDI: I think for different people it’s coming from different places. So I think you have, let’s say a particular developer who is seeking to develop in that neighborhood, who feels that if that homeless shelter comes into that neighborhood, that will cause her business or his business to not be as profitable. So then he recognizes, or she recognizes that the way to get the local community opposed to it is by basically calling out these racial dog whistles because that’s an easy way, particularly to manipulate white people. It’s worked for a long time, and it’s worked well, and so you have people who consciously produce racist ideas to get a particular policy outcome that benefits them. But then you have those people who are consuming those ideas, who are like, “Oh yeah. You know what? These people come to our neighborhood, they’re dangerous over there, so they’re going to make our neighborhood dangerous, and I’m a good parents, and so I, of course, want my kids to have a safe neighborhood and a safe home, so I’m going to oppose that as a “good parent”. And all the while I’m going to say since I vote democrat, I’m not racist. Since I’m a northerner, I’m not racist, since I’m not Donald Trump, I’m not racist, and since there’s that one black person that comes to that book club, I’m not racist.”
So, I think that simultaneous sort of denial and the way in which people so readily and pervasively are able to deny the ways in which they’re being racist is also, I think inherent to it.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Whiteness is a property in and of itself, right? It has a value, and white Americans both explicitly know this, but also explicitly deny that they know this. At the same time, when I go out and give talks and say, “I have never found a single school district in all of America where black kids in their separate schools have the same resources as white kids.” And I always ask, “Is anyone surprised?” And I never get a single hand. What that tells us is that is the expectation, that it is expected that white Americans will have more, will get more resources, will have better opportunities, will be in better everything. That is just the expectation of a country built on white supremacy.
But there’s also that denial of that at the same time, and the other thing is, we are awash in anti blackness from the moment we take a breath in this country. And that anti blackness, like if I asked everyone in here to list 10 stereotypes about black people, you could do it in 60 seconds without even having to think about it, and no one ever had a conversation with you and say, “Black people are criminal, black people are lazy, black people don’t work as hard.”
No one ever had to tell you that, and you just know it, and that is because that idea about black inferiority arose to justify slavery and you cannot say people are not human under the condition of slavery, and once those people are free, grant them their humanity. So we’ve had to keep that lie, I don’t know how we purge ourselves of that. I mean, that’s kind of the point of “The 1619 Project” is, it only took 12 years after Jamestown to begin a caste system and 150 years before we were a country we had a caste system. So how do you purge yourself of something that is in your very DNA? And we don’t, we just know these things.
CHRIS HAYES: But here’s my question, there’s two ways I think, to think about white supremacy in this context. One is that it’s evil, but rational, whiteness is a privilege, it’s a thing of value, holding onto it, is again, evil but rational. It’s a good to be hoarded when folks hoard that good, they do actually appreciably make their lives better. So the hoarding of it isn’t some big rocket science, you’ve got this thing, and you want to hold onto it. Another theory, and one I think I’m more inclined towards, but I’m curious what you guys think, is that it’s both evil and irrational. That essentially the nature of white supremacy means that people support all sorts of crazy policies that make everyone worse off, and when you look at OECD countries, and when you look about things, health, I mean, everything, right? All the measures of social spending, things like universal healthcare, all sorts of things that are part of social democracies around the world and the developed world that the US is exceptional about.
The reason we’re exceptional about those things almost invariably I think comes back to racial questions. I mean, the fight about Medicaid and Medicare was about segregating hospitals, right? The big fight about social security was about whether domestic workers, who are predominantly Africa American, were going to get benefits, right? Race has been a wedge wielded time and time again, to destroy projects that would lead to more equity and more human flourishing in total. But I’m curious where you guys come down on this question because, Nikole, I feel like you’re more on the, “It is rational in its own evil and perverse way”?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I think it’s both as well. I mean, the whole concede of “The 1619 Project” is that you can look all across American life at things that you think have nothing to do with race or racism and actually trace them back to slavery and anti-black racism. And it’s rational in that, yes, if I am white, and I can hoard resources and accrue certain resources just by virtue of that whiteness, that is a natural thing to want to maintain. At the same time, what’s irrational is anti-blackness then leads white Americans to do things where we say they’re doing things that are not in their best interest except I say the best interest of white people is whiteness. So if you look at “The 1619 Project,” we talk about when you’re sitting in traffic in Atlanta. If there’s one message I hope people get from the project is that the harms of anti-black racism have never been able to be contained just to the black communities, right?
So everybody is sitting in that f—ing traffic in Atlanta, right? It’s not just black people sitting in the traffic, but what’s created the traffic was to create a high way system that was not designed to get you quickly to and fro but to segregate black communities. When they don’t expand Medicare in the South, in the former Confederate states. When we don’t have universal healthcare despite the fact that every other country that looks like us has it. When we have the lowest rate of union membership when we have the stingiest maternal leave. The stingiest social safety net period is because poll after poll shows if white Americans think that a lot of black people will benefit from a social program, they oppose it. And this means that millions of white people are also dying from lack of healthcare, millions of white folks can’t stay home with their babies, millions of white people cannot negotiate for rights in employment. They can’t get a living wage because they think that, “By doing this, we will sacrifice some white people to hurt a whole lot of black people.” So we need to liberate ourselves from racism because it’s never, ever just been able to hurt black folks.
IBRAM X. KENDI: And I think, to add to that, historically within the racial justice movement, we have made the case to white people that in order for you to be anti-racist, in order for you to be a part of this movement, you are going to have to be altruistic. In other words, there’s no way in which you will benefit from a revolutionizing of this country, and so then that’s paused people, and most people are like, “Shoot, I’m only going to do things that help me.” So it’s led to many people not being able or wanting to be a part of this struggle.
CHRIS HAYES: Or wanting to be part of the struggle at a great distance.
IBRAM X. KENDI: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: Like, “I will send money to the folks down in the South to integrate the southern bus system, but I don’t know about my school.”
IBRAM X. KENDI: And going back to your sort of dichotomy, it’s rational to, within the current sort of system, where if you are white, you’re going to benefit from racist policies and from white supremacy, so it’s rational to support to whiteness, to support white supremacy. But the question is always if we were to transform society, would that be better for white people? And that is actually yes. So within the current society, it is rational to support whiteness, but it’s irrational to continue to support whiteness because it prevents us from moving to that other society. So that’s just like in 1860, you had 5 million poor whites in the South, many of whom were supportive of slavery, and many of whom recognized that they benefited from their whiteness because they were not enslaved. But at the same time, their poverty was directly related to the riches of a few thousand wealthy slave holding families who, in a few years, would send them off to war. And you had some of those very poor whites believing that one day they could become a wealthy slave owner just like you have working class whites today believing that one day they could become Donald Trump.
So the likelihood of that happening is the likelihood of making the NBA, I wanted to play in the NBA growing up, I wanted to make the NBA so the Knicks could beat the Bulls in the 90s. But-
CHRIS HAYES: If only, that’s a counterfactual history.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: You were the shooting guard they needed instead of John Starks.
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes, man. But aren’t the Bulls and Knicks playing tonight?
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, and nobody is there, everybody’s here, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. So, I mean, that to me gets at the heart of it, but it also in some ways gets to the thorniness of the conversation around it. The example I love also is about incarceration rates and race in criminal justice. The criminal justice system is deeply racist in the way it operates, extremely disproportionate, but we always talk about it, or we tend to talk about it particularly in center left discourse about it in those terms. If you just take white people in America, they’re incarcerated at way higher rates than any of the OECD countries. So the carceral state, which is the ultimate example of a kind of structure of racial oppression, itself we have crazy incarceration, crazy arrest rates even for white people in this country. So then the question becomes when you start to talk about white privilege, which to my mind is both a real thing in people’s cognitive and emotional life, it’s also a real thing materially. Right?
You talk about it all the time, about people know it when they see it because they understand what school district they want to go to, they understand what neighborhood they want to live in, what’s coded as the good one and the bad one. But then you go to a person who’s making minimum wage, or been in and out of addiction, and is white, the privilege conversation sounds hard to swallow.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Is there a question?
IBRAM X. KENDI: I mean, what I say-
CHRIS HAYES: Well, I mean-
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, I’m poor and white, so how can I have privilege?” And if you’re poor and white in Chicago, compared to somebody who’s poor and black and Chicago, that poor and black person is 10 times more likely to live in a high poverty neighborhood. So to be poor and white, you’re much more likely to live in a mixed income neighborhood, which then opens you up to more resources and opportunities, and you’re not faced with what sociologists call the double burden. Which is, not only you’re poor, but your neighborhood is poor, I just sort of talk about the obvious data. So I mean, it doesn’t really matter how poor you are or who you are, the way in which whiteness sort of operates, it provides everyone with something. But then, obviously, and I think this is what we’re also speaking to, it not only provides white privileges, it deprives white people of certain things that they can’t even realize because they’re constantly comparing themselves to people of color, to black people.
So in the case of the school, they’re like, “You know what? If we transform our school, then our school is going to be like that poor black school down the road, and I don’t want my school to be like that.” As opposed to, “Our school is going to be like the school where the super rich send their kids to in New England.” Which is not even a school most white people even have seen. So I think that-
CHRIS HAYES: It’s like the ultimate referent category always, like the fear, the demise, the thing is always that in people’s minds as opposed to the upward gaze of what could be possible above them.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I do think when you’re talking to lower income white people, language does matter, right? I mean, privilege is a correct word, but I also think a loaded word. And one of the things I always talk about is that when I’m talking about the experience of black kids in segregated schools, I’m not arguing that there are no white kids that attend schools that struggle. But what I am arguing is that if there’s a black school it’s always worse, always. That’s racial caste, that’s the difference, and not only is the lived experience of poor black and poor white people different, poor white people don’t live in concentrated poverty. The fact that every time we talk about poor white people, white people talk about, “What about Appalachia?” You can point out one place, I can point out every place in America, right? The fact that you have one example but I can show you where this is a lived experience of black people in every city in America, in every rural area of America. But it’s not just that comparing poor people to poor people is different.
Middle class black people are more likely to live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods than poor white people. The typical poor white person actually lives in a middle class neighborhood, and their children attend a middle class school. Whereas the typical middle class black person attends a high poverty school and lives in a high poverty neighborhood, that’s caste. So, anybody who’s struggling is struggling, but what are the conditions of that struggling, and why are you struggling? White people don’t struggle because of their race, they struggle because of the circumstance, black people struggle because of the circumstance and their race, and that’s kind of a fundamental difference. But you have to be able to actually sit down and have a nuanced conversation and nine times out of ten, you don’t have the ability to do that.
Ed Sykes, 77, visits the National Memorial For Peace And Justice on April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama. Bob Miller / Getty Images
CHRIS HAYES: Well, and not only that, but there are people who are going to rush in to weaponize it at every turn, I mean, that is the sort of essential condition here, and has been the essential condition through 400 years, right? Is that it’s not just that the time is truncated, and the history is long and complicated, it’s that people are using it as a cudgel and have been using it as a cudgel to great political effect for literally centuries in the country. At no time has it felt more urgent, at least in my lifetime than now, to figure out how to diffuse that. Because the fear right now is that whiteness becomes, for millions of Americans, not just a subliminal structural part of their lived experience and material benefits that they have. But the overriding political identity they possess, that they organize around it and explicitly engage in a kind of movement of very explicit racial solidarity like the one that was what defeated Reconstruction back in the 1870s.
IBRAM X. KENDI: And that’s certainly happening, particularly when one of the political parties recognizes that that’s their livelihood, there’s no way with them to exist without that. But I also think it’s critical for us, and this isn’t just necessarily for white Americans, really for all Americans to recognize that historically those who have been seeking to sort of weaponize and use these cudgels have typically done so with very sort of clear, understandable language that people can understand and apply to their own lives. So when we’re sort of engaging in, in many ways, conceptual warfare with these people, we have to figure out ways, at least I would argue, to clarify these complexities in a way that people can understand. So that’s one of the things that I was sort of, I try at least, to do with my work. So either you take an issue like inequality, you have inequality in this country, you’ve always had it. The question becomes why? And historically there’s been two explanations, there’s been the racist explanation that certain people have more because they are more, certain people have less because they are less.
And then there’s been the anti-racist explanation, which is, this is a function of racism, of white supremacy, and that’s the only two explanations to group inequality. Either a group is superior and inferior, or basically, one group is benefiting from a set of policies and power. And I think that it’s critical, at least for us, to ensure that we sort to develop a consistent and a clear vocabulary and sort of language because one of the things that I’ve found through studying the history of racist ideas, as I mentioned earlier, is that these ideas are fundamentally meant to be believed. So they’re extremely simple, they meet people exactly where they are, and they’re in a way like processed meat, they taste really good. But we can develop a dish that’s not processed, right? That tastes just as good, that allows people to sort of understand their world. But obviously it’s so much harder to do that, and I personally do not criticize someone who isn’t able to do that. But I do think it’s something that we should be striving to do.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: They liked that food reference.
IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, we’re a little hungry.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I do think we’re in a particularly precarious time right now because what we’re seeing in some ways is kind of the nationalization of ideologies that came out of the South not because white Southerners were inherently more racist. But white Southerners were living in a place with large numbers of black folks, and you had to develop certain ideologies and forms of repressive politics to deal with populations where in some place black people are the majority or at least a large percentage of the voting bloc. As the demographics of the country are shifting, which you are certainly seeing with people who are voting for Trump is this sense that they are losing control over the governorship of our country. And they need to come up with ways, I mean, you can see this with voter suppression, with the gerrymandering, with all of these ways to get rid of one man, one vote, if we ever really had it. And that ideology that there is something being lost, and that this demographic shift, I think when Barack Obama wins the White House, a Democrat hadn’t won the majority of the white vote for president since, what? 1968, 72, something like that.
But it had a different sense when you were able to elect a black man to the White House with a minority of the white vote, and suddenly there was this understanding that the demographics shifts were empowering communities of color to elect somebody black to the highest office of the land without needing most white people. And that’s when you get this Tea Party, and this national backlash, and the election of Trump. And all of these laws that are passed to try to limit the number of black and brown and younger college students who are more likely to vote democratic party. At the same time, you have the similar thing that happened after Reconstruction, which is, we got tired of dealing with race and white Northerners decided, “We need to reunify as a country.” And the obstacle to national unity was black folks. So you see that now when the left is saying, “Black people need to stop talking so much about racism, you’re going to elect Trump if you keep talking about your issues even though you’re the base of the party.”
So simultaneously, this desire to do something to tamp down the effect of the changes demographics. But also collusion with white liberals who are so intent on downplaying race in hoping of electing another president that people of color once again are the ones who are being left out.
CHRIS HAYES: The things that they were not able to figure out, and obviously it was at the cost of literal bloodshed, I mean, I don’t know, I would just say generally like, if you can read Du Bois on Black Reconstruction, which is a heavy undertaking that is an incredible piece of work, one of the most important works of history written. But you can also read Eric Foner, he’s got a big version and a short version. The amount of bloodshed that beat that back, right? There was the beginnings of something that looked like multiracial democracy. I mean, South Carolina lower house of representatives in 1874 is majority black, state legislature, that hasn’t since, again.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s like the Lost City of Atlantis. It was there, and then it was flooded, and now these pillars of our own history are there underwater. They’re in ruins, no one can see them, but it happened, that civilization happened. There was actual also multiracial democracy that actually happened, the Freedmen’s Bureau was the source, to your point, of literacy for many white rural poor folks for the first time, the first schools that were built. So the question then becomes like, how you build the coalition that doesn’t do the thing you’re saying, which is, “Enough of this, we need white folks back in the fold, we want national unity at the cost of equality.” But also, don’t end up in a situation where a majority of white Americans view themselves in essentially a kind of zero sum, death to the finish demographic war with the other side. For those listening they both shook their heads.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I mean, it’s always been so tenuous, that’s the problem, is you have these coalitions, and they’re always so brief, Reconstruction lasted 12 years, slavery lasted 250 years. Most of you probably never even learned anything about Reconstruction except that it failed, which is part of the narrative that we need to be able to tell ourselves that what happened after was inevitable. So, I mean, honestly, to prevent that, you have to go to what Baldwin said is, “White people have to be willing to give up whiteness.” Which doesn’t say you have to be ashamed of being born whatever it is that you are born. But you have to give up this sense that whiteness is the most valuable asset that you have, and as soon as it gets a little bit hard, or as soon as things start working out for you … I mean, I wrote after the Trump election, I interviewed a bunch of white Obama to Trump voters. And they were willing to vote for Obama not because they weren’t racist or didn’t have racial animus because it was in their best interest at that time.
I mean, we look at the America that Obama inherited, but as soon as it wasn’t in their best interest anymore, they flipped, and I think, how do you get white people to see that whiteness is actually not the most important value to them in a country, which every day shows them that it is? I don’t know if you should applaud for that, that’s kind of sad.
IBRAM X. KENDI: And even the issue of gun control, in which you have white Americans, particularly in Republican states, advocating for the removal of gun safety or gun control policies. Typically, the sort of implicit reason, and sometimes explicit reason that’s given is that they need more guns to protect themselves against so called Latinx invaders, Muslim terrorists, and black criminals. So, then you’ve removed those gun safety policies in those states, it’s then led to a flood of guns in those states, we’ve seen headlines, of course, of mass shootings. Well, we haven’t seen behind the headlines, is a spike in white male suicide by handgun in those very states. So you have people pushing for more guns to protect white people, and then what happened? Those guns have led to white death. What I’m hoping is now, the contradiction is becoming so massive, and so great that people begin to realize that whiteness is not necessarily in their interest.
Now, I think Nikole is probably not believing that that may happen, but I mean, I think we’re in a moment in which that contradiction is growing, and continuing to grow through Trump. But then the other thing that I think is absolutely critical, is I think more and more activists of color are becoming less concerned about persuading, and convincing, and cajoling white Americans. And historically, when we, and when I say we I’m talking about young, sort of activists of color, have become less concerned with that, they’ve actually made more progress. But this is us being simultaneously told by older or more moderate activists that, “The way you have made progress historically is by cajoling people.” Even though that is historically inaccurate, right?
So I think that because you have so many people that are sort of part of this sort of movement in which they fundamentally want power and policy change, and they’re not really concerned about white feelings, white guilt, white anguish, all they’re concerned about is actually the people. Particularly the people of color who are suffering under the foot of white supremacy, and I think that that is going to be critical and that historically has been critical to transformative change in this country.
CHRIS HAYES: So, here’s a question. There’s a philosopher named Kwame Anthony Appiah who’s a really fascinating and profound guy, and he’s written on cosmopolitanism and he wrote a book about identity, and I interviewed for him for the podcast. And it was a really fascinating conversation, and one of the things he says, which is a fairly obvious point. But he said it in an incredible way, which is just about the fact that we have many identities. Identities change over time, they’re in relation to different social structures of power and oppression, and some of the most potent identities over periods of time fade away in terms of their salience. So the example he gave was there was a time when a Lutheran marrying an Episcopalian was an enormous deal, that the families would be up in arms. Obviously, there’s six or seven or 800 years of just utter pogrom and bloodshed on the European continent over these differences, right? Those are not the case anymore, although there still are some places, like if you go to Northern Ireland where those differences make a difference.
I mean, when you think about the American you want to see, or think is possible, is race in America like gravity, or is it like the weather? Is it the kind of ordering physics of the country at some deep level that we can structure ourselves in good or bad ways around, or is it something that will change or can change?
IBRAM X. KENDI: I think that this country and its policies and power has always been shaped around racial identity, around racist policies and racist power. And can we have a country that’s called America or the United States in which it’s not sort of structured around racial identity, racism, and even white supremacy? Yes, but it wouldn’t look like this country in terms of the way in which the political system is set up, the economic system is set up, the way in which we relate to each other socially would be completely different. So whether that would still be America, I think is an open, semantic sort of question. But I do not think that we can sort of tinker here and tinker there and create a different, more anti-racist nation, or space. I think that we need dramatic, radical change in this country, and I think that that dramatic, radical change will actually benefit the vast majority of Americans. And I think that that perspective, that it will benefit the vast majority of Americans is one of the hidden sort of secrets. And people are constantly taught that it won’t, that they will lose, and yes, you will lose whiteness, but you’ll actually potentially gain things.
But I think it’s very, very difficult for people because I think that in many ways, not only are people sort of taught racist ideas, but they’re also taught this idea that a nation in which you truly have equal opportunity is impossible. That it’s either going to be white supremacy or, let’s say, black supremacy, there’s no in between. So if I sort of start allowing for the emergence of a more equitable nation, what I’m really sort of allowing for is black supremacy, and that’s certainly what those who are not going to benefit in that type of society are trying to teach people. And could that happen? Could we have a nation in which a different type of supremacy emerges? Of course, we don’t know, of course, the future. But I do think that it’s critical for people to recognize that the vast majority of people would actually benefit in a different type of country.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So my answer’s going to be a downer. I think when it comes to black people, race is gravity. I think when it comes to other nonwhite people, less so. The black experience is singular, no other group has been as legislated against, no other group has been treated as actual physical property, has faced sustained periods of racial terrorism. Black people remain the most segregated people in America in every aspect of American life, we remain on the bottom of every social indicator of well being, us and Native Americans, the two groups who didn’t choose to be part of America. But other groups are clearly more fluid, right? The historian who wrote, “How the Irish Became White” died today, and he talks about how whiteness is fluid. How people who were Irish, who were Jewish, who were Italian, or Greek were at one time not considered white and then they became white, certain Latino groups are considered white. Even Asian Americans who, in the 1800s, were classified as not being able to be assimilated just like black people, often the laws were against black and Mongoloids, but now are considered a model minority, right?
And are considered like the people that even white people are like, “Oh, they’re smarter than us and they make more money than us.” And considered to be the people who can assimilate the most and actually are the most integrated. So there’s a fluidity, I think of race with other folks, but not those who are foundational to our understanding of race in the caste system. Whiteness cannot exist without blackness, so until white people are willing to give up whiteness, you will never see an end, really, to racism that is built on antiblackness, and I don’t have hope for that. It is really the oldest American value, and it continues to be so.
CHRIS HAYES: Please join me in thanking Ibram Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Once again, tremendous thanks to Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram Kendi, and for everyone that came out on that freezing cold night in Chicago, it was an incredible event. We have some news about our next live WITHpod tour date. Sunday, December 8th, 7:00 PM in Town Hall in New York City, Tony Kushner, the legendary, acclaimed Pulitzer and Tony award winning playwright is going to be my guest, and we will be joined now by Jeremy Harris. He is an actor, and he is the playwright behind the sensation “Slave Play,” which is on Broadway right now and blowing s— up, it is very controversial. There are some people who really hate it, there are a lot of people who really love it, there are a lot of people who think it’s a revelation, it’s his first work on Broadway. He’s a young playwright, he’s really exploded onto the scene, it’s a profoundly provocative work, in the way that I think Tony Kushner’s work “A Bright Room Called Day” or “Angels in America” is profoundly provocative.
This is a profoundly provocative work, these are two brilliant, brilliant dramatists who also have their finger on the pulse of American society, and politics, and ideas. And we’re going to have a conversation about this moment in politics, and spectacle, and storytelling, and theater, together, the three of us on stage. So, Jeremy is a really special guy, he’s a special presence. He’s, like Tony, also an incredibly adept talker and articulator of his own ideas, not always the case with every writer. But he’s a really incredible presence to sit and listen to, and we’re going to have both of them in conversation at Town Hall, Sunday, December 8th at 7:00 PM. We’re also giving away five pairs of tickets, you can email us with New York Tickets in the subject, and in the body, including the name of the person who would be picking up the tickets, the deadline to enter is one week from today. That’s Tuesday, November 26th, at 9:00 PM Eastern. We’ll draw and notify winners within the following 24 hours after that deadline, and you have until Monday, December 2nd to claim your tickets. After that, your tickets will be forfeit and we will draw a new winner.
We’ve had great success with this in the past, and so hope to hear from a bunch of you, and if you don’t win, there are tickets in the balcony that are cheaper than the ones on the floor, and we hope we can see as many of you there as possible.
“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to
“The 1619 Project”
“How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
“Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi
“Black Reconstruction in America” by W. E. B. Du Bois
“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson
“The South Side” by Natalie Y. Moore
School Segregation in 2018 with Nikole Hannah-Jones (July 31, 2018)