Stefan Bradley, a professor and chair of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, talks about the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the persistence of white racism in American society. Bradley is the author of two books, including “Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Ivy League,” and a co-editor of a third. He has written multiple articles on Black activism on higher education campuses and is a frequent media commentator. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.
The Black Lives Movement message has met with significant opposition in the past few years. But now momentum around that issue seems to have turned. Was George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis this past June the reason for that change?
Although the gruesome death of George Floyd is important in terms of sparking something fueled and fed by the history of Black mistreatment at the hands of authorities, there’s a lot more underneath than appears. People are still mourning Emmitt Till’s death. People are still remembering Mary Turner, who in the 1930s was lynched — hanged— when she was pregnant. In 2014, you saw people spill into the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. I also was there. People remember this history that goes along with brutality — unarmed Black people and legally armed Black people dying at the hands of police and wannabe police — that has been afflicting Black people in this country. So, it’s a build-up more than anything else. It has never gone away.
Is this a moment for the coalescing of movement, and, if so, what is the goal? Is it legislation?
That’s the million-dollar question: Is this a movement? I’m inclined to think that it is. The organizers on the ground have been doing well since the death of Trayvon Martin, and much respect to the three women who put together Black Lives Matter, to the Ferguson protesters, and those in Baltimore and everywhere else who’ve been organizing along these lines to create more than a moment. They have done the organizing that has led to the immense support that has happened for this particular campaign.
Is legislation the goal? I think it’s an objective more than anything else. Black people being able to live freely in America is the ultimate goal. Black people should be able to jog down the street.
If we talk about legislation, people have been calling for the defunding of police. This frightens people to the core in much of America, and well it should. I don’t think that young people are making this call lightly. One thing everyone should be willing to do is reflect on the role of authority in our nation. We should be thinking and reflecting about how we empower the people to whom we grant the permission to use force, sometimes deadly force. In terms of defunding the police, it’s a relatively conservative concept to think about the budgets that we extend to the various structures of society. If something is working well, then fund it well. If something is not working well, then perhaps we should think about funding it differently. So, yes, legislation is an objective toward a larger goal, and, hopefully, this legislation will lead to a safer prospect for Black people in America.
It’s often said that the Freedom movement was crippled by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and that movements need leaders like them to succeed. But the historian Nell Irvin Painter recently said, “The great stall point after the civil rights movement was white people not being able to talk to other white people about whiteness.” That question puts the lack of progress on white people’s shoulders. Is that today’s question?
I think times have moved on from that kind of messianic leadership. It can’t work the same in this moment. You would need the type of leadership of an Ella Baker, who looked to empower the people on the ground to be leaders of their own community. But the point that Professor Painter makes in her book “The History of White People” is that racism, at least in this country, is not something that Black people, or Native Americans or Latinx people created. It’s not something that Black people or people of color on their own can fix. The real crux of the matter is white people having the ability to check the impulses and policies of white structures that allow for discrimination and oppression. That’s the hard work. I don’t envy white people that, because it’s people who make policies and command the structures. It’s difficult to have discussions with your Uncle Joe, your Aunt Jane or close friends about what is racism and how can we do something about it.
What should white leaders who want progress be thinking and doing?
I think first is reflection. At Loyola Marymount University, we talk about reflection all the time. But I think it’s quite useful in the sense that white leaders, and white rank and file, need to think about “How have I been racist in the past and in the present how am I being racist now. How have I propagated racism?” Those are inward questions that need to be asked. The next step is study. The history of every nation has seen a kind of nationalism. In this country, nationalism has been formed around the idea of skipping over certain ugly incidents in the nation’s history to talk about the goodness and the greatness of the nation. I believe that you can have a good and great nation but that you have to acknowledge the ugliness in how a nation has come to be. Part of that is the study piece, and not just books like “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism” but studying Nell Irvin Painter’s work. It’s easier for white people to learn from white people, and so that enforces a certain kind of white supremacy. There have been people who have been doing this kind of work for centuries who happen to be Black people, and it would be worth cracking into their resources.
The other part is that white people who are interested in checking racism also have to be ready to lose friends and, potentially, family members. There’s a great deal of entanglement with racist structures that white people benefit from. It’s not easy to disentangle. People who are otherwise good in their hearts will have problems with changing what is now the status quo. That’s unfortunate, but it speaks to the commitment that leaders and rank and file have to be willing to make. Finally, there has to be some sacrifice of ego: recognizing and confronting the idea that in order to become anti-racist and to create or reform structures in such a way that they don’t propagate racism means we’re intentionally going to hire, admit, retain and advance Black people. That becomes controversial, because we love the idea of equality. It’s much harder to deal with the idea of equity. None of those steps are easy, and unfortunately none of those are quick steps.
So, what I call for is try to figure out what power you have in this world. If your power is with words, if you’re in charge of helping people to communicate, if your power is you’re the chair of a department, if your power is that you’re a student, then I ask that with those powers you look to create opportunities for Black people that you never have before, and do so intentionally. And avoid by all means the “hope, wish and pray” technique. People are quick with thoughts and prayers, so I say think with your wallet and pray with your feet.
Is identifying one’s power and acting on it — as distinct from simply confessing that one has behaved in a racist way — the way institutional racism can be addressed?
What you’re talking about is the difference between admitting “I’ve done something bad myself” and “How do I change things in a way that will open up opportunities for a larger group of people.” That’s policy, and policy is one part of it. But the harder part is culture. That’s the part that changes the slowest. Last week, Princeton University announced it was removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its international affairs school. That’s remarkable to me. I write about civil rights, black power and the Ivy League. These institutions have for so long been entrenched in American history and the American narrative. But students have been able to agitate in such a way that the institution would be pressured and encouraged to revoke the name of Woodrow Wilson — a one-time president of the university, one-time faculty member of the university, one-time student of the university — from the building. That is a cultural shift. To see Toni Morrison’s name on a building — yes, these are just names, but cultural things are shifting. We’ll see what change looks like in the curriculum or in ceremonies. This is the kind of stuff that LMU has to be willing to confront. The things that we consider most sacred — do they propagate a kind of white supremacy? Are they inclusive? Do they reflect the kind of students we have, the kind of students we want and the kind of people we want our students to be? That’s the hard part.
One of the sacraments of the Catholic Church is penance, and we could summarize that sacrament in a particular prayer, the Act of Contrition: We confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness. What might contrition look like at this moment in American history?
There’s a great danger in acknowledging what you’ve done wrong but not being willing to change what you’ve done wrong. In higher education, many institutions have benefited greatly from Black people’s work as enslaved people or have denied Black people the opportunity to study at these institutions. In Catholicism there is penance, but in civil society there is an idea of reparations: If we have harmed somebody, we have to be prepared to repair the harm that we’ve done. After harm occurs, people have a chance to express their hurt, and society listens. People who have done the harm or benefitted from it have to be able to say, in honesty and frankness, “This is how I participated in the harm.” And the next step is, “I’d like to repair it. How can we go about repairing this harm?” Anything else is navel gazing. In higher education, institutions such as Georgetown University, Brown University and Duke University have acknowledged the role that slavery played in the creation of their institutions, and that’s very good. But unless you’re willing to offer reparations to the families that were affected by this, or to Black students or Black people in general, then it goes no farther than a wonderful exercise. It has to go farther than that if it’s to be truly meaningful.
Besides attending protests, posting on social media and voting, what can an individual do to support this movement?
For an individual, part of the answer is recognizing racism when you see it. That’s hard because we’ve all been conditioned to accept that certain things are normalized. For example, there was a show called “COPS” that was on forever. So many times, people have said that this is what racism looks like. But people loved this show that portrayed Black people in certain kinds of ways.
In our literature and philosophy classes, if we forget to mention Black people or a continent of Black people, then we’ve done a disservice, and we’ve sinned in a way. I also hope those individuals who recognize racism when they see it have the courage to try to check it, call it out for what it is, and to demand a different way of doing things. That’s not going to be easy, because when you pull back the blinders, you’ll find there’s more racism than one would think. It doesn’t just look like the cowardly people in the pointy hats. It looks like the buildings that we place names on, the way that we underfund education for public schools, the way that we capture children at the border. Doing this can be very taxing, and there’s a sense of fatigue for some people who are new to anti-racism work. It becomes overwhelming when you see how entrenched racism is with everyday processes of life. So, be prepared for the protracted struggle. Know that this is a battle every day. You have to be vigilant and prepared to get up and fight every day. You can take a rest, but you can’t stop fighting.