Protests in Perspective: Racial Justice & Democracy in 2021, with Adom Getachew

September 7, 2021

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Review. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council, the world's catalyst for ethical action.

In this podcast series, we'll be connecting Carnegie Council's work and current events with our senior fellows, senior staff, and friends of our organization. You'll hear from leading experts on artificial intelligence and technology, migration, public health, and U.S. foreign policy and global engagement. 

In this episode, we'll be looking back at the summer of 2020 and the massive racial justice protests that started in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd and quickly spread across the world. In the months after these protests, Carnegie Council hosted an event series called Protests in Perspective, co-sponsored by the Open Society University Network

These events looked at the protests from an international and historical perspective and featured some of the leading voices on racial justice, human rights, and the history of protest movements. For transcripts, podcasts, and videos from these talks, you can go to carnegiecouncil.org.

In this episode of Global Ethics Review, I reconnected with one of those featured speakers, Adom Getachew, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at The University of Chicago. She is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political thought, theories of race and empire, and postcolonial political theory. Her work focuses on the intellectual and political histories of Africa and the Caribbean and she is the author of Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.

In this podcast you'll hear some clips from Professor Getachew's October 2020 event entitled "On the Streets for Social Justice: Lessons from the Past." And you'll also hear our discussion about whether progress has been made, what these issues look like a year after the protests, and how we can move the discussions and actions forward. 

This first clip is from Professor Getachew's opening statement in the 2020 event. She discussed the unique place that the United States occupies in the world and why the protests went global. After the clip you'll hear the beginning our talk. 

ADOM GETACHEW: Now I want to turn to why it is that African American struggle in particular galvanizes so much attention, and I want to make the case to you that it is exemplary. What I mean by "exemplary" is that the struggle of African Americans for racial equality and full citizenship in the United States represents a universal struggle and experience. There are racial, ethnic, and religious minorities around the world who face similar kinds of battles for equity and inclusion within their various societies.

I think three things make the African American struggle stand out as something to gravitate toward, something you always look to. One, it's a 400-year struggle. We just celebrated last year 400 years of the first arrival of Africans onto the shores of what would become the United States.

Second, it's a struggle that happens in a country that claims to be the birthplace of modern democracy. This is the country that tells us all the time that it is the exemplary and exceptional democracy in the world that all other should emulate. The contradiction or the crisis around this epic struggle for full citizenship in the country that tells everyone in the world that it is the model democracy I think draws people to this experience.

Finally, in the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, the United States is the most powerful country in the world. Everything that happens in America gets a great deal of attention. I am sure many of you around the world even had to bear witness to the travesty that was our presidential debate earlier this week. So there is a way in which all eyes are on America because it is such a powerful country in the world. In that context many people around the world identify with and feel solidarity with the internal David that is fighting against the Goliath of American power. So there is this very important exemplarity of African American action for the rest of the world.

I want to say one last thing—and then we can begin our conversation—which is that solidarity mobilizations are not just about what's happening in the United States, but they are about moments in which protesters around the world actually connect their local struggles to the exemplary case of the United States. So when protesters mobilize in Europe or in other parts of the world, in Brazil, they are not just demanding justice for George Floyd or justice for Breonna Taylor, they're using those horrific, exceptional, exemplary cases to highlight contradictions and struggles that they face at home.

ALEX WOODSON: Professor Adom Getachew, thank you so much for speaking with us today. 

ADOM GETACHEW: Thanks for having me, Alex.

ALEX WOODSON: Relating to your opening statement from last year you were talking about how the United States sets the tone in some way for the rest of the world as a big, powerful nation. People look up to the United States around the world in terms of many different aspects. What are you seeing right now? What is the world taking from the United States right now in relation to racial justice? It is not the big story that it was last year on the news. The mass protests are not happening in the same way.  I know there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, though. Is this movement over as far as getting worldwide attention? What are you seeing from the rest of the world as far as this story?

ADOM GETACHEW: Thanks for that question. You are right that we are not speaking in the wake of the summer uprisings from last year, but we have continued to see ongoing mass protests, most recently earlier in the year in connection with Palestine and solidarity between primarily the Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives folks and Palestinian activists and organizers. So I think there has continued to be presence on the streets, but we can also look to elsewhere to see the ways in which this movement has shaped American politics.

After we spoke, there was a really important election in the United States. I think activists and organizers were very mobilized in terms of getting people to register to vote, and certain places where there had been important mobilizations in the summer saw increases in voter registration, and that has contributed to electing some important progressive voices who are aligned with some of the goals of the Movement for Black Lives. Cori Bush, a congresswoman from the St. Louis area, would be one prominent example. I think flipping the Senate in Georgia was another instance in which organizers and activists from a wide array of backgrounds, from union organizers to Movement for Black Lives activists, got together to make that possible.

I think additionally you have seen ongoing efforts at the local and state levels, say, to reduce funding of police departments, to try to redirect resources to other kinds of areas and initiatives. So, these efforts persist. They are dispersed. They are decentralized, so they are much harder I think to pinpoint and track in the same way as the uprisings were last summer.

The other thing I would say is that—these are not, of course, coordinated in any way—you do see wider, global kinds of movements that have taken state violence as their primary targets of critique and opposition. In the fall there was the End SARS movement in Nigeria, which really echoed in similar ways the organizing and tactics of the Movement for Black Lives in the United States. I have already mentioned the Palestinian uprisings of earlier this year. So I do see this kind of convergence around a critique of state violence and racialized state violence occurring in a variety of settings.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned a lot of work that is being done in Washington and in local politics. Do you think that's enough? Is there a problem that the media is not paying as much attention to this, that we do not have these protests from last summer? Is this the way that protest movements naturally go? Would you like to see more done, or is this progress that you are happy with right now?

ADOM GETACHEW: I would definitely like to see more done. There are a lot of institutional challenges to translating protest movements into institutional legislative programs. Just to name one kind of challenge that activists face on this front is the two-party system and the ways in which that system makes it really hard for challenges on the left—we will talk about the right later—to emerge. There has been, for instance, since the election and during the election, an intense conversation within the Democratic Party about how to relate to this movement and an effort by many to distance themselves from some of the demands around the Movement for Black Lives. That is one kind of external challenge.

I think a more internal challenge is: How should protest movements, which are by their nature, extra-institutional formations, relate to institutional politics? Should they be involved in electoral politics? How should they be thinking about their relationships to parties, elections, legislatures, etc., and I think there is a wide array of opinions about what the theory of change is and what the relationship between extra-institutional and institutional politics ought to be among movement activists and organizers. I don't think that question is decided, and so it leads to a kind of fragmentation of efforts on various fronts. I would like to see a clearer theory of change and a way of trying to think about how one translates what was really incredible energy and an inspiring moment last summer into institutional forms in ways that don't feel like you are being co-opted by the institutions that already exist but that also enable you to get your agenda realized.

ALEX WOODSON: I saw in a Dissent roundtable right after the election last November you said: "The Movement for Black Lives has a platform that links policing to wider questions of state violence and links abolition to economic redistribution and transformation. These issues must be internally connected to what kind of economy and social order the left wants to build." Have you see that happen over the course of the last few months with the Biden administration with the infrastructure bill and some of the other things they have been trying to do? Do you think they are connecting these issues together?

ADOM GETACHEW: For those of us who witnessed the primaries that led to Biden's nomination, it has been remarkable how much Biden has taken up certain central elements of redistribution. We have seen the child credit that was passed earlier that isn't quite permanent but has the potential to be permanent. Some of what's in the larger infrastructure bill, which will address questions of reducing the age of Medicare, imagines the care economy as a central part of our social infrastructure. I think those have been remarkable, and it is thanks to the efforts since 2018 of electing progressives, primarying moderate Democrats, and building a more robust progressive caucus within Congress that has pushed Biden on these fronts.

At the same time, there has been an effort to distance those kinds of redistributive agendas from the kind of abolitionist frameworks developed by the Movement for Black Lives. I alluded to this earlier, but, for instance, the bipartisan infrastructure bill included an attached resolution that disavows "Defund the Police," and Cory Booker, a Democratic senator, on the floor of the Senate made very clear that this was a way for Democrats to signal that they in fact don't support defunding the police.

I think another place where this has been visible is last year, again in the summer, there were some interesting conversations about reducing the American military budget and thinking about how resources might be—and these were fairly modest. The Senate discussions were about 10 percent of the Pentagon's budget. That has not been realized. In fact, I think the budget was slightly increased for the Pentagon, and the rhetoric around China and the "New Cold War" framing only justifies further investments in the kind of military and defense parts of the budget.

So I think it's a mixed bag, honestly. Especially if this infrastructure bill gets passed, I think it will bring meaningful transformation to people's lives, but it isn't doing that work of pairing a redistributive agenda and an abolitionist framework.

ALEX WOODSON: In the United States, discussions about racial justice are directly connected to discussions about democracy. And, similar to many other states around the world, the United States is facing a serious threat to this political system. Professor Getachew's event last year took place before the January 6 insurrection, but, as you'll hear in this next clip, she saw the warning signs. After the clip, we discuss the crisis in the United States more specifically and what we can learn from thinking about other nations that are also struggling with their democratic systems. 

ADOM GETACHEW: I grew up on the African continent—not too far from South Africa actually, in Botswana—and in the 1990s and more generally we think of dysfunctional democracy as a Third World problem, something that happens in Africa and in Latin America, these places where they just can't get democracy right. Of course, America is the exemplary case in that context.

What the last at least four years if not more—and this is not just about the United States but about mature democracies around the world—is we have seen them come into crisis around the same kinds of things that Third World democracies have suffered from, namely, the politicization of identity and forms of violence that are connected to political competition and mobilization. We are about to have an election in this country, and it feels like war could break out in the context of an election. I don't mean to be alarmist, but that is the kind of sense in the air right now.

One thing I want to say and urge especially the students on the call to think about is to reverse the question about democracy, to think about what is it that democracies like South Africa and democratic experiments and their failures around the world, have those experiences actually shed new kinds of light on the experiences we're having in the United States and Europe right now, to take those experiences of the Third World, which are often treated as marginal and exceptional, and think that those are really the things that give us clues into how democracy operates and what some of its contradictions might be?

ALEX WOODSON: Your event was before the January 6th insurrection, and I think in some ways your words were very prescient. What does this growing anti-democracy movement in the United States mean for racial justice? What can students think about in terms of that?

ADOM GETACHEW: It's a great question. I think one thing that was really important and striking to me about the January 6 insurrection was the social base of the people who were involved and participated in that. It was kind of a wide swath of people, people in the middle class all the way to working class people, and I think it is important to think about what the popular constituency of this sort of formation is. I think it is very easy to think about elite manipulation, to focus on the Republican Party or Trump himself as the instigators, and it is not to disavow their significance, of course, in initiating and instigating an insurrection, but there is a real social basis to these formations, and thinking about what those are, what is it that people secure—materially, psychically, etc.—from everything like meetings to networks to social media infrastructures, to think about that.

I would say that the insurrection was really scary and incredibly difficult to witness that afternoon as we were all sitting at home, but I think a larger and more difficult challenge on the question of racial justice is the institutional base of these kinds of anti-democratic projects, and by this I specifically mean what we have witnessed since January 6, which is state after state after state passing voter rights restrictions. In addition to this we already have a makeup or structure to the federal government that is counter-majoritarian and that weights states equally, despite the vast differentials of populations, at least in the Senate.

I think it is equally important to pay attention to the kind of institutional structures of anti-democracy, some of which have been part of our federal structure from the very beginning and some of which are new additions and have emerged out of the backlash. These are equally if not more of a threat to the project of racial justice as the kind of insurrection we saw on January 6.

ALEX WOODSON: How specifically do they impact racial justice? I know that there are many ways that they do. I am not sure that that has gotten enough attention since January 6, so how do these institutions do this? What have you seen happening since January 6? 

ADOM GETACHEW: We will have to see what the impact of these new voting rights restrictions will be on the ground, but there is no question that we got two Democratic senators in Georgia because of massive voter turnout, especially among African American voters but also voters of color across the board in metropolitan cities like Atlanta. Trying to undermine the possibility for that kind of turnout through these restrictions may have consequences for who gets to represent a state like Georgia or Texas. I think that is one.

Two, in the Senate there are two senators per state, but increasingly—this has always been true, but it is becoming more true—the coastal states, again which are more diverse, have larger populations than many of the states in the middle of the country. That was, of course, a counter-majoritarian design from the very beginning, but the consequences of that over time is that the votes of again, more people of color, younger people, urban dwellers, etc., count for less basically within that structure. Let's say you get a lot more people like Cori Bush elected, or you have them run for office at the very least, the chances of getting them into office and the chance of being able to translate that into a majority coalition within a legislature gets diminished.

There are some policies that do seem to have majority backing when you poll Americans, not necessarily Defund the Police but, say, universal health care or something like universal health care or diverting some money from military spending to health care and education and housing. Those have majority support when you survey Americans, but how to challenge those, which would have really important consequences for people of color in the United States, how to translate those into meaningful policy, these kinds of institutions are roadblocks to that process. I am not saying that if they were all gone that we would immediately be able to do the work of translating them into policy, but at the very least these can tend to be sticking points or roadblocks to that process.

ALEX WOODSON: Going back specifically to your answer from last year about this question, you mentioned South Africa in your answer. I am not sure if you meant South Africa or were just saying South Africa to represent other nations, but nonetheless there was a huge crisis in South Africa in July involving corruption, poverty, and lots of uprisings there as well. I know it is not just South Africa that has been going through a crisis in 2021. What can students and people learn about the United States through thinking about something like the crisis in South Africa or maybe another country that you would like to highlight that has been going through some difficulties in the past year?

ADOM GETACHEW: I think my urging to think internationally and comparatively about democracy stems from two things. One, I think the United States, and more generally the North Atlantic world, has a tendency to be insular in its thinking, especially the United States with a sense of a kind of exceptionalism—the first democracy, the most stable democracy, all of these things that generate a sense in which there is nothing to learn from the rest of the world.

I think there are two lessons from a country like South Africa—but we could also talk about India, these large, multiracial, multiethnic, and multi-religious in the case of India—democracies demonstrate. One is to think about what actually makes us very similar to them. One kind of similarity that you can think of across the board of these three—South Africa, India, and the United States, but also some of the other advanced democracies of Western Europe—is the fact that we have these longstanding party institutions whose coalitions no longer seem to hold, who are internally incoherent coalitions.

I think partly the kind of crisis we are experiencing is this recombination or maybe initial explosion and possible recombination of these constituencies and coalitions that made the African National Congress (ANC) so dominant or that made Labour in the United Kingdom a social democratic party for so long, and the same with the Democratic and Republican Parties in the United States. The South African uprisings in some way, as much as they are about the social crises of South Africa in this moment, are also an intra-ANC battle that is being played out in this incredibly intense and horrific way. That is one kind of similarity.

A second similarity might be, again thinking about India and South Africa, when and why does racial identity become the site of democratic mobilization? Why is it that this moment enables, let's say, in the United States a really explicit form of organizing around white racial resentments or Hindu nationalism in India? What is it that enables this? What makes them mobilizable identities at certain moments and less so at other moments?

I think thinking comparatively allows us to think of ourselves less as the exception and maybe learn lessons from these kinds of comparative cases. That is not to say that the fates of these democracies are in any way the same. I think the differences between ourselves and others is really important too. One set of differences is that many democracies around the world don't have the kind of counter-majoritarian institutions that we have. They don't necessarily have Supreme Courts with such a significant veto power. So what does it mean that we think of ourselves as the greatest democracy but are constantly undermining what is a central pillar of democracy, which is majoritarian rule?

ALEX WOODSON: One of the reasons that I wanted to reconnect with Professor Getachew is her focus on the linkages between the Movement for Black Lives and international racial and social justice movements. In this clip and the ensuing discussion we look at these global connections. 

ADOM GETACHEW: One thing, as someone who is interested in internationalism, I wish the Movement for Black Lives would more seriously think about the question of international solidarity. That is to say, we have seen this outpouring of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, and I think there are moments where the movement has reached out to specific struggles and connected with specific struggles, but I would like to see a moment in which we try to recover some of the more reciprocal forms of solidarity and internationalism that we saw in an earlier moment.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned last year that you would like to see the Movement for Black Lives think more seriously about international solidarity. Have you seen more of that in the past year? What specifically would you like to see or what specifically have you seen in regard to that?

ADOM GETACHEW: I mentioned earlier the kind of Palestine solidarity that happened earlier this year. I think it is really important. From the outside it might seem surprising that that has been such an important link. The Ferguson moment also involved these kind of Gaza-Ferguson connections, but also there is a decades-long solidarity between Palestinian activists and Black activists, so I think that is one kind of positive story to tell about a kind of revived internationalism.

I don't know if I mentioned this last year when we talked, but the Vision for Black Lives platform from 2016, which was this policy statement of the Movement for Black Lives, put out initially in 2016 and revised in 2020, does include a kind of foreign policy vision that involves a dramatic deescalation of U.S. wars abroad, of defunding or radically scaling down spending on defense, a commitment to especially supporting stability and security in areas where the United States has been most engaged, primarily the Middle East, Horn of Africa region, and Central America. So I think there is this incipient language of internationalism within the movement.

I think there are challenges to realizing that, and some of them are the same ones that we talked about in the domestic context. One kind of challenge is: How do you build actually meaningful connections with movements in other places on the ground? What are the institutions or infrastructures that would enable that kind of international solidarity so that you really understand people's specific struggles on the ground and know what it means to be in solidarity with them? In earlier moments there were like the Pan-African Congress or these other kinds of convenings that brought people together from different areas of the world, etc., and that would be one way in which you forged some sort of connection.

I think a second—and it's sort of related—is just about having spaces for disseminating critical and internationalist perspectives. That is just more news media, newspapers, magazines, and that kind of thing.

A third is expanding internationalism within the United States. How can we persuade American citizens that internationalism is in their best interests? I think there is one version of it that is very easy to persuade people about, which is: "Look, if we cut the Pentagon budget, you could get health care, housing, and all of those things." It is another step to say something like: "Okay, if we're going to solve the climate catastrophe that is on the horizon, it is important for the United States not only to shore up the United States but also to help support and create a kind of global infrastructure that could really deal with climate change." The last year of seeing the response to the pandemic and the rollout of a vaccine and the really deep global inequalities are a sign of just how far we are from that vision of internationalism.

ALEX WOODSON: One question that I have had over the past year or so, and it has come up in different contexts, is: There are a lot of protest movements. You mentioned several just now. There is something like the protest movement in Belarus. Belarus is a very different society than the United States and a lot of other places in Europe. There is a protest movement in Cuba, more focused on anti-authoritarianism, but they are not a democracy, so they have their own issues to deal with. Are these protest movements that are just happening at the same time, or do you see connections between something like Belarus and the Movement for Black Lives? Is there anything that protestors in the United States can think about in terms of anti-authoritarian protests like that, or do these just happen to be happening at the same time in different parts of the world?

ADOM GETACHEW: That's a good question. It's hard to say. They of course have very specific contexts and reasons for starting.

One thing that is really interesting just observing some of these protests is how similar some of the tactics are. For instance, in earlier moments of Black Lives Matter protests, shutting down highways was a central tactic of disrupting the way people move or the die-ins that happened at malls and restaurants and these ways of disrupting commerce and the ability for transportation. We have seen that in other protests around the world. I am thinking, for instance, about the really large-scale farmers' strikes in India that similarly made impossible movement around the cities.

I will have to think more about it, and this is just going to be tentative, but I think there is something similar about how these protests have decided to go about, what tactics they use, and perhaps they tell us something about what are important sites of intervention in this particular moment. Mobility and consumption tend to be central places if you want to make your voice heard or your impact felt, and I think that probably says something just about generally where our societies are as a whole.

I do think there are lessons to be learned both from failures of mobilizations and from successes, and you can see that in a variety of ways. I mentioned the End SARS protest in Nigeria earlier, but I think you could see how certain forms of organizing that are prevalent now—decentralized and also feminist-led, which is very distinctive; that have also been true for the Movement for Black Lives here—also shaped that particular movement against police violence.

I think also a shared challenge among some of these movements and mobilizations is: How do you build beyond your core group of people? It is one thing if many people show up for the protests, as they did last summer, but when those people go home what happens? How are they engaged? How does that presence in the streets then translate into meaningful engagement, coalition-building, etc.? That challenge seems to repeat itself in some of these cases as well.

ALEX WOODSON: In this final clip from 2020, Professor Getachew answers a question about how to stay hopeful. The question and answer specifically referred to the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville last year, but were not indicted. As you'll hear, Professor Getachew is still able to appreciate the progress that has been made in the past year and a half. 

ADOM GETACHEW: I say this often so if you have heard me say it before, I'm sorry to be a broken record. Again, thinking back to the work that I do and the period I studied in my book, decolonization after World War II; in 1945 if you had said that by 1960 over 20 African countries would have gained independence, you would have been laughed out of any room, including the rooms where anti-colonial nationalists were struggling and deciding how to think about the future of the world. It looked bleak. Even the institutions we now associate with the rise of decolonization like the United Nations were hostile to the project of self-determination.

But in 15 years, by 1960, we are looking at a different kind of world order. It doesn't mean that that project of decolonization was won and ended in 1960, but we were in a different stage or phase of the fight than we were in 1945. In some ways that gives me hope because it's a reminder that politics is not set in stone, it's not stuck in time, it's not a frozen experience, it changes very rapidly. If nothing else, I think the last four years should tell us that our conditions, our context, our conjectures could be completely transformed in matter of months.

That is also a lesson of the 2020 protests. When we went into lockdown on March 15 or whatever it was if you had told people that by the end of May we would be living through the greatest resurgence of protest mobilization in the United States and in the world, people would have thought you were crazy. So I think remaining attentive to the real political contingencies that structure our lives is important.

I think keeping your eye on these smaller experiments—it may be that Breonna Taylor's killers won't face trial, but this is also a summer in which many cities have voted to withdraw some funds from the police. It's a moment in which students at universities and K-12 are insisting that they don't want police in their schools and on their campuses and are winning some of those fights.

So to me, I look at this moment as one not of failure but one of lots of promising possibilities. It is not to say that they will be realized, but there is, I think, much to feel optimistic about.

ALEX WOODSON: We at Carnegie Council like to end our podcasts on a hopeful note, and you set that up for us very well, saying last year that you were optimistic about a lot of different things. I will ask the question now, about a year later: Are you still optimistic?

ADOM GETACHEW: Yes. It has been a very difficult year, a second year of this pandemic and a whole set of dislocations all around the world. There is much to be very pessimistic about, including the climate crisis that is on our doorsteps.

I think I said some version of this last year too. I do think politics is the arena of the unexpected, and there are always things that come up that are surprising. For instance, maybe the same month we spoke last time, in Bolivia the kind of unexpected huge victory for MAS (Movement for Socialism) was really encouraging.

As I said, I remain surprised and cautiously optimistic about some of the directions the Biden administration has gone, especially on the domestic parts of thinking about redistribution, thinking about the care economy, and reimagining what infrastructure looks like. I think and hope it sets us up for larger-scale investments down the line.

I remain very inspired by people who risk their lives all over the world to fight for the things they believe in. You mentioned Cuba, Belarus, Nigeria, and Palestine. In all these places I think people have a vision of a better world, and they are willing to risk life and limb to make it possible. I think in that context, even though the challenges we face are unprecedented and there isn't an easy answer or easy fix to many of the questions before us, it seems to me that as long as people are willing to fight for what they believe in that the possibility of a better world is always on the horizon.

ALEX WOODSON: Professor Adom Getachew, thank you so much.

ADOM GETACHEW: Great. Thank you.

ALEX WOODSON: That was Professor Adom Getachew, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at The University of Chicago. She is the author of Worldmaking After Empire

Thanks for listening to Global Ethics Review. And stay safe and healthy. 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less