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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Angela Davis on Race in America

» More about this interview

MARIA HINOJOSA: Welcome to the program and welcome to Angela Davis, a lifelong activist for social and human rights issues. And some of you may remember Angela Davis as an icon of the radical political activism of the late 1960s and early seventies. Welcome to our program Angela.

ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me Maria.

HINOJOSA: So I have to tell you whenever I mention to anyone that I was gonna be interviewing you the first thing they said was, "What is Angela Davis doing these days?" So for our audience who wants to know, What are you doing these days and how did you end up doing what you're doing these days?

DAVIS: Well I teach in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So that's my primary work. I lecture on various campuses and in various communities across the country and other parts of the world. I'm active in a number of organizations such as the Women of Color, Resource Center, Justice Now which is-- women in prison organization.

HINOJOSA: Before we get into talking about a lot of issues that are happening in our modern day American political reality how do you see where you stand now and the kind of activism that you're doing now which is a lot of speaking, a lot of writing, a lot of teaching, as opposed to how some people might remember you, firebrand, speaking truth to authority, fist raised in the air. How do you see yourself now?

DAVIS: Well times have changed. I don't really see what I'm doing as being radically different from those days. I felt at that time that I was a part of the larger community. I never saw myself as an individual who had any particular leadership powers. My name became known because I was, one might say accidentally the target of state repression and because so many people throughout the country and other parts of the world organize around the demand for my freedom. But I'm still associated, very much associated, with radical, revolutionary movements for social change.

HINOJOSA: So when you see, Angela, that we now have Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (PH), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a lot of what you fought for back then was equal rights for men, women, for people of color. So tell me how you see where we stand right now when people will say, "Look those goals have been achieved when you have powerful men and women of color in the top."

DAVIS: Well unfortunately in this country, in the west in general, we tend to think in terms of the individual as the primary unit of society and therefore when we think about struggles we assume that they have struggled for individuals per scene. But actually we were fighting on behalf of entire communities. We were fighting to bring down the barriers that barred Black people, Latinos, Native Americans, poor people, women from so many areas of society. Now that we do have a Black woman who is the Secretary of State it hasn't really changed anything. Black communities, poor women, are still pretty much in the same place. Or one might even go so far as to say that things are even worse today than they were at that time.

HINOJOSA: I'm sure. I can see some people raising their eyebrows and saying, "They're worse than they were in the sixties or seventies." How do you see that?

DAVIS: When I first became active there were just a couple of hundred thousand people in prison and we thought that that was a huge number of people. Now there're 2.2 million and the fact that there are so many poor people, people of Color, especially Blacks and Latinos behind bars that is an indication of the fact that there is no place for them in the so-called democracy. Poor people, people of color-- especially are much more likely to be found in prison than in institutions of higher education. Jobs that were once available as a result of the industrialization of the economy are no longer available to people.

HINOJOSA: Let's talk about presidential politics in the year 2007. You know Angela Davis that this conversation of is Barrack Obama (PH) Black enough, has now taken center stage? At the annual State of the Black Union, a forum on the social and economic challenges that are-- that faces Black America earlier this month the Reverend Al Sharpton said this. He did not name Barrack Obama but he seemed to be referring to him. He said, "Just because you're our color doesn't make you our kind. And your reaction to that is--

DAVIS: I-- I think that's an absurd issue. It's a false issue. It's really not about whether he is Black enough. It is about his politics. I think we should be far more concerned about the politics of the person and whether the candidate is willing to associate himself or herself with the needs of masses of people. I-- I've never felt that politicians by themselves could accomplish anything productive whether that politician is progressive or not.

HINOJOSA: So electoral politics to you are essentially what? Off the table?

DAVIS: Oh no. That's not what I'm saying at all. What I'm saying is that it's not about putting all of our energies behind the election of a particular candidate and then-- expecting that candidate to carry the ball. It's about recognizing that regardless of how progressive a candidate might be we will still have to develop the kind of mass pressure that will push them in the right direction. I'm thinking about the-- the Clinton presidency and how so many people assume that-- basically we have found our savior and how the political pressure was then reduced. it was lessened. And when we consider how many things happened during the Clinton administration, the consequences of which we are living with today you know such as the war in Iraq, I'm not opposed to electoral politics. I think it's an important arena of struggle but it is not the only one.

HINOJOSA: So you're essentially saying race has nothing to do with it. It's about your issues, your platform?

DAVIS: Exactly. Exactly yeah. I have said, many, many times I'd-- you know much rather have a White man who would in the war who would create health care and provide educational opportunities and do all of those things that people in this country need who would be sensitive to issues of race and who would be willing to take the kinds of measures that would begin to eradicate structural racism than a Black person or a Black woman who would be totally deaf to all of those questions.

HINOJOSA: When you see a poll-- this is an ABC news poll that amen out in January where Hillary Clinton was leading Barrack Obama among African-American voters 60 to 20 percent that doesn't surprise you, does surprise you?

DAVIS: Well it doesn't necessarily surprise me. But of course I-- I have my criticisms of Hillary Clinton as well.

HINOJOSA: I'm sure there are people who are saying, "Wait a second Angela Davis. We saw you with your fist raised saying Black power."

DAVIS: As I said before that was a different political culture and Black power meant something very different in those days than it does now. The evocation of Black communities meant something very different in those days than now. If we can speak about a Black community and I don't think we can even speak about a single African-American community in this country today we would have to acknowledge the fact that it is so class stratified that over the last couple of decades Black people as is also to a certain extent the case with Latinos have risen in the ranks of the economic hierarchy, of the political hierarchy and therefore it makes no sense to simply use race as a measure for community. We need something more. We need politics. We need aspirations about the future.

HINOJOSA: So when the people that I speak to when I travel a-- across the country say that the problems they see are just so overwhelming that they feel like we're in a moment in history when there's very little hope. What is it that you say when you engage these people that you say, "Look this is where you should be putting your activism in terms of improving this country."

DAVIS: Well regardless of what people are involved in they should be very attentive to the antiwar movement and find ways to link up with the antiwar movement. You said that there isn't a great deal of hope now? But it seems to me that the midterm elections provided a lot of hope for a lot of people. Finally it seems-- we were able to give expression at the polls to what was clearly a pervasive desire to see the end of the war in Iraq. So I-- I actually see this as a period of hope. I actually see the possibility that we may be turning things around.

HINOJOSA: I'm wondering if you think-- and I know that you're certainly not an expert on Iraq but because of your experience with the antiwar movement in the past what do you think needs to happen with Iraq? Do you support the-- the calling for the draft as one way to slow this war or do you think the troops should pull out now?

DAVIS: Well I-- I can't-- I can't support the-- the development of a new draft. But I support the sentiments be-- behind this call for a draft which is that people from poor communities, communities of color, should not have to be the ones to do the dirty work for the US government. I do believe that the troops should be brought home.

HINOJOSA: I'm sure that you probably get tired of the fact that you're always being drawn back into a moment the-- of-- of history you know in your past when you were either an enemy of the state or a huge political icon depending on who you were talking to. How do you see the-- the kind of values that you had at that time? You believed in the use of violence to achieve certain goals. How do you see how you've changed and where you've ended up?

DAVIS: Actually I see a continuum between that period and the current period. I've gone older that's true. You know I've learned a-- a-- a-- a lot more I think. I've perhaps grown a bit wiser. My values I think are basically the same. I was-- as opposed to violence then as I am now but I still insist on encouraging young people to take the kinds of risk that we took when we were young. Perhaps-- we made mistakes. Of course everybody makes mistakes. But the kind of creativity and the courage that animated the movement of that period is something that we need today within a different context around different strategy, different ways of giving expression to our collective desire for justice and peace and-- and equality.

HINOJOSA: Angela Davis, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us on Now on the News.

DAVIS: Thank you very much for having me Maria.

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