March 04, 2021

Charles Blow

Charles M. Blow, NYT columnist and author of “The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto,” discusses his plan for Black Americans to amass political power by reverse migration to the South in order to achieve Black majorities in multiple states.

Read Full Transcript EXPAND

A radical idea to consolidate Black power, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

Whose streets?!
Our streets!

The Black Lives Matter movement has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Black voters played an essential role in electing Joe Biden as president…
The African-American community stood up again for me.

…and putting Democrats in control of the Senate.

Congratulations.

Yet, consider these sobering facts.
There have only been 11 black senators in U.S. history.
Today, there are three.
There have only been four black governors in U.S. history.
Today, there are none.

Because we have been starved of real power for so long, we don’t even know what it feels like.

columnist and author Charles Blow has a plan to change that and much more.

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… and by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Charles Blow, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

Hello. Thanks for having me.

In your new book, ‘The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto,’ you put forth your big idea that… Explain your proposal to us.

Well, at the end of the Civil War, three Southern states were majority black.
Another three were within 4 percentage points of being majority black.
Every Southern state had large black populations.
And there was real political-power potential in those black majorities in those large black populations.
But black people didn’t stay there, in large part because they were terrorized out of being there.
And they were then dispersed to different states all over the country, where in none of those states where they the majority of the population.
I’m saying reverse that Great Migration, reconstitute that power base, and you have access to all the power that the states, under the Constitution, control.

So the subtitle of the book is ‘A Black Power Manifesto,’ and you have said, ‘We have to reassess what power looks like.’

Yes.

So what does power look like to you?

To me, it is, do you have the power to elect officials who are going to advance your priorities.
On the municipal level, that is becoming evermore true.
There are 1,200 majority-black towns and cities in America.
90% of them are in the South.
But on the state level and on the federal level, that is not as true.
Black people have not been able to deliver a state or been the majority of the coalition that delivers a state to any candidate of any party until they deliver it this year here in Georgia for Joe Biden.
And until you are able to do that, until you no longer exist on the margins, that’s not power.
They only need to excite you around election time.
They don’t need to address your policies, because there’s a giant group of voters.
If they can just tilt 5% of them, they don’t really even need you.

So, what’s striking to me is black power is actually political power explicitly within the context of American democracy.

Yes.

You write… So now you’re saying that black Americans should use the very framework of state power — federalism — in order to accumulate power.

Absolutely. The federal — The federalism argument was used forever to subjugate black people.
I say use the very tools of your subjugation for your liberation and turn it on its head.

You also write… Now, that idea really runs counter to the liberal orthodoxy of the virtue of diversity.

Well, I don’t think that white people think of diversity in the same way that I think of diversity.
And, in fact, I quote people — One sociologist in my book who looks at — who studies diversity through the lens of real estate, and what she finds is that people say they — White people say they want diversity, but they end up buying houses in places where they are the clear majority, which is very different from the way black people and Hispanic people who say they want diversity buy real estate.
So diversity — I don’t believe that white people in America are actually living this as a real virtue.

And but do you — In the context of your plan, diversity actually isn’t a virtue.

Well, as I say, I think diversity is good and valuable.
What the research says is, people have diverse work environments, they are more productive.
When people are around people who are unlike them, they can, in some cases, reduce people’s tendency towards racism.
But I do not believe that diversity is a cure-all for anti-blackness in America.

So, as you know, this is a program that is a renewed version of William F. Buckley Jr.’s ‘Firing Line.’
And in 1974, William F. Buckley Jr.
hosted John Lewis, the civil-rights icon, to a conversation entitled ‘Politics and Black Progress.’
Take a look at this clip.

Okay.

At this particular time in American history, I would say at the ballot box is the most effective and most meaningful instrument that black people can use toward bringing about justice and equality.
I’m not suggesting that the ballot is dependency.
It’s not a queue at all, but it is a weapon, an instrument to be used to bring about changes in the South and throughout this country.

You know, I picked that clip because it strikes me, Charles, that your plan actually is in sync with the premise of Lewis’ argument and that if the South became a majority black again, it could, through the ballot box, combat white supremacy and inequality for black Americans better now than probably any time in our history.
Is that it?

Yes. And it’s fascinating to hear that.
I believe absolutely that power is — You know, I don’t dwell in feelings about racism.
I don’t think that the majority of racism is about feelings, whether or not somebody dislikes somebody or not, whether or not I feel injured or hurt by something.
I don’t care about that anymore.
I’m 50 years old.
What I hear about is power.
Do I have the power to prevent this from harming me?
You know, Stokely Carmichael says, ‘If a man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem.’
That has nothing to do with me.
If he has the to lynch me, now, that’s my problem.
I want to know — I want to live in a space where people don’t have the power to bring harm to other people.

How do you know that the return of black Americans as majority populations in key Southern states wouldn’t trigger a whole new reign of terror?

I can’t predict what will happen, and white supremacy has always responded with violence when its power was threatened.
And I do recognize this is a revolutionary act that I’m asking people to undertake.
And there are no revolutionary acts without risk and without resistance.
But black people have to ask themselves, do you want power or not?
This is their paths to it.
This is one.
Maybe there are another ones.
I don’t know other ones.

Okay, so, you write in your book that there are both economic and social forces that forced the Great Migration in the first place.
And your key insight is that despite a reign of terror and lynching, it was actually economic forces that ultimately compelled black Americans to these destination cities.
You write about the boll-weevil infestation in the cotton states in the South — right? — that finally triggered this wave of migration.
So what is the economic opportunity that will compel black Americans back to the South?

Well, so, there was a collapse of the Southern economy in which black people were most invested, which was farming, mostly cotton.
I see a parallel in the pandemic.
I looked at black unemployment rates in major cities in America during the second quarter of last year, which was when the economy basically came to a halt.
Black unemployment rates in those cities was off the charts.
The black unemployment rate in Chicago was three times the black unemployment rate in Atlanta.
It’s strange in a way that, you know, this white-power president, in Donald Trump, could trigger a black-power migration, but I believe that it is just that sort of trigger that adds to the existing oppressions that already are in play.
You already had hyper-policing and militarized policing springing up in these destination cities.
The stop-and-frisk didn’t happen in Birmingham and Little Rock.
It happened in New York City.
It went to Chicago and Los Angeles.
The SWAT team did not originate in the South.
It originated in California as a way to combat the Black Panthers.
That militarism was not a Southern feature.
The modern militarized police force is not a Southern feature, but a Northern, Western city, mostly liberal city phenomenon.

You’re getting to this commonly held perception that the North is somehow better for black Americans, which you disagree.
I mean, you actually capture it in the title of your book, ‘The Devil You Know,’ because you say… Tell us a little bit more about why the South isn’t worse for black Americans.

Well, I think that there’s a perception that people — that black people — I think all people confuse, in some cases, liberalism with racial egalitarianism.
And they love the idea of living among liberalism, but it doesn’t mean that those same liberals see you as equal, racially, to them.
Just because a person believes that you should be fighting climate change and that you should — and they believe in a woman’s right to choose and they believe in LGBT rights doesn’t mean that same person believes that all people are created equal and given the same opportunities and access, that they will perform like human beings, regardless of what color they are or texture of their hair or the spread of their nose.
The cleaving point is often cruelty.
As long as they can experience their superiority without cruelty, people are pretty much fine.
If they don’t have to be cruel themselves, witness cruelty — Part of what the response to George Floyd is, it was so cruel.
But black people have been being killed by the police left and right, and not only just killed like George Floyd, choked to death.
But they saw cruelty in that.

I mean, after 26 years in New York, you’ve moved to Atlanta.
And you wrote that you have never felt police anxiety in the South, in Atlanta or New Orleans or Jackson.
And you attribute that to the fact that many of the cities in the South have majority-black police forces.
So it seems like what you’re saying is that, in some ways, the South today is not just the devil you know, but an improvement over the North.

Well, I mean, Martin Luther King wrote this fascinating essay in the months after the Watts riot, where he acknowledges that the Civil Rights Movement was largely a regional movement, and the benefits of it were largely regional.
The South was — It was based in the South, and the South benefited.
And so what we are experiencing are the direct results, in the South, of the Civil Rights Movement.
And that did not necessarily transfer to Northern and Western cities, and so they are still dealing with some of the same tensions that the South had dealt with.
It’s not just majority-black police force, it’s majority-black political structures.
It’s hard to find a major Southern city now that doesn’t have a black mayor.

Yeah.

And the first one was just in 1973 with Maynard Jackson here in Atlanta.
So it just changed the entire dynamic.
And it’s not that it makes it better because it creates some sort of black dominance.
No. It creates a space in which I don’t constantly think about the fact that I’m black.

So, what about the argument that people in the Northeast have better access to government services, public transportation, housing, more generous Medicaid services?
States like New York that have expanded Medicaid compared to states like Mississippi, Alabama, Texas —
Well, they have it, and you and I both know this is because Republican governors refuse to take anything that had Obama’s name on it, right?
So, it doesn’t cost them anything.
The money’s already there.
It’s already set aside.
They only have to say, ‘I accept it,’ and they can expand Medicaid and it’s paid for.

But is that an argument against moving South?

No, that is — So, there’s two — There are two wings of this argument.
One is the personal one.
What will you personally gain?
What are you personally suffering where you are?
What would you personally gain by moving?
The other one is communal.
What is best for the community?
There are all kinds of health disparities.
HIV is raging in the South.
Just by flipping a governorship, you change the entire complexion of that for other people who look like you, right?
When Governor Jindal screwed up Louisiana so badly that they finally got around to electing a Democratic governor, one of the first things he did was just accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, and it changed the quality of health for the people in that state, including driving down its new HIV infections.
And just important for your viewers to understand, it was not about these people being more promiscuous, having riskier sex.
They just didn’t have access to medicines that would prevent it from spreading.
They were dying out of neglect.
And just by expanding it, you then save all these black people from suffering and possibly dying.
That is the communal, the altruistic imperative to move.

There’s a quote in the book that made me smile.
You say that you, Charles… So explain how your plan could force the evolution of a political party.

Say best-case scenario, half the black people who migrated out go back.
If they’re located in precisely the right array, they could, you know, control a huge band of the South, which would completely upend political calculus.
You know, if Hillary Clinton had just won those Southern states that she won in the primary, largely because of black voters, she could have lost every single one of those Midwestern states and still won.

Yeah.

Right? So you could conceive of a scenario in which Republicans see no path to a national-election victory, and they are just simply forced to change.
I actually believe two-party systems or multi-party systems are healthy.

[ Laughs ] Yeah.

You’re laughing. What…
I love it.
I love it because you’re writing a recipe for the reformation of the Republican Party, the thing I’ve fought for for like, you know, 12 years.
Like, see my book circa 2010.
[ Both laugh ]
So, I like the idea of that.
And, you know —
I do, too.

And it’s not that people can’t get over it, what the Republican Party has done, because they got over it for the Democratic Party.
100 years ago, any room you walked into, a majority of black people there would have been Republicans.
Even if they couldn’t vote, they would have identified as Republican.
And the Democratic Party was hands down the party of racists and the Klan and everything negative.
And over that 100 years, the Democratic Party reconstituted itself, the Republican Party did the exact opposite, and black people ran away from the Republican Party to a Democratic Party and forgave it for being the party of the absolute racists.
That can happen again, but they would have to change themselves for that to happen.

So, look, your plan is premised on this idea that having this majority of black Americans in these specific states.
So tackle Georgia for me this year — right? — because black voters make up 1/3 of the eligible voters.
They delivered a Democratic presidential win to Joe Biden and two Democratic senators, including the first-ever black man to represent Georgia in the United States Senate.
So, the question is, do you really need a majority to show the power of what a group of voters can do, even if not in the majority?

Right. So, you can have a huge influence before you become majority, right?
But that influence can be whittled away.
So, black voters, this time around, were the majority of the coalition that swung the state to Biden, and they were a majority of the coalition that elected these senators, but only by a hair were they the majority.
So now that means that if you disaffect 5 percentage of the white people who voted for either the presidential line or the Senate line, you’re still back in the minority, right?
So you still need to build on that.
It’s not concrete power because you’re not controlling all of it.
You’re just the biggest part of the coalition.

You have some pretty harsh words for the white Americans in the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
You said they treated the protests like, ‘Social-justice Coachella, a systemic-racism Woodstock.’
You write that… So, tell me, what do you mean by that?

Well, and, first of all, I want to say some people.
Like, was there personal growth for some people?
Great. But that’s about you.
My liberation cannot be dependent on your growth or your evolution.
The idea that we — that black people should have to wait for white people to grow out of racism, which they’ve been waiting for them to do for 400 years and has not, apparently, sufficiently been done, it’s problematic for me.
It is also such a passive position for me to take as a human being that I refuse to take it.
So, yes, were there some people who experienced personal conversion?
Yes, and I’m happy for you.
On the whole, though, in the aggregate, what the polling suggests is that, in that moment, when everything was locked down and no one could go outside and people were getting in trouble for being outside and congregating, this was an outlet where you could do that.
All of your rites of passage had been shut down.
You couldn’t go to prom.
You couldn’t go to the movies.
You couldn’t go to a concert.
But you could do this.
And that was an outlet for a lot of people, because what I saw in the polling was that after business started to come back and when people came back to school in whatever limited ways they did and life started to get back to normal, the support for Black Lives Matter among white Americans started to drop back to the position it had been before the summer protests.

Is there a role for white allies in your proposal?

Listen, I think that anyone who supports black equality and black liberation should be applauded, but I just don’t want that liberation, that equality to depend on anyone but us.
You can help, and that’s fantastic, but I think that there has to be something that black people can do on their own.
The idea of waiting for other people to — or pleading with other people to help me, help me, help me is just not a great position to be in when you want freedom.
It doesn’t feel free to have to beg someone to help you.

You’ve said, ‘Make no mistake about it.
Biden is president only because of his allegiance with Obama.’

Yes, that’s true.

Joe Biden — President Biden has his own complicated history with race, as you know, from opposing busing to the authoring of the 1994 crime bill.
In a broad sense, do you think that he will be a good president for black Americans?

It’s very little that you can do on the federal level, unless you get through massive legislation.
The Obamacare was massive legislation.
Make no mistake about it.
Is there any chance that that’s going to happen again on a black-specific thing?
It’s very doubtful.
You know, the big legislative agenda items — immigration reform, huge.
Comprehensive gun-control legislation would be huge.
A big environmental package, something like the Green New Deal, even if you call it something else — that’s huge, because it reshapes the economy.
If you do that, then you’ve already spent it up.
You’ve spent the time up.
So I don’t know what he’ll do.
I don’t know another ready-to-go black-specific package that he could advance or that he would advance before any of those things.

Well, and President Obama, of course, had 60 senators, and Joe Biden’s got 50.
Which brings me to the vice president, who is that 51st vote in a tie.
You barely mentioned Vice President Kamala Harris in your book.
Do you think she is a champion of the politics that will help black Americans?

She has said that — you know, expressed her desire to be, you know, a voice and a force in that arena.
It’s just a vice president has — A president has limited power.
Vice president has almost no power, right?
So, the Senate being split is one of the few occasions that gives the vice president an actual thing that they can do that is powerful.
She can break the tie.
But in general, I mean, unless you’re Dick Cheney and the president basically cedes control to you, vice president —
Well, that’s — Well, it depends.
Right. Obviously, there’s this symbolic value of having the first black American woman in the vice presidency.

I think symbols are important.
I think representation is important.
I think little girls who see any woman being vice president, that’s an important symbol and a point of representation.
Any young black or Southeast Asian girl who sees someone of their lineage in that space — also hugely important.
I think one of the biggest kind of achievements of Obama will just be on the symbolic level.
Kids like mine grew up — That’s the only president they remember is Barack Obama.
And it doesn’t even feel abnormal to them that he was the president.

How’s the feedback been on your book?
What’s the feedback on the plan?

I mean, I think, you know, people are considering, and I think that is what you want.
Like, I want to start a conversation.
I want people to actively, seriously consider.
I don’t want people to think that, ‘Oh, this is an interesting thought experiment.
Let me do the math and what it would take.’
No. Actually, you know, the window is closing in your opportunities to do this.
You have to decide whether or not you want real power or not.
You have to decide if being in the streets and carrying a placard and saying ‘black lives matter’ is the only thing you can do to feel powerful or is there something more, something more tangible that gets more directly to the things that you care about?
If you truly care about those things, how are you going to get there other than this?
I want to make sure you have a plan that you could access if you wanted to, but do you really want this kind of power?
And are you willing to do something to access it?

Charles Blow, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you very much for having me.

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… and by… Corporate funding is provided by… ♪♪
You’re watching PBS.