Nikhil Singh Interview Transcript 1

MATT JACOBSON: Good evening. [Amid much laughter and jesting while Matt sets the levels on the recorder] RENEE ATHAY: So Ringo. MJ: We are here talking with-- NIKHIL SINGH: Would you like me to talk in an accent? [In a fake British accent] MJ: No. If you must-- NS: All right. MJ: --you may. We are speaking with Nikhil Singh. Tell us, what is your profession. NS: I'm a professor. MJ: I thought that. OK. RA: Of? NS: Of, well, that's always a harder question to answer. [Laughter] What actually am I a professor of? History. That's the easy answer. RA: And the difficult? NS: Well I do-- MJ: Tell us the name of your department. NS: My department is the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. I'm a professor of social and cultural analysis, and of American studies. RA: And you analyze? NS: I analyze society and culture-- MJ: OK NS: --in the United States. MJ: You have written a book, some would say you've written THE book on the relationship between race and nationality in America. Your book Black is a Country argues that internationalism is so central to African-American political subjectivity, and whiteness is so central to American nationality that the civil rights struggle itself was posing incredible challenges to the very notion of Americanism. That's a nutshell, but is that fair enough? NS: Yes absolutely. MJ: OK. So I would love to hear you reflect, both as a historian, but maybe even more so just from your own personal vantage point, on the meaning of the election of Barack Obama. How do you see that in the long trajectory of the kind of racial and nationalist politics that you've written about from the 1930s onward? If you could just kind of give us a sketch of that. But then even more so as someone whose own ancestry is complicated, and mixed, and transnational, what this moment means to you, or has meant to you, or what you think it might mean to you? NS: Those are great questions. Well I think that like so many people, I was very swept up in the Obama campaign. And I felt swept up in it in a way that sometimes I would stop and say you're being naive. Because I study these things, and I followed American politics closely for all of these years. And I never imagined we could be in a situation where the United States would be electing someone who has such a complicated ancestry, but also just simply someone who's black to be president. I supported Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. I don't have a memory that stretches back as far as the civil rights movement itself, but I've studied the Civil Rights Movement extensively. And despite what we learn about the Civil Rights Movement as sort of a movement that achieved its goals, I understand that the United States in the so-called post-civil rights era has actually been a country characterized by intensifying racial division and disparity. Whether it's in the realm of criminal justice, or education, or housing, or wealth, or employment, we still have a country that's completely divided by race. And our national politics really since the 1980s when I became politically conscious, so with the emergence of Ronald Reagan as the sort of hero really, and still someone who's thought of as a hero in American political life. Reagan's campaigns followed by the first George Bush were campaigns that were really waged against the legacy of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement in all kinds of ways. Reagan launched his campaign in 1980 by going to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights workers had been killed, and called himself a States' Righter. Which basically meant that he supported political tradition in this country which was completely arrayed against this sort of goals of racial justice and equality. So we kind of know these things and many of us probably have memories going forward about the ways in which the politics of the 1980s really through the 1990s in the United States was waged around racial issues. So when George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis and won in 1988, his winning strategy basically revolved around an advertisement that showed how Michael Dukakis, when he was governor of Massachusetts had supported a policy in which a black convict had been Furloughed, Willie Horton, and then gone on to rape and kill someone. And that became the cornerstone of Bush's campaign. Dukakis was soft on crime. But it wasn't just that he was soft on crime, but that he had released this black boogeyman. And then even Bill Clinton-- which was a moment in which many of us who are on the democratic side of the political spectrum saw as a moment that was a relief from these 12 years of basically right-wing republican policies-- even Bill Clinton, throughout the course of his time in office, really from the beginning but all the way through this eight years, continued to carry out a kind of politics, a symbolic politics in which he tried to distance himself from a politics that would be oriented towards racial equality and racial justice. One of the first things Clinton did in his campaign in 1992 was to preside over the execution of a retarded black convict Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas. And to make sure that as governor, he was showing himself to be tough on crime, but also-- am I giving too long of an answer? MJ: No that's great. NS: And then there was the Sister Souljah incident. There was the whole ethics-- MJ: I always think of Lani Guinier. NS: Lani Guinier was a good example. Because actually with Lani Guinier Clinton was almost trying to test out the possibilities of returning to-- MJ: There are a lot of people now who might not remember what that was about. Can you just give us the thumbnail sketch on what was the appointment, and how was it shot down? NS: So it was Attorney General, right? So Clinton was trying to-- Clinton was always testing different boundaries. And basically Clinton came out of a progressive southern tradition, which means something in America, because the South has been the bastion of reactionary politics and racist politics. I mean let's not mince words. Clinton was testing the boundaries of what he could accomplish. And I don't think anybody would look at the Clinton years and say that Clinton was not an opportunistic politician, because that was how he worked. But at least at certain moments he really did try to push for something more progressive. Whether it was gays in the military, or the effort to push through national healthcare -- I mean they botched them. They botched those efforts. And we don't need to revisit all that. But in the Lani Guinier case, attorney general, which is one of the crucial positions in the United States for monitoring the internal system of justice. And you really need to look no further than the appointment of attorney general, than to really gauge where a particular administration stands on these questions. George W. Bush, our most recent president, appointed John Ashcroft, who was a right-wing Christian, the most right-wing member of his cabinet in many respects in terms of his positions on various kinds of questions. Someone who'd done blackface and who really comes out of the worst tradition of American life in terms of these questions. Clinton, in the 1990s tried to promote Lani Guinier who was a law professor at Harvard, who had done incredibly innovative work in terms of thinking about voting rights and minority representation in Congress, but also at local municipal levels in terms of how do we actually produce a political system in which more minority people are actually represented, and minority interests are actually represented. One of the problems with our political system is that we have a winner-take-all political system. So for example, if you are being elected in a city-wide election, and the city is 60% white, 40% black-- this is just an example-- chances are whites are going to occupy all the city offices. But if you move this city elections to say district voting where you carve up the city in a way where you actually allow different neighborhoods to vote for their own representative, or if you create a system of proportional representation, or if you created a system in which you could vote for the top one, two, three candidates and you did what Guinier called cumulative voting so that you allowed not a winner-take-all kind of system, but you allowed the people who accumulated the most one, two, three votes to actually then become the representatives. You could actually create a slate of candidates who were elected to office who were more fairly representative of the city at large. So in other words, they're all kinds of possibilities of democratically electing representatives that could more fairly represent the diversity of a given voting body. While what we tend to have in a kind of majority rule, winner-take-all kind of system tends to actually privilege the majority in a way that disempowers and disenfranchises minorities. And so when Guinier, she's a brilliant academic. And she had all these complicated ideas about how you could do voting democratically in a way that would also allow for the minority voters, the voters that tend to be disfranchised to actually have representatives. People called her a quota queen. They said basically she wants to make sure that there are a certain number of black people who hold office. And that was never her position. MJ: Right. Well the other thing about that was that the things that she had written about were all things that had been tried in European and other western democracies. NS: Right. MJ: Australia, Denmark, all over. NS: All over the world, Yeah. MJ: That's right. All over the world. These were tried and true and accepted practices. And they were mocked and ridiculed and held up as a kind of symbol of her deficiency as a democratic thinker. NS: That's right. And it really was a sign of where American politics was going. Which was that it was the prelude to the Gingrich, 1994 congressional Republican, congressional takeover, the contract with America so called, and the sort of moment in which I think our politics really began to slide. MJ: So when you think about the distance between that moment-- the end of the story is that Clinton back peddled very, very quickly. And some people see that as a real major turning point in American politics. That was the moment at which the far right, the conservatives, the Newt Gingriches realized that telling the big lie was a way to win the big victory. Because what they were saying about Lani Guinier, they knew to not exactly be true. But they also knew it would carry the day. And it did. And Clinton back peddled. Now you think about the distance between that moment and this. Tell me first as a historian and then as a citizen what are your thoughts about the distance we've traveled, and possibly the distance we haven't traveled. NS: Well it was a long digression. This is always the problem of thinking about history is that there's always so much history, even packed into a few years. But I want to also harken back to your second question in relationship to what this whole process has meant to me personally. I think that growing up politically in these times as a progressive, even radical person, it's been hard not to feel despair. And I actually don't necessarily think that's a unique experience. I think that people across the political spectrum have felt despair about the American political process. But I think that the remarkable thing about Obama and about the kind of campaign that he waged over the last 18 months, and then as I began to read about him and learn about what he had done, is that it really made me realize that here was somebody who could have gone out into the business world, could have gone out into the world of investment banking, could have gone out into any number of possible avenues that were available to him as a smart, 'articulate,' handsome, hyper-educated, black man in America in which racial politics had begun to function along the lines of cherry picking a few special people and basically consigning the rest to the continued realms of underemployment, poor housing, poor education, et cetera, et cetera. And then sort of saying, well we don't actually have to address that because, look, we have a black person in the board room. MJ: Condoleezza Rice. NS: Right. And any number of people. Obama could have completely gone that route at a very early age. And it's not that he didn't have some of those benefits. He was a beneficiary of all kinds of things, going to Harvard Law School and so on and so forth, getting a job at the University of Chicago out of Law School. But the thing that's really remarkable about him is that he really chose to go back to Chicago to try to figure out a way to continue to innovate politically in an environment that at least at the national level seemed to be incredibly hostile to any kind of progressive agenda, let alone any progressive agenda that was oriented towards the needs of poor, minority communities of color. And that's how he constructed his life. He went to Chicago and he learned at the feet of people who continue to carry forth the idealism, the tactics, the strategies, the practices, of a kind of civil rights tradition. And Chicago was obviously the great place of some of the amazing successes of that on a city wide level with the Harold Washington campaigns. And Obama witnessed that. He learned from that. He became a community organizer in that context. He went into state government in that context, and beyond. And whatever anyone wants to say about Chicago, putting that aside, he put in a lot of time and effort getting his Ph.D. if you will, on the ground, learning how to do that kind of work. And one of the things that really struck me as I reflected on that, because of my own trajectory and the trajectory of so many people that I grew up with in college, graduate school. And I was an activist in graduate school. And I have had a lot of experience with labor organizing. And other kinds of organizing traditions was that even as we were living in a country that was hurdling to the right at the national level, there were lots of people, significant numbers of people, not small at all, who were continuing to try to innovate politically, who were continuing to struggle, to resist, to kind of think about other ways forward, other possibilities, whether it was at the level of grassroots organizing or the level of public policy at a national level or at the level of thinking about how to reorient or rethink the relationship with the United States to the world. And many of us sort of moved into academia as a space to elaborate our ideas. And people like Obama and other people that we know moved into the realms of community organizing, and labor organizing, and law, and politics. And these are overlapping worlds. And I think what was really shocking and stunning to me watching his campaign, was to kind of think how we have been working all of these years thinking that we were just fighting this kind of rearguard action against the inexorable movement of this country to the right. But actually, we were making serious inroads into redefining what this country might be. So I think that I felt that watching Obama's campaign, and watching the way in which it got traction, and the way in which it became its own kind of gravitational force and field, I really felt like this was a vindication of much of what many of us have been trying to do for many, many years. So it's really been an amazing thing to experience and watch. At a more personal level, having been an immigrant to this country, having been somebody who has parents from what in some contexts are considered different races or different incommensurable cultural backgrounds. Having grown up in the United States feeling like I didn't really fit anywhere here, that there was no available narrative for me, that being American was somehow always in question. As a person who grew up in that context, found myself gravitating to African American stories, narratives, histories, ways of seeing, ways of thinking about the world. I felt like there was an interesting resonance for me in reading Obama's own account of his own life. Because I think that what's really, really interesting about Obama is that of course Obama is black. I think the idea that he's not black or that he's not really black or whatever, that he's post-racial, any of these kinds of things is kind of ridiculous. Of course he's black. But at another level there is a way in which Obama chose to be black. There's an affirmative quality to his blackness that is really unusual and interesting. Which is to say that it's not that he completely had a choice. There was a way in which he was trying to figure out what he was as he was growing up. But he didn't necessarily grow up in contexts in which being black was sort of automatic or natural for him. MJ: Not the most obvious choice. NS: Yeah. And it's not the most obvious choice. Because one could think if you could opt out of being black, given the way in which blackness signifies in the United States, you might. And obviously there's a long history of that. It's called passing. We all know about that. But there was a way in which when you read Obama's account of himself that he chose to be black at a certain point in his life. Because he was figuring out what he was and then he went. And part of that choice involved a certain kind of intellectual commitment, reading Langston Hughes, reading Richard Wright reading Malcolm X, and really seeing, or being willing to see, how these works actually spoke to him, and helped him to define who he was. And I had a really similar experience growing up in the United States. Which was an experience I think with a very articulate tradition of American dissidence, a very articulate tradition of people who didn't fit and who developed a different understanding or sense of what this country actually was. And King had said this, Du Bois has said this, others have said this. That there's a kind of immunity to the myths of America, the sort of idea that the United States is always right, and righteous, and innocent, and never does wrong, and so and on and so forth. You cannot look at this country that way from the perspective of the history of those who have been so deeply victimized from their origin from the moment they landed up here. And it's not that I had that experience growing up. Whatever, I had minor kinds of discrimination and alienation by comparison to people who have been truly victimized. But I think that vantage point which really allows you to see that the country is not a self-contained sphere that's always righteous. That's not the space in which one invests one's sense of well-being, that the country is always something that exists within a wider sphere. I mean I grew up with that because I didn't come from here. And I think that in an African American tradition, over 200 years of being in this country and that had developed a long intellectual tradition and set of commentaries in understanding this country, there was a kind of similar insight. Which is that this country is really not the ultimate horizon of possibility, that actually we come from a bigger place, that we connect with a wider world. And that kind of goes back to your earlier point about some of my work. I think I really connected with that. MJ: So let me go back to that and just ask you one more question. So now returning to your work, thinking about from the historian's vantage point, the thinking and the writing that you've done on the question of race and American nationality or American nationalism. How do you understand the distance traveled between the long Civil Rights Era that you've written about, and the ways in which whiteness was written so centrally into the prevailing ideas of Americanness between the 1930s and at least 1968 and beyond. The distance between that moment and this one, what does the Obama moment say to you as a historian about the question of race and nationality in America? NS: I think it's really hard to say. That's a really hard question to answer yet. I think it is the crux of the matter. And we're all struggling with how to answer that, many of us are. But what does this mean? What does this moment mean? And those of us who I'm close with and you all I think probably, we were all on tenterhooks during this election. We'd been through hell with George W. Bush. And George W. Bush himself is a complex figure. Because on the one hand, he in some ways diffused the racial wedge issue kind of politics. He promoted very prominent African Americans and Latinos in his cabinet. But on the other hand, in terms of his actual policies, it's kind of a neo-confederate kind of a project. Which is to say that there was never going to be any attention to questions of racial injustice in this administration. And in terms of its foreign policy, George Bush launched the Iraq War basically by saying we're angry, but we're clear-eyed. And now we're going to have to start displaying some scalps after 9-11. He explicitly invoked not exactly an anti-black language, but a kind of very heavily racialized language of American war-making. And I think that that really came through in another way in the context of Hurricane Katrina, where it was really clear where the Bush Administration stood. And you had that amazing moment where the hip hop artist Kanye West said, well George Bush obviously doesn't like black people. And that seemed very clear to people. That despite Condoleezza Rice, despite Colin Powell, that really where the heart of this administration was, was basically with a very old style of American, dare we say white supremacist politics. Nobody ever really called them on that. Right? But I think that was clear. So where does Obama stand? And how do we interpret this moment? It's a really, really tough question to answer. Because I think that-- I kind of lost my train of thought there for a minute. You're really asking me where have we come in terms of the sort of history, the longer history of-- MJ: Well I guess here's my question. I know that there are many people who are really eager to rush to a judgment that says people like you were totally wrong in your assessments of the positionality of race in American politics, the positionality of whiteness in American citizenship and national belonging, all of these things. You, me, Mae Ngai, all these people who have been writing about this stuff for a long time, the Obama moment shows that we were mistaken, or at least that the nation is redeemable. And I know that there's something about your work that you will hold to and defend. But I also know that there's something about these last months that has changed the way that you are looking at things. And I'm trying to understand those things. NS: OK so here's the thing. Here's what I want to say. There was a great moment in the campaign-- there were a couple of great moments in the campaign-- two little slogans that Obama and McCain had that I thought summed up a really fascinating contrast. McCain used to say Americans are the makers of history. Americans are not the victims of history. That was one of his great lines. McCain was very careful for himself, for his own part, not appearing racist in a very direct way. But I thought that was a fascinating statement. Americans are the makers of history. Americans are not the victims of history. Because that sort of to me suggested that in order to make history, you've got to also make victims. So there are either makers of history or there are victims of history. So if you're making history, you're probably also making victims. And that seemed to me to be a fascinating way of thinking about American history. Because in some ways, that is one way of thinking about American history, that American history has been about the division of those who make history, which is to say what gets counted as history, and those who end up being victims, which means that you can't make history, but you just become the detritus, or the castoff, or the ephemeral. MJ: The flotsom and jetsom. NS: Exactly. And Obama had a fascinating contrast to that I thought. And it wasn't necessarily in response to McCain. It just revealed something different about Obama's view of the world, which was that Obama actually tried to tap into a different kind of narrative of American history, which was the narrative about the gap between practice and ideals. And it was basically like American history was premised on ideals that were generally not realized in practice. And the ways in which American practices, which were sort of deficient, or fell short of those ideals, were brought into line with those ideals was through people struggling and people basically pointing out that what we said we were, in our best sense, the angels of our better nature, in Lincoln's phrase, what we said we were we weren't living up to. And the people who did that were trade unionists who struggled for the eight hour day, for labor standards. They were African Americans who struggled for civil rights. They were women who struggled for the right to vote. They were disabled people who struggled to be fully recognized in their ability to act as everybody else can act in world. They were gay and lesbian people who tried to claim the rights, or continued to try to claim the rights that everyone else has in terms of their ability to live out the effective lives, and loving lives, and relationships that are fully recognized and acknowledged in the public domain. Whatever, right? We could go down the line. But it seemed to me that Obama aligned himself with that. By framing the question of the gap between what we ideally should be and what we actually are. And that has always been a very powerful way of thinking about reform in U.S. history. And it can be a cliche. But he, it seemed to me in some of his earlier speeches, really gave it a kind of specificity in which he seemed to align himself with what many of us think of as the sort of diverse array of experiences and struggles that don't all line up clearly. They don't all sort of line up into some uniform Americanness, but they actually represent the angels of our better nature. Am I saying it the right way? They really represent something that while I wouldn't necessarily want to make it exclusive to the United States, is an aspect of what I think of in a small d democratic sense as a great part of the history of this country. That actually we do have a tradition of democratic struggle that is meaningful, and worthwhile, and has a wider significance. So that seemed to me to be a brilliantly clear and illuminating contrast between McCain and Obama. Now there are a couple of problems. And I for one didn't necessarily think Obama would win. I was very ready for McCain to win. Although by the end I think I was pretty convinced that Obama would win. Because I was reading everything about the election. And everything seemed to be going the right way. But he won by a pretty narrow margin, even in the end. Right? And so you can break it all down. You can look at it. But some incredibly important symbolic threshold was crossed. We elected an African American President. But does that mean that the country has crossed the threshold of its own tendencies towards victimization? Absolutely not. We only need to look as far as his own election night victory speech that he delivered through bulletproof glass to see something really profound. That that very moment of supposed transcendence of race is also the moment in which we have to remember probably one of the greatest racial crimes of recent history, which is the King assassination. And that idea of a kind of violence being acted upon Obama has always been in the background all the way through the election. And I think, although it may have faded more recently, it's still there in certain kinds of ways. The Associated Press reported just a few weeks after the election, that the election itself had given rise to a huge spurt of hate crimes, of racially motivated hate crimes. We live in a deeply, racially divided country. And to think that white supremacy or other kinds of racist traditions are somehow now a minor tradition in American life would be really mistaken. But beyond that, for those of us who have studied these things, one of the things that we recognize is how much the very way in which the state functions, is that it functions to produce new forms of racial animus in the course of its own processes, in the course of its own practices. And I think that that's one of the things that we have to try to be really vigilant about and keep track of. So one of the things that's going to be really interesting to see in terms of what Obama does, is whether he can really change some of the directions of American foreign policy. Because one of the things that's happened over the last eight years has been a whole new sphere for the development of racial animus, directed primarily towards peoples of the Middle East. And so is it possible for us to actually think about moving forward in our relationship to the world, where we don't create new senses that humanity is somehow divided into these incommensurable spheres. And one would think that Obama would be very well placed to lead us to a much more complicated sense of global diversity. And I think that's a big part of why people were so excited about his election. But one of the things that we actually were all talking about earlier, is just how hard it is to push against some of the dispositions of American foreign policy, the institutionalized dispositions of American foreign policy that actually really do want to divide the world in a much more black and white kind of way. I mean black and white used as metaphors here. And I think that that is a real danger that even he won't be able to allow us to see the world in a more complicated way. And that at the very moment in which we supposedly are being able to see our own internal diversity in a more complicated way by electing a president who has a biography and a background that is not just the usual. We still will succumb to the idea that there are somehow enemies out there who just hate us for who we are. That is not how people function in the world. People don't hate each other for who they are. People develop enmity and hatred because of the conditions in which they find themselves in. And unless you address those conditions, those conditions of inequality, those conditions of poverty, those conditions of despair, those conditions of disrespect and indignity and violence, unless you address those conditions, you're going to continue to produce situations in which people want to kill each other. But they don't want to kill each other because they think somebody else is different. That's one of the biggest myths that exists. And it ultimately is the myth of race in a very crude way. And we continue to propagate that myth. And we continue to live in a world that propagates that myth. And from what I've read and seen of Obama, he totally gets that that's a myth. But as he operates the machinery of the ship of state which moves so slowly, and is very hard to maneuver, will he actually be able to get us to see things differently? That'll be a real challenge. OK. MJ: That is the question. Nikhil Singh, thank you very much. NS: Thank you. MJ: Is there anything that you would like to add? NS: I think I've said enough in my rambling, idiotic way. Thank you. MJ: Thank you. NS: Thank you for doing that. That was cool.

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