Racism and Democracy in the Nadir of the 21st Century
Attending the discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center on racism and democracy, I was struck by how dire the times we are living in are. While the panelists did not erase our country’s violent histories of racism—indeed Jelani Cobb made it clear that the United States is a nation built upon the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, there seemed to be a consensus in the room that we are currently living in very harsh times. Johnetta Cole spoke of feeling deeply angry about politics today, and the panelists discussions of everything from white supremacists organizing online to voter disenfranchisement to the Charleston massacre made it clear why so many of us share this anger.
Even in these scary times, I still feel hope. This is because of the anti-racist organizing that is happening in the face of this violence. I see this in Johnetta Cole’s life of service in dedication to the education of Black women; she is the only person to serve as president of both Spelman and Bennett Colleges, and as she discusses in this interview,* she is deeply committed to lifting as we climb. I also see this in the on the ground organizing of Mary Hooks and Southerners on New Ground. While folks in New York, including many left activists and academics, dismiss the South as a backwater of hate-filled Trumpism, she shows us that there is actually organizing happening led by Black queer women.
This combination of intense racist violence and anti-racist organizing is why I used the term Nadir of the 21st century in the title of my blog post. The era known as the Nadir (low point) in African American history spans roughly from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the Great Migration and is remembered for the violence of Lynch mobs, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan. While we remember the violence and racism, we sometimes minimize the organizing that took place during this era, led by Black women such as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell. I think that this history of organizing and resistance offers a helpful context for the organizing happening today, and shows the importance of institution and organization building as a movement survival practice during times of extreme repression.