Award-winning author-organizer discusses evolution of white supremacy

Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 9:44pm

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, discusses race and class in the Trump era at the Michigan Union Thursday.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, discusses race and class in the Trump era at the Michigan Union Thursday. Buy this photo
Chun So/Daily

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an organizer and assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, has never shied away from lambasting President Donald Trump in public speeches. After delivering the commencement address at Hampshire College last year, however, she received dozens of death threats, forcing her to cancel other speeches.

But she did not stay away from speeches for long. On Thursday evening, the University of Michigan’s Sociology Department hosted Taylor to discuss her recent book and her research on race and class in the Trump era to a crowd of about 150 people. Taylor was introduced as one of the hundreds of people who have recently refused to be silenced, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the #MeToo movement.

Taylor’s book, “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” examines the social movements that have stemmed in response to police brutality in the United States, and received the Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award for an Especially Notable Book in 2016. 

Taylor said she considers herself more of an organizer than an academic, and admitted it took her publisher several tries to persuade her to write this book. Since its publication, however, the book has reached and impacted many students, including those in attendance.  

Having been an organizer for several years herself, Social Work student Kristina Agbebiyi said she sees Taylor as a role model.

“Seeing how she is able to balance organizing and academia really is inspiring to me,” Agbebiyi said.

Taylor began her talk comparing headlines today with those of ten years ago, starting with President Obama’s inauguration.  She recalled headlines claiming the U.S. was entering a post-racial society –– “Racism No Longer Exists in America,” for example –– and noted the stark contrast to society and headlines today, with numerous outbreaks of violence and racism since Trump’s inauguration.

Taylor argued Trump’s controversial comments are not simply a slip of the tongue, but are rather calculated steps to appeal to his followers. Citing a tweet in which David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, thanked Trump for his sympathy toward white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., Taylor said Trump himself embraced white supremacy.


“The racist right celebrated their mouthpiece in the White House,” she said.

She also examined the evolution of racism in U.S. politics, and how it has transitioned from explicit racial slurs to a more subtle attack, through implicit comments and unjust economic policies.  

“With each racist comment, the Republican party meets it with silence,” Taylor said.  

This silence, she argued, leads to an acceptance of racist ideologies, contributing to the rise and acceptance of “alt-right” figures such as Richard Spencer.

In terms of implicit racism through economic policy, Taylor noted how on his campaign website, Trump promised to help working-class African Americans by using money from deporting illegal immigrants to help support inner-city communities. She said both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of blaming and exploiting the most vulnerable population for social issues, specifically through the lens of the 2016 presidential candidates.

“Racism is in the service for a larger agenda,” Taylor said.  

In an analysis of the 2016 presidential election, Taylor explained the majority of Trump’s support came from wealthy white Americans, not the working class –– hence his strategic comments targeting the “alt-right.”

LSA junior Kevin Ashwood reflected on the similarity between the Democratic and Republican parties, especially with regard to their ideas about wealth and its distribution.

"A lot of the time we often identify Republicans with being the one percenters and Democrats with being definitely against it, when that’s really not the case,” Ashwood said.

Over 100 million eligible voters did not vote in the 2016 election, and Black voter turnout fell for the first time in over twenty years.  Taylor attributes this to failures of both candidates to offer a serious attempt to fight inequality in the country.

Taylor highlighted the hypocrisy of the Clintons, who previously advocated for strict "law and order" and who defunded social welfare when President Bill Clinton was in office, but who later promised to help the working class in Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform.  Taylor argued this — along with Hillary Clinton’s comparison of African-American men to “superpredators” during her husband, former President Bill Clinton’s administration — contributed to the creation and growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Taylor also explained that many of former President Obama’s supporters felt “betrayed” after his term, further contributing to the movement.  Obama, she said, blamed violence in Black inner-city communities on a lack of leaders and parents in homes, similar to how many conservatives blame poverty on social issues, such as a decline in religion and an increase in job instability.  

In her book and in her talk, Taylor was critical of both parties, and urged the audience to rely less on identity politics, and to look more to the veritable effects of each policy, and to take the time to have a strong sense of history and politics.

Social Work student Lawrielle West said the book instilled in her a desire to seek out further knowledge.

“This book feeds me so much information that not only fulfills me in the moment, but makes me curious to look up other things,” West said.