Eddie S. Glaude Jr. spoke on “Racism, Selfishness, and the Crisis of American Democracy” during the third event in the UNC School of Social Work Centennial Speaker Series on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of African American Studies at Princeton University.
If you were not able to attend this event, here are a few highlights from Glaude’s remarks:
On Inauguration Day and the future of democracy
The Biden-Harris administration will have to grapple with the reality of death, loneliness, and selfishness. And I think all of these three elements fertilize the killing fields of American democracy.
You have a country that’s in crisis. That crisis is being evidenced at the level of culture and at the level of politics.
We’re going to have to figure out as a country where we went wrong. It’s not so much a kind of conviction that will lead us to say, “This is how wrong we were, this is how unjust we’ve been” — it’s really more of a mature confrontation that can lead to repair and a different way of being in the world.
We have to understand that racial justice, if it is to be genuine, isn’t a philanthropic enterprise. It isn’t an act of charity. Equality is not yours to give to anyone.
We have to live into a different way of being together, a different way of doing our work together. It involves in some ways a revolution of value, a shift in what and who we value … an ongoing criticism of the very idea of white America, this idea that some people like to be valued more than others because of the color of their skin. There is nothing about that idea that is redeemable.
Americans have to tell themselves the truth about our failures. And we have to take the risk to be bold and visionary. We have all been birthed in the American fantasy of itself as an example of democracy achieved. That fantasy has been distorted and disfigured our moral sense, because it requires that we lie to ourselves about what we’ve done.
Over the last four years, we have experienced that kind of hyper-polarized political environment in the United States that reflects the deep divisions within the country. White, black. Rural and urban. Rich and poor. Republican, Democrat. All of these divisions are in full view, and it feels as if the institutions and norms of our democracy have been collapsing right in front of our bloodshot eyes.
There’s this extraordinary contrast one can immediately call our attention to, between the police response to those Black Lives Matter marches — those peaceful marches, some of them, some of which turned into violent protests, but those peaceful marches — and the police response to those who sacked the Capitol on January 6th.
It’s clear to me — and I think the last four years have made this abundantly clear — that the American ideal is in trouble. We have too long told ourselves that story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today we confront the ugliness of who we are … liberty has become a synonym for selfishness in so many ways, and all of this has had a deleterious effect on the Republic.
Presidential elections alone, no matter how momentous, do not settle the question of who we take ourselves to be. The answer to that question will emerge in what we do now.
The difficult work begins.
On COVID-19 and the value of human life
We’re seeing 3,000 to 4,000 Americans dying [each day from COVID-19]. Americans are dying alone, many of them, and those who love them grieve with the regret of not being able to say goodbye properly. The dead aren’t settled — people aren’t dying right.
We all suffer from a kind of loneliness that can get in the way of shared suffering. We’re stuck in our homes, and our pains and joys are hidden behind masks. Even before the pandemic, public health experts were already concerned about the epidemic of loneliness in the United States. This loneliness stands alongside selfishness. The idea of deep care for others has been lost in a rhetoric that made selfishness a virtue.
It seems to me that part of what needs to happen is a kind of new social and moral contract — one that announces our obligations to each other, that states our values as a democratic society, that everyone, no matter their ZIP code, no matter their means, should be guaranteed a right to health care, and in its broadest sense that we should guarantee a quality of life. In the richest nation in the history of the world, it seems to me that Americans should have a roof over their head and earn a living wage.
We know … specific people are dying disproportionately. Those who are now considered “essential workers” were once [considered] “disposable.”
[COVID-19] has revealed deep inequality in our healthcare system, vulnerabilities that are evident in housing and food security. You know this — as social workers, you’re on the front lines.
Americans are starving as a result of COVID because of an ideological choice. Americans are unemployed because of an ideological choice. You’re not seeing this in Germany; you’re not seeing this in Britain; you’re not seeing this in France. They have a more robust social safety net. We have made a choice that has led to this kind of suffering, and I want us to understand why.
Alan Greenspan, when he left the [Federal Reserve], said the biggest challenge is the deepening wealth inequality in America. In response to that, not only are you seeing people reaching for progressive politics — you see people reaching for old languages of authoritarianism and fascism.
And you combine all of this with the shooting of Jacob Blake, the public murder of George Floyd, the death of Brianna Taylor, the death of Rashad Brooks … I could go on and on. We saw protesting in the streets, even with the pandemic threatening, because it became obvious to many of us that some lives are not valued as much as others.
On James Baldwin and an ethic of care for social work
Baldwin relentlessly exposed the lies that America tells itself. Baldwin would say: Tell the truth about what you see. Be a witness.
America’s never been a beacon of virtue. It has never been an example of democracy achieved, nor is it the shining city on the hill. We’ve always been a work in progress. We’ve always been shadowed by our ghastly failures. We tell ourselves this story in order to protect ourselves from what we’ve done.
I invoke this language … that Baldwin used: Human beings are at once disasters and miracles. Every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect against the disasters they become. My hope is that, if we show up, there’s always a chance for a miracle. We can do miraculous things if we show up.
Don’t get caught up in the bureaucracies; don’t get caught up into paperwork; don’t lose sight of the human being right in front of you. Bear witness to the suffering in the midst. That becomes the precondition for organizing people and resources in order to alleviate the condition that is often hidden from view.
Tell the truth and bear witness in your space, in social work, because you see something that you shouldn’t be seeing, that many of us can’t see.
Believe in … the sacredness of every human being, no matter the color of their skin, no matter the ZIP code, no matter their ability, their gender. Bring the full battery of resources, of your skill set, to bear in helping them achieve a kind of life in which not only can they dream dreams but make those dreams a reality.
What is the ethic of care that animates your work? You are not doing charity, you are not doing philanthropy, you are doing something much more fundamental — creating the conditions under which people can not only dream dreams to make those dreams a reality.
The Centennial Speaker Series (and many other educational opportunities for Master of Social Work and doctoral students) is made possible by unrestricted gifts to UNC School of Social Work. Please consider a gift in support of the Centennial Speaker Series to help continue this public initiative.