Race and politics scholar weighs in on Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence

Juliet Hooker, a professor of political science at Brown, has long conducted research at the intersection of race and politics — work now catapulted into the spotlight as Americans increasingly consider systemic racism.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Since Black resident George Floyd was killed at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, millions of Americans have sought to better educate themselves on systemic racism in America and to help fight for change. Many have turned to scholarship for edification. Enter: Juliet Hooker.

Hooker, a professor of political science at Brown University, has for more than a decade specialized in research on race and politics in the United States and Latin America. In recent weeks, her work has received a new surge of national and international attention.

Juliet Hooker

In her 2009 book, “Race and the Politics of Solidarity,” Hooker argued that in countries where racial diversity continues to increase, coming to terms with systemic racial injustice is the key to building equitable, unified societies. In a 2016 study published in the journal Political Theory, she presciently revealed the racist bias hiding in comments criticizing Black-led protests, from the marches of the Civil Rights Movement to today’s Black Lives Matter rallies, for being too violent or too radical. And in 2017, she described the phenomenon of “white grievance,” an increasingly popular right-wing opinion that societal gains for non-white Americans lead to losses for white Americans.

Hooker shared insights about her research, the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, lessons learned from the Civil Rights Movement and more.

Q: An essay you wrote in 2016, “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics,” has been thrust into the national spotlight. What has it been like to see your work resurface in such a major way?

A colleague joked to me that I need to start researching universal peace, because I seem to be calling things into the universe with my research. It’s been both a lot to process as well as hopeful to see so many people mobilized in favor of racial justice. I’ve been writing about the Movement for Black Lives for years, but as many know, the movement had fallen off the national stage during the Trump administration as so many other crises arose — even as local BLM organizers continued to draw attention to issues of race. The ways in which recent events have shifted debates that seemed to be locked in stalemate has been really something to witness.

I’m also currently working on a book about political loss and democracy, and it looks at racist monuments and how they shape the political imagination. I was in the middle of writing about Confederate monuments that didn’t seem like they would come down anytime soon — but some of them have. It’s a dizzying time of political transformation.

Q: Could the recent shifts in perspective could lead to major change?

I think the shift could potentially lead to transformation, but it’s also a dangerous moment. Historically, when you have moments of racial progress, they’re followed by backlash. So the question is, how much will it be possible to capitalize on these openings and make significant change? We know that a huge pocket of the country is still animated by the politics of white grievance — this idea that a gain for another group of people is a loss for them. The politics of white grievance have been so successfully wielded by President Trump and many in the Republican Party.

I also worry about the fact that this is happening in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people, as well as Latinx and Indigenous peoples. The people who are already suffering from injustice and trying to gain a measure of justice for all the harm they have suffered make up many of the people who are out in the streets. They are literally putting their lives on the line in more ways than one.

I do feel hopeful seeing a recent shift in attitude among so many white Americans, especially young people. A few years ago, public polling showed there was much less support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and for the idea that Black people still suffer from racial discrimination. Now, the majority of Americans support Black Lives Matter. It’s been interesting to see how much white public opinion has shifted since May.

Q: Why do you think public opinion shifted so radically in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, when we’ve seen so many other horrific incidents in the years prior?

I think it’s not coincidental that this awakening is happening in the middle of a pandemic. The pandemic exposed the fact that people across gender and racial and class lines were experiencing various kinds of loss. They lost their jobs, their loved ones, maybe even their own lives. I think it got people thinking: Are there ways in which changing certain structural inequalities could actually benefit everybody?

Think about essential workers. They are overwhelmingly women and people of color. They have been underpaid and undervalued for years doing what has now been revealed as essential work. It’s gotten people thinking, okay, what if we shift our priorities to place more value on this work by paying workers accordingly and giving them the societal recognition they deserve? Even when we’re not in a pandemic, that’s not simply going to help those workers — it’s also going to make our whole society better, because those who depend on their work can continue to live comfortably thanks to them.

All of these protests are part of a larger history, building on a long-held repertoire of strategies and debates — debates about violence versus non-violence, marching in the streets versus trying to work from the inside.

Juliet Hooker Professor of Political Science

Q: Some Americans have been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement because they believe it is more violent than the Civil Rights Movement. Is that an accurate criticism?

It’s inaccurate. We have this romanticized memory of the Civil Rights Movement. We see it as this peaceful, non-confrontational movement that was immediately and widely embraced. But that’s not true. We all think that if we had been alive during that time, we would have been marching in the streets with Martin Luther King Jr., but a lot of people weren’t — many were very critical. King was called an “outside agitator” — people thought he was being too radical, that he wasn’t giving the system time to work. Ironically, a lot of the same critiques we’re making now about the current protests are critiques people were making then — some say the change being demanded is too much, too soon.

That criticism of Black Lives Matter protests is problematic, too. When protests become violent, turn riotous or lead to looting, we focus on those moments of violence as if they are exceptional rather than thinking about the ways in which violence is pervasive everywhere in our society. We have video evidence that violence perpetrated by protesters is just one small part of the story. Sometimes, you’ll see the violence prompted by police themselves. You see protesters wounded by rubber bullets, police cars driven into crowds of protesters, journalists tear-gassed or wounded just because they were standing in the crowd and observing.

One of the things that is becoming clearer, perhaps, is that protester violence doesn’t erupt out of nowhere. It is the result of people who are continually subjected to violence and have tried to make change by playing by the rules — engaging in peaceful protest, attending city council meetings, writing letters — and not seeing change and getting frustrated. That’s the point at which people think, “If the system isn’t working, why work within the norms of the system? Maybe it doesn’t matter what I do.”

Q: What other parallels have you seen between the Civil Rights Movement and the current movement that began in response to the death of George Floyd?

I don’t think we are seeing parallels so much as we are seeing similarities between two key moments in the long history of the Black freedom struggle. All of these protests are part of a larger history, building on a long-held repertoire of strategies and debates — debates about violence versus non-violence, marching in the streets versus trying to work from the inside.

I do see echoes of the Civil Rights Movement in the way that this movement has spread internationally. The protests that began in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd have opened up dialogues about racism and racial inequality in other countries. Latin Americans, for example, have had a long tradition of comparing their own approach to race relations favorably to the U.S. They have excused themselves from these conversations, or claimed not to have racism, because they never had Jim Crow-style racial segregation as the U.S. did. This moment has spurred Latin Americans to think about racism in their own contexts. The irony is, Black and Indigenous activists who have struggled against racism for decades have been talking about racism in Latin America for a long time — but it took an event in the U.S. to spur elites and national media to start seriously participating in these conversations.

Q: As Americans continue the work of dismantling racist systems, what lessons should be remembered from past movements?

I think there are three main things we should remember.

One: Any moment in which you have any kind of serious transformation with regard to racism is going to be a difficult, tense, intense moment. We have such a romantic national memory of the Civil Rights Movement that we forget what a fundamental transformation people were asking for. They were asking to dismantle segregation in businesses, accommodations, educational institutions — they were asking for a complete overhaul of the economy and society. One lesson I take from that is not to be scared of change, not to be scared away from these seemingly radical demands. Because any kind of transformation that is meaningful is going to require enormous change.

Second: This is a long-term struggle. Taking down a statue is not going to defeat racism or dismantle white supremacy. Don’t get caught up in thinking that these small symbolic steps are really it. The real work of dismantling white supremacy is ongoing, it’s hard, it’s daily. There’s not going to be a quick three-step manual on how to end racism, and then we’re done. We need to overcome ally fatigue.

Finally: There will be backlash, and we need to anticipate that. Every moment of racial progress in the U.S. has been followed by backlash. The history of race in this country is not one long unbroken progressive trajectory. White supremacy has found creative ways to reinvent itself and endure. We need to be prepared to not succumb to those people who will try to preserve the status quo or even reverse whatever gains are made, which has happened many times. We need to think about how to sustain the momentum and commitment to anti-racism that has been so inspiring to see in this moment.