Past recipients of the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize and the Richman Distinguished Fellowship in Public Life discussed the potential directions of the Black Lives Matter movement at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, speculating on what is to come as we transition from a Trump administration to a Biden administration. Brandeis community members gathered over Zoom Wednesday, Feb. 17, to hear the insights of panelists including 2014 Richman Fellow and founder in residence of PolicyLink Angela Glover Blackwell, 2017 Richman Fellow and founder of Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown and 2018 Gittler Recipient and president emerita of Spelman College Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. 

“The Biden presidency does not mark a new chapter for Black Lives Matter [because we have] always transcended presidential terms,” moderator Prof. Carina Ray (AAAS) said. However, it does “afford us the opportunity to reassess the way forward towards liberation rather than tyranny.”

Angela Glover Blackwell

Glover Blackwell explained that to her, the formation of the BLM movement nearly a decade ago and its presence and resurgence in the present day felt like a continuation of the Black Power movement. “Finally we have a movement with the kind of power and money” behind it to actually make a difference, she said. Understanding this context and the many evolutions of this movement are essential in comprehending the crucial moment in history in which President Joe Biden enters office, she said.

Although people are still struggling to correctly apply their “new found knowledge” and rhetoric relating to racism — which have been accumulated during the resurgence of the BLM movement this summer in response to the police murder of George Floyd and the disproportionate devastations of COVID-19 on communities of color — we have seen that people and coorporations are actively working “not just to be ‘not racist’ but to be ‘anti-racist,’” Glover Blackwell said. This is a huge step and one that she has not observed at the corporate level previously. 

Looking deeper into the election, Glover Blackwell discussed the prominence and success of Black-led multiracial organizing, which in turn contributed to Black-led multiracial governing. 

Glover Blackwell highlighted the necessity of multiracial governing, drawing on an example she called the "curve cut effect." Cutouts, or curve cuts, in sidewalks were originally created to assist people with disabilities, but we all benefit from them. The same applies to governing: “If we don’t get it right for minorities, we won't get it right.” 

“Black people have a depth of understanding, empathy and identification as a discriminated against group” that positions them to perform multiracial democracy governing, she said. “When we solve problems with nuance and specificity for those who are most marginalized, we solve them for everyone,” she said. 

Policymakers must recognize the impact of “being Black in a society that was built on slave bondage and labor and Black discrimination,” Glover Blackwell said. “It is only when we understand that that we can get it right.”

Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown

Brown’s work with the Boston Miracle saw two conflicting constituencies — law enforcement and urban youth  — come together, but not without difficulty. He recalled the willingness of some police officers to adapt versus the rigidness of others. Brown reflected on his work and the unconventional approach that was necessary to form alliances. He observed this same dynamic of some people accepting the idea of change and others caught in old ways in this current moment. 

“The cultural manifestations of violence merge because of the structural weakness that the social and racist structures thrust upon us,” Brown said. “Violence didn't just pop up.” It was created by years of chronic underemployment and unemployment, poor healthcare and inadequate housing, he explained. Combining all of those factors with guns and drugs, he said, can only lead to problems.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum

Tatum explained that in the lead-up to the panel, she reflected on her 2018 presentation at Brandeis and what had occurred in the 20-year period between when she released her book and when she spoke about it at the University. The pattern that emerged was “essentially [one of] backward motion,” she said. During those decades, there was an increase in mass incarceration and school resegregation in the United States. Voters finally chose a Black president, but this provoked a rise in white supremacist activities, Tatum explained.  

"[When I was] thinking about the increased polarization that occurred in that period and [the] growth in white nationalism advocacy and increased anxiety related to multiracial community, I felt pessimistic,” she said. She expressed that if she were writing the book now, she would not do much differently, because even then, it “felt like we were on that regressive policy and social pathway,” she explained. 

This election was “diagnostic” about where we are as a nation and whether we are heading in the direction of “chaos” or “community,” she explained, referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The United States is currently confronted with this question in tangible ways. The Jan. 6 insurrection was the choice of chaos, and Biden’s inaugural speech was the call and hope for community, according to Tatum. 

The United States is a divided country, which begs the question, “Are we as a nation willing to think about our situation more honestly and lean into the community that has been communicated by the Biden-Harris administration?” However, after every period of progress there is pushback. “We lived during the pushback … [and] we are now standing at the precipice of chaos or community,” Tatum said. “We need to really lean in to make sure it isn’t [just] a flash in the pan.”

Q&A and discussion

The unprecedented number of white people joining in on the streets to rally for BLM starkly contrasts in number and message with the protesters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, and they each represent “distilled, different faces of white America,” Ray said. She prompted the panelists to discuss the steps that the BLM movement should take in engaging with white people.

All the panelists pointed out the large discrepancy between the two groups. Although the ‘chaos’ choice did and continues to have a following, “all you need is a critical mass” on the community side, Brown said. He pointed to examples such as the March on Washington and the Bus Boycott, both of which did not have the largest number of participants (certainly not compared to the type of engagement BLM has seen recently) but whose numbers were still large enough to have an impact. 

It is difficult to say whether the people who voted for Trump are a critical mass capable of chaos, Tatum said. “I was hoping for a landslide,” she continued, but when Trump was elected by a small margin in 2016, he claimed it was a landslide. “We need to claim this victory as a landslide, too.”

Glover Blackwell agreed that more people want to see the nation move forward and that there was still a place for hope. “Of the 70 million [who voted for Trump], some are bigots [but] some lacked the empathy and were staunch in Republican ways.” She expressed that there is hope that these voters will educate themselves and join the fight, but that even if that did not happen, she would still be hopeful because Biden was the first president to speak the words ‘racial equity.’

Brown, compared to his co-panelists, had a more pessimistic stance on this issue. “People change when the cost of not changing becomes too great, and what we’re seeing [now] is [the] slow, inevitable cycle of change,” Brown said. He expressed that there are “more shoes that need to drop” and there is no telling the amount of time that progress will take. President Barack Obama had eight years, which were immediately followed by the “wicked backlash” of the election of Trump.  

Ray concluded the event by asking all of the panelists to name the most urgent task they would ask the Biden-Harris to tackle if they could only pick one.

Tatum proposed the task of securing a living wage for everyone, mentioning that Biden has already begun to work on this issue. Wage, she said, impacts education, housing, food, sleep and other things that are foundational to success on a daily basis. 

Brown tasked the administration with substantive wealth building. Brown referenced a study conducted in Boston that found a huge wealth gap between white and Black families. “We were never participants of the GI Bill or the creation of the middle class. … We need to create those opportunities to correct the situation we’re in,” he said. Brown advocated for stepping beyond just affordable housing and moving toward affordable home ownership. In doing so, the United States would see a lot of the structural issues that BLM attempts to address start to be resolved.

Glover Blackwell argued for a federal job guarantee. It is essential that people have living wage jobs, “but racism won’t go away,” she said. “We know that Black people will be the last people to be hired, the last to get promotions.” Job guarantees are necessary to ensure that “we’re not playing catch up forever,” she concluded.