Episode 52: Attacks on Affirmative Action and the Commodification of Diversity
Citations Needed | October 3, 2018 | Transcript
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Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: So we want to tackle a word today that’s very popular and that we think is both simultaneously very important but also increasingly buzz-wordy and sort of superficial. And that’s the concept of “diversity.” Diversity is sort of broadly believed by everyone from corporations to real estate agents to elite universities as something that one should strive for and take pride in. It’s a symbol of inclusion and what we kind of broadly call tolerance.
Nima: Yeah. So while diversity is certainly a noble feature and something all large systems should strive for, it originally was not supposed to be an ends in and of itself. Diversity in this vein has now morphed under capitalism into a PR industry, supplanting notions of equity, decolonization and desegregation for something much more sanitized and generic; therefore allowing for the commodification of the idea, benefiting power structures with a glossy patina of liberal race awareness.
Adam: And that’s really what it’s about. The term diversity is increasingly not about justice or, god forbid, decolonization. It’s more about creating a catch-all to make white people feel better about themselves. To make white people feel better about the schools they go to, the businesses they run, the neighborhoods they gentrify. It exists in its current iteration to ameliorate our kind of bourgeois guilt and bourgeois morality rather than confront it.
Nima: Right. So diversity winds up being far more for white people than for society at large. To talk more about this later in the show, we will be joined by journalist and author, Jeff Chang, Vice President of Narrative, Arts and Culture at Race Forward.
Jeff Chang: Equity is just a way to measure justice. Under-representation is just a way of measuring a history of injustice, and so the bottom line is we’ve got to be able to move away from this sort of bland notion of colorblindness and recognize that this country is founded on historical injustice, on slavery and genocide and colonialism and that under-representation in equity, lack of access for people of color, grows out of that. It didn’t just happen.
Nima: Back in February of this year, 2018, Illinois’s Republican multi-millionaire governor, Bruce Rauner, was at a Black History Month event at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. He joined Hyatt Hotels’ Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Tyronne Stoudemire, onstage for what wound up being a slightly awkward presentation on diversity in the corporate workplace. It involved Stoudemire pouring a glass of milk before the assembled crowd, uh, explaining that that represented corporate America, pretty much all white. He then pulled out a bottle of Hershey’s syrup.
Tyronne Stoudemire: This chocolate syrup represents diversity, women, people of color, people with disabilities, the aging population, Generation X, Y, and Z. It’s not that organizations are not diverse, but when you look at most organizations, diversity sits what? At the bottom of the organization. You don’t get inclusion until you actually stir it up. I want you to stir it up, Governor, stir it up. Diversity is the mix and inclusion is making the mix work and it actually tastes pretty good, but I’m not gonna ask the Governor to drink it because it might not be good, but it does taste good.
Governor Rauner: I’ll drink it. I’d be proud to.
Tyronne Stoudemire: He’d be proud to. There you go. So diversity —
Governor Rauner: Its really, really good. Diversity.
Tyronne Stoudemire: Diversity.
Adam: Yeah. This is a totally corporatized, flat version of what diversity is. He says, he says it’s part of Generation X and Y. Well, those aren’t marginalized groups, those are sort of, as we discussed earlier, kind of meaningless concepts, so you have this idea of diversity gets flattened to the point to which you know there’s geographic diversity or there’s diversity of ideology, which is a new right-wing talking point. That we have to have diversity of ideas, which totally is a symptom of a broader problem which we’re going to talk about today on the show, which is the term diversity gets flattened to be basically meaningless. Now, I think we all agree that to start off with that diversity in general is good. I think we would argue that it’s good when you divide it along historically marginalized class lines, whether it be race, gender, disability, um, LGBTQ, that these, these are sort of good diversity’s to have because it’s a good, it’s a good diagnostic. It’s not a, it’s not a cure, but it’s a diagnostic of broader problems. Um, and it’s something I know that we, sort of full disclosure, we strive for on the show. We try to be, to have diversity. We don’t always succeed, but we try —
Nima: Not so much inclusion, but definitely diversity.
Adam: We are required by the new Trump administration rules in diversity to have at least one Nazi on the show every six months. Sorry, it’s the law.
Nima: (Laughing) But you have to figure out which one it was.
Adam: According to the right-wing narrative surrounding the Masterpiece Cakes case in the Supreme Court, we have to actually be inclusive of neo-Nazis, which I’ve discovered is a protected class now.
Nima: That’s true.
Adam: Um, but yeah, so I want to, we want to back up and talk about what we mean when we talk about diversity, what it’s sort of initial intentions were versus what it’s kind of become.
Nima: Yeah. And, and we see this all over in the media. I mean, just to sort of run through these really quick, you see headlines from CNN saying that “Millennial Generation is bigger, more diverse than boomers.” “Diversity defines the millennial generation,” Brookings wrote. You see this in real estate reporting and real estate ads, for instance, something from amNewYork, so, you know, a local daily here in New York City where I am, “Corona, Queens is a shining example of NYC’s diversity.” You’ll also see this, NPR had a piece “In New York’s Multinational Astoria, Diversity is Key to Harmony.”
Adam: And these uses of diversity can be often times quite sinister. In the case of real estate, diversity is a way of flattening, as we talked about in our previous episode on gentrification, it’s a way of really ignoring or, or pacifying or sanitizing gentrification, which is a form of kind of ethnic removal or ethnic displacement through sophisticated means of policing and real estate and racial harassment by police. To say a traditionally white neighborhood has gotten more diverse through mechanisms like busing or Section 8 housing, we would sort of generally consider a good thing, but taking historically, um, quote unquote “ethnic” neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and making them more diverse is almost always a way of selling gentrification and ethnic displacement and police harassment as some sort of liberal utopia.
Nima: And selling it to the white consumers, to the gentrifiers. More often than not, it’s not that in Astoria, uh, the Latino and Pakistani populations or whomever is like, ‘Oh, thank god this neighborhood is getting more diverse because now you know, kids from Nebraska are moving in,’ like, that’s not, that’s not what that means. It’s a selling point for something exotic. Or even if it’s less sinister than that, a selling point for something that is kind of more inclusive, right? To use that word again, that there are differences of opinion. There are different looking people around and that that somehow becomes this sort of selling point, this like really interesting thing that you have in your neighborhood so you can feel better about yourself living there.
Adam: And an iteration of this argument has been increasingly popular and I know that our guest, Jeff Chang, has written about this as well, where it’s kind of been watered down to this sort of faux pragmatic argument of ‘Diversity is good.’ ‘It gets results.’ ‘Diversity is good for education or creates better companies and better corporations.’ So it’s not about any kind of sense of restorative justice or a sense of equity or sort of everyone buying into or as a form of corrective against historical injustices, which is sort of the original plane of what affirmative action was going to be, which will talk about in a second, but diversity is sort of this kind of like savvy, pragmatic way of saying, ‘Oh, actually it yields good results.’ And the problem with this is that it eliminates any notion of justice or historical social justice, which is a term we throw around a lot, but justice is the idea of correcting a wrong. There’s this moral wrong in our society that is a legacy of racism against African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos and other sort of disenfranchised communities and that we’ve corrected that as opposed to this is something that’s sort of, um, a feature like anti-lock brakes or power windows.
Nima: Right. And so you see that kind of come about oftentimes when you look at elite schools. So universities and colleges around the country will often strive to be more diverse and use that as a selling point. You know, Best College Review publishes the “50 Top Ethnically Diverse Colleges in America” articles. Um, you know, so you can look around the country for that kind of school. Uh, The Washington Post in 2014 published an article, “Diversity is Good. Why Doesn’t Everyone Agree?” Same year, 2014, Scientific American published a couple of articles about “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” and “How Diversity Empowers Science and Innovation.” Same year we saw in The New York Times an article, “Why More Diversity on Wall Street May Help Fight Bubbles.” So again, we’re not saying diversity is bad, right? But diversity used in this way, a term that actually has been coined by Nancy Leong* called “Racial Capitalism.” The idea that, “White individuals and predominantly white institutions use non white people to acquire social and economic value. Affirmative action doctrine and policies provide much of the impetus for this form of racial capitalism. These doctrines and policies have fueled an intense legal and social preoccupation with the notion of diversity.” And so this gets to this commodification that we were talking about earlier whereby race is reduced to this thing to kind of be bought and sold. To be leveraged for college admissions brochures or you know, um, corporate manuals, making jobs look more enticing because you’re in a diverse workspace. This, we see time and time again. And what it winds up doing is it shows that diversity now is the end in itself, as we said earlier. It’s not something that is used on its way toward a more just society. It’s like if you can just say your job or your school is diverse, well it’s like, well then, great. You should feel really good about yourself and that’s kind of where it stops. It’s this commodity of statistics and symbols. It winds up being about ticked off boxes and Benetton-style stock photography. Affirmative action is is too often seen as, kind of like, that’s the end game, as opposed to, as we said, a tool to begin to actually redress centuries of oppression.
Adam: And this goes back to this notion of affirmative action, which has been demonized in our culture for decades, is that affirmative action is theoretically sort of meant to, for lack of a better word, proactively redress things and instead of just hoping that some nebulous force leads to some kind of sense of justice, that it corrects the historical injustice. That you sort of assert it at different times in people’s lives. So you assert it in public education, you assert it in colleges with the idea that if you give people a leg up as it were, or you try to correct things in a way that makes sense that you can correct the historical legacy. Of course there was a backlash against affirmative action, something we’ve talked about offline, which is this notion of, I think since the seventies for sure, and even more so, I think since the Clinton era, the Republican Party has been defined by a reverse victimization narrative, that whites are under siege. White men, white Christians, are under siege by these forces and affirmative action has been undermined consistently since then pursuant this warped narrative about white persecution and I think in an effort to avoid that battle and to kind of win over the sort of proverbial angry white male liberals began to kind of deprioritize affirmative action and instead focus more on this kind of surface level diversity. It’s what I call sort of Fox News diversity, which is, you know, Fox News for a long time, I don’t know if that’s the case anymore, for a long time Fox News actually was the most diverse cable network. It had the most black people, it had the most women, but of course it pursued a very right-wing toxic corporate ideology and racist ideology. So there are, it sort of shows that there are limits to this idea.
Nima: Right. Right. That again, diversity is not the end game. That it needs to actually be working toward redressing something.
Adam: Otherwise, yeah, it’s window dressing. And what we’ve said on the show before is that, look, if the Titanic of capitalism is going to sink, you should at least hand out the lifeboats equally. I think we all agree with that. Um, that all things being equal, diversity’s good, but yes, it cannot be in and of itself an ends because you get things like Fox News which can find, you know, you can cherry pick certain, you can cherry pick people who are from Muslim backgrounds to bash Muslims. You can find people who are African Americans to call people lazy and to pull up their pants. This is not hard. This is something that the Republican Party had mastered over the last 40 years.
Adam: So it’s not, it’s sort of not enough. Right?
Nima: Right. And so to delve in, just very briefly, a quick background on affirmative action, we thought we would just run through this really quick actually, because we’re going to talk more about it with our guest, Jeff Chang, but just to kind of lay the groundwork here, while affirmative action initially dates back to New Deal labor policies, the Civil Rights Movement changed the meaning really to, to focus it much more heavily on race and uh, and other minority communities specifically. By the end of the sixties affirmative action programs were being designed and encouraged to explicitly address segregation and discrimination. A 1977 New York Times editorial even asked this, quote, “A stark question is upon us: Should we reduce opportunity for some whites — somewhat — so as to accelerate opportunity for some blacks and other victims of pervasive discrimination?” That was an oped called “Reparations American Style,” which was actually speaking out in favor of affirmative action when it was beginning to potentially be under threat with a coming Supreme Court case, the Bakke case, which came the very next year. So, in 1978, the Bakke decision effectively replaced the notion of equity, which was really what affirmative action was designed to do at first, with this idea of diversity and that while quotas, let’s say, were deemed unconstitutional now, really kind of drawing back a lot of the benefits of what affirmative action could do, that, if that is unconstitutional, however, diversity now, explicitly said in the majority opinion, diversity was now seen as a beneficial, almost like sprinkle of flavor in higher education, enhancing the college experience for everyone along the way.
Adam: This re-centers whiteness, right? Re-centers white people’s needs that it’s just fun to go to a party when there’s, you know, there’s a guy in the corner with like an Afro. It makes it interesting. It’s titillating as opposed to being like, ‘What about the needs of marginalized groups?’
Nima: ‘What about the legacy of Jim Crow?’, which literally, just legally, was was shot down.
Adam: It’s fetishizing, it’s reducing what used to be the in the domain of justice to like picking what restaurant to have. Let’s have Mexicans tonight. You know what I mean? And that’s really the way it’s been re-framed I think. So you kind of check off the liberal guilt box and you say, ‘oh, well, you know, we’re pursuing diversity,’ but you’re not giving them really anything or you’re not redressing anything. There’s no material exchange of wealth.
Nima: Exactly. And yet and yet the pushback on that from the right is still so outrageous, right? That even in that almost tokenized opening up of predominantly white spaces to now at least some more non white voices and faces and ideas that just got this white grievance and victimization industry chugging along at an even faster rate.
Adam: That’s the animating force here, right? I think liberalism was always responding to that, but the driving force has always been the amount of money and political power that goes into appealing to white grievance politics, which are fundamentally at their core when taken to the logical extreme, white nationalist in nature, which is to say you’re preserving the kind of white majority, white super majority population of this country. This country is roughly seventy percent white, give or take two or three points here and there depending how you define it, sixty eight percent white. As that decreases ever so slightly every year, that reactionariness, and this is of course what Donald Trump did, I really think that Donald Trump launching his campaign the day before the Dylann Roof shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, it was the perfect kind of opening to this era because Dylann Roof’s manifesto is primarily about a demographic threat. This idea that we’re being under siege by people from Africa, Muslims and Latinos and lazy black people.
Nima: Right? And, and we have seen that really be encouraged by very, very popular voices on Fox News for years.
Adam: Yeah. So back in August, Laura Ingraham at Fox News, which I think we would sort of generally agree and something we’ve talked about on the show is now become an overtly white nationalist network, uh, with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham I think we would, it was more crypto I think in the past and now that Trump-
Nima: Yeah it was super dog whistle-y and like obvious because you saw what was going on and now it is like full scale, like Der Stürmer.
Adam: Yeah. And this pathology of whiteness under siege by leftists and liberals and George Soros, three parentheses, and Black Lives Matter, you really kind of get an overt white national reporting and what we’re supposed to broadly consider to be a mainstream outlet, so here’s Laura Ingraham from August of this year.
Laura Ingraham: Because in some parts of the country it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark example of how radically in some ways the country has changed. Now, much of this is related to both illegal and in some cases legal immigration that of course progressives love.
Adam: So you have this idea that Americans did not decide. Diversity has been instilled upon us.
Nima: Right. Foisted on them.
Adam: Foisted on them. So white, whiteness, white people are used interchangeably with Americans. That of course is an overtly Nazis —
Nima: Exactly. The America “we know,” the one “we know and love does not exist anymore.”
Adam: This is straight out, straight out of the U.S. Nazi Party pamphlet from the 1930s. I mean, it is not even, again dog whistle-y, and then there was, this is something that they’ve traded in before and it didn’t really come up over the surface that often. One instance in which it did was after Romney lost the White House to Obama, Bill O’Reilly did what I would also —
Nima: Yeah. That night.
Adam: What I would also argue and I think is sort of prima fishy, is a white nationalist diatribe next to our now NBC woke bae, uh, Megyn Kelly. And he had his own kind of white nationalist ideology that had the same premise that the demographics are changing and whiteness is under siege by lazy, shiftless, untrustworthy people of color.
Bill O’Reilly: Because it’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore and there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things and who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And whereby twenty years ago President Obama, would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You’re going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama and women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate between the two is going to give them things.
Adam: Um. Yeah. So —
Nima: It’s pretty, pretty obvious the ideology that is being, I want to say exposed, but it’s, there’s no shame in it, right? I mean, it is, it is so clearly the animating ethos of not only that network but of so many people on the, on the right primarily, um, this idea of the defining who we is and we is always white and we are losing out. And so affirmative action reinforces that for people who have this idea of reverse racism of, you know, we’re supposed to live in a colorblind meritocratic society. It’s, it’s only about what you can do, right? Bootstrapism, again, it gets into all these kinds of tropes and ideas that we see time and time again that really no one should get a, you know, as, as Bill O’Reilly said “stuff”, right? Handouts, handouts and, and legs up and giving a helping hand is like the clear example that civilization is just being destroyed.
Adam: Yeah. Handout Nation, right? Breaking through the, we discussed in the welfare episode. So this white grievance complex fuels this obsession with getting rid of anything that remotely smacks of affirmative action. We saw this most prominently with the Abigail Fisher case at the University of Texas where she did not make it into the University of Texas despite getting sort of ostensibly of getting good grades because of the top ten percent rule for, it’s, for those who don’t know, in Texas, the top ten percent of all high schools at that time, I think it’s been tweaked since then, but they automatically get enrolled into the University of Texas or the University of A&M.
Nima: Texas isn’t actually the only state that has that. A number of states have kind of adopted that.
Adam: Yeah. It’s a backdoor form of affirmative action because what you’re saying is that if you did well at your school, and even if you got lower grades, or lower SAT scores that if you finished in the top ten percent and someone who went to a quote unquote “better” school finished, did not finish in the top ten but still had higher numbers than the way to correct that is to fix the schools. Right? It’s, it’s actually a pretty clever way of sort of saying it’s a clever way of introducing affirmative action without really —
Nima: Addressing systemic issues.
Adam: — without really expressly doing it.
Adam: And that way it gets around some of the legal barriers and political landmines of affirmative action. But anyway, she pouted, didn’t think this is fair, sued, that went to the Supreme Court and ultimately they ruled in a limited way, a narrow way, they ruled in her favor.
Nima: It actually wound up opening up, uh, kind of the flood gates to even more cases brought against these institutions of higher learning to really continue to chip away at affirmative action policies. We’re seeing this now again at Harvard where there’s a new case as well that’s talking about affirmative action and trying to basically remove a lot of those policies from the Harvard mission. Now I should point out actually that one person is behind this current drive to do this. His name is Edward Blum. He’s behind both the anti affirmative action cases in Texas and now in Massachusetts, and if you actually learn about this guy, you can see how ideology has everything to do with trying to destroy civil rights policies. So Edward Blum is a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is a super conservative think tank, he is a so-called legal entrepreneur, which is what he calls himself, he’s not a lawyer himself. He just kind of astroturfs these legal battles. He is the director of a one-man anti-civil rights shop called the Project on Fair Representation, which sounds innocuous and uh, you know, something everyone can get behind. But really it has this anti civil rights agenda. He’s a failed congressional candidate from Houston and, actually, a couple years ago, RadioLab did a profile on this guy and in it Blum tells reporter Katherine Wells that his liberal upbringing took a turn to the right while he was spending a summer living on a kibbutz in Israel. That, like, that really made him go from like, you know, you’re sort of a normal New Deal Democrat to feeling much more right-wing about things. And then when he was in Houston, Texas, he was introduced by, uh, by this neighbor he had, who had apparently moved from New York and this neighbor introduced him to all these new magazines that he had never really known before and they were, you know, stuff like the Weekly Standard and National Review and Commentary. So, all of these neocon magazines —
Adam: It’s weird because I spent a weekend in a kibbutz and I went and left-wing because of that. I was like, wait a second, this is Palestinian land and this wine is not very good.
Nima: (Laughing) Right. Edward Blum did not go that route. So now he is this guy behind these court cases. And what we’re seeing now is actually he and the groups that he is running in the court cases that he is bringing now are taking a slightly different tack, like they have a new way of actually addressing and destroying, attempting to destroy affirmative action.
Adam: And the way they’re doing that is by, for lack of a better term, weaponizing Asian American complaints about the way affirmative action is upheld. So you have two dueling forces here, you have a, you have a resurgent white nationalist, overtly white nationalist reaction to anything that smells of quote unquote “diversity” or a de-centering of whiteness. And then you’ll have a liberal, a corporate liberal response that emerged in the nineties and two thousands of what is kind of surface level and kind of feckless obsession with tokenism that doesn’t really talk about race in terms of justice and restorative justice. Um, and it’s not equipped to battle those forces. And I think we’ve seen that in other aspects of this as well, that you can’t really counter this kind of emerging white nationalism with this, you know, chocolate syrup/milk notion of inclusion. These are extremely superficial and useless comments.
Nima: Right. Yup.
Adam: And I think there’s a, there is an emerging aspect of the left that really does want to recenter what we would call racial justice in material terms. Reparations for Native Americans and for African Americans for slavery. Meaningful forms of affirmative action instead of just token hire a token hires. And I think that’s, I think it’s a good segue into our guests. Yeah, I think that what is the quote unquote “left-wing” response to this emerging white nationalism now that corporate liberalism has not really done its job and has had its ass handed to it by this emerging white nationalism?
Nima: So we will be joined by writer and journalist Jeff Chang. He is Vice President of Narrative, Arts and Culture at Race Forward, the co-founder of both ColorLines and Culture/Strike. He is the author of numerous books including Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and most recently We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation. Jeff will join us in just a second. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by writer and journalist Jeff Chang. He joins us from Oakland. And Jeff, great to have you on the show today on Citations Needed. Thanks for joining us.
Jeff Chang: Thanks so much for having me.
Nima: So, to kind of get us into this conversation, we’ve been talking about the many uses of the term “diversity” and how that has entered our cultural lexicon and has displaced other ideas, other movements towards a certain progress. To start us off, can you walk us through some of the history of affirmative action policy in this country? Like how a number of Supreme Court cases have foregrounded this mantle of diversity while largely then backgrounding or even outright dismissing progress toward equity or even justice?
Jeff Chang: Absolutely. It’s really good to be talking about this topic which never seems to go away. I mean it seems to just be a perennial and what I’ve found is is that there’s a lot of misconception and a sort of lack of understanding about the history of affirmative action. And so let’s start with even the term affirmative action which comes into the federal government language really as a way for government to figure out a way to provide redress to folks mainly during the forties and the fifties for different types of cases. And so it wasn’t tied as it is now explicitly to say university admissions or to government contracts. Back then it was broad. It was meant to, to say, if a group has been wronged, any group has been wronged in any kind of way, that they would establish a program an affirmative action program that would be set up to provide redress and sort of sense of reparations to that particular group. And so affirmative action in the early years was used largely in labor law, uh, it was largely say to do things like restore payment to workers who had been working at sub-minimum wages or who had been exploited by their employers in different kinds of ways. In the sixties, it begins to be used to talk about specifically African American folks who are underr-epresented in different types of federally sort of distributed goods such as spots in public universities. And so this is the common term that we kind of or the common way that we kind of think of affirmative action now. So I make that point just to say that affirmative action was always meant as an equity type of plan, as a justice type of plan, to say that here’s a group that’s been wronged, uh, and so we have to make good, uh, to them. And so when affirmative action programs get established, they are meant specifically to be able to look at the history of higher education in this country and that it was exclusive and mainly reserved for white people. So we talk about historically white institutions, you know, that was the entirety of higher education in the US. And it’s really interesting now that there’s this, you know, this, we have historically black colleges and universities as a term, but it’s often forgotten that universities, not so long ago, really, you know, going on up until about 60, 70 years ago, were really predominantly overwhelmingly white. Um, and that the doors of education, higher education, were largely closed to people of color. And hence you had historically black colleges and universities. So I just wanted to preface all of that stuff first and to say that the, you know, the, the arc of court law has been towards removing that justification and replacing it with less and less sort of robust types of rationales to water down the original intent, shall we say, of affirmative action.
Nima: Yeah. And we’re seeing that actually all over the country. So we’ve seen it in Texas recently and we’re seeing it again now in Massachusetts with a case about Harvard and kind of mainly focused on the admission of Asian Americans into Harvard.
Jeff Chang: Right. And I think that, you know, what needs to be kind of stated here is that the issue has been transformed, uh, over the last thirty years especially because of the emergence of, of Asian American applicants to higher education. So, you know, the presence of Asian Americans in the US in large numbers has changed the way that we actually have a discussion about affirmative action and not, in my opinion, in a very good ways in some ways.
Adam: So yeah, we focus often on this show on diversity as a sort of concept of representation with the assumption that if I watch news, and I watch pop culture that per se representation actually does matter. And we did an episode with Color of Change and talking representation in the media that show that 1-in-2 Latino characters were criminals. Now over time that’s going to have a deteriorates effect, right? People are going to more likely see Latinos as criminals if they see them on TV, but one thing that’s left out of a lot of these diversity studies and specifically there was a recent one by USC Annenberg Inclusive Initiative which does great work on documenting representation on screen and behind the camera. And we’ll get into the numbers later of how many women in black directors there are. Spoiler alert: basically none.
Nima: (Laughs) Right.
Jeff Chang: Right.
Adam: Uh, and, but one thing that’s sort of rarely talked about is what I will sort of refer to offhand as, as diversity and profit. Diversity in who actually controls studios and who actually makes money off cultural products, whether they be film or art or music. I guess I’m curious why you think that there is very little focus on that aspect of it? Because that to me seems, and maybe I’m a bit of a Marxist here, but that to me seems more relevant in many ways than the actual presentation itself on screen. Although of course, as I said, I think that’s super important. It’s interesting that we kind of never talk about diversity and for lack of a better term, the means of production.
Jeff Chang: Hmm. There’s a lot to talk about there, but the main thing I think is, is to think about it this way, right? For most of U.S. history, people of color have not been thought of as consumers. They’ve been thought of as folks who are literally the means of production. Does that make sense?
Jeff Chang: (Chuckles) So you know, this, this idea of, of communities of color becoming consumers is really something that we’ve seen rise in the last fifty years and hence, you know, we get to this point now where we end up talking about diversity as a market strategy.
Jeff Chang: And so I think, again, this takes us further from the original rationale for affirmative action, which again was equity and justice, like trying to achieve racial equity and trying to achieve racial justice. The question of representation becomes one when the doors begin to open, you know, during the sixties, um, because of the Civil Rights Movement and because of the massive changes that we then see that occur in immigration because of a very important piece of civil rights legislation, the Immigration Nationality Act, right? And so what we’ve seen over the last fifty years is this shift, this inexorable shift to communities of color becoming more and more enfranchised. And as that’s happened, uh, it hasn’t been a coincidence that we’ve moved further and further away from equity and justice, thinking about equity and justice as our primary goals for including communities of color and thinking of them more as, as consumers, as people who consume higher education say, or who consume products that are going to be sold, you know, through the culture industry. And uh, and so it’s, it’s all related. It’s all related. You can be Marxist about it because capitalism and race are inseparable.
Adam: Right. You mentioned the idea that they’re consumers, you see, you read a lot about how African Americans are a major film consumer and they are, I think disproportionally something like twenty percent of the film, uh, consumers, but only thirteen percent of the population, what have you. And then we talk about, you know, the sort of move towards more representation behind the camera, but actually sort of getting into positions of power, when you talk about economic justice, which again I think is different than diversity, we’re talking about something a little bit more fundamental, something a little bit more material and I guess in your mind, what is the mechanism with which that can be achieved outside of say for example, a government affirmative action or quota system? And I know a lot of people are starting to advocate for inclusion writers for major Hollywood stars, which is obviously a bit of a stop gap, but it, it could have some effect on how we view actual hiring practices behind the camera.
Jeff Chang: Yeah, I mean, I, I think that a lot of these equity efforts are super, super important for us to be able to recognize in real time, uh, just how far we are from having equal representation, equitable representation, uh, for communities of color, um, and you know, and we can get back to the question of, of sort of where Asian Americans place is in all this, uh, particularly in some areas such as higher education, but you know, the larger arc of this is that equity is just a way to measure justice, right? So under-representation is just a way of measuring a history of injustice. And so the bottom line is we’ve got to be able to move away from this sort of bland notion of colorblindness and recognize that, you know, this country is founded on historical injustice, on slavery and genocide and colonialism and that under-representation in equity, lack of access for people of color grows out of that. It didn’t just happen, it’s always been like this. That’s what we’re trying to get at. That’s what we’re trying to resolve here.
Nima: So Jeff, we’ve been talking about how the kind of promotion of this notion of diversity can also be tokenizing and serve as this veneer to make white people feel better about themselves in certain spaces. Also, the notion of increasing what we’ve been referring to as representation that is the consciously adding more people of color, women, poor people to predominantly white male spaces. This has held up as like a positive progressive outcome unto itself. But as you’ve written,“Cultural equity is not just about representation, it is also about access and power.” So Jeff, how is this idea of diversity both used and abused in the media that we consume?
Jeff Chang: Right. Well, I think diversity has become the word that’s replaced equity. Um, that’s replaced justice, right? And you can point to a specific moment going back to the Supreme Court cases that you had mentioned earlier, you know, in the late Seventies where there’s a case, uh, looking at slots in a medical school at a university here in California and trying to determine what the rationale is to be able to maintain affirmative action programs. And so the universities are arguing that we need to have these programs in place in order to remedy the lack of, of black and brown folks here in these professional schools. And they don’t necessarily really strongly defend the notion, the original notion again that we talking about, of these programs as remedying historical injustice. And so we get a sort of decision, a Supreme Court decision that tries to split the difference and says, ‘well, you know what, uh, you’re probably right, in fact, you know, we could look at this as a discriminatory type of thing to white folks,’ which only makes sense, again, if you ignore that white folks have always run the thing, right? It’s kind of insane, right? But there’s this really interesting sophistry that occurs in this Supreme Court decision called Bakke versus the UC Regents, University of California Regents. And instead what they develop is this diversity rationale that, hey, you know, ‘Everybody benefits from having different types of folks represented in a classroom or on television or in a workplace, you know, or at a picnic, you know, that it’s more fun.’ It’s more fun for us to have, you know, somebody who kayaks sitting next to somebody who mountain climbs next to a Chicano or an African American. That’s literally, I’m not really joking here. That’s literally what this says, what the decision says.
Nima: Right. Right. It sounds good to have like someone from Louisiana but also maybe like a black person and also a farmer as if those are all just like equal kinds of identity.
Jeff Chang: Right. And so there’s this inherent false equivalence that’s kind of developed here, that now undergirds the entirety of this notion of diversity and it’s where the teeth get taken out of the equity rationale, the justice rationale for affirmative action programs and in general for government intervention on the part of communities of color.
Adam: Yeah. I think The New York Times ran a piece about how it was good that we have Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court because we now have someone from the Midwest or the plain states because he’s from Colorado. Um, and that we have diversity of geography.
Jeff Chang: Yeah.
Adam: But I know that Coloradans are historically oppressed as such.
Jeff Chang: (Laughs) Well, yeah, I mean, you know, I, I like to have a diverse breakfast so I’d like to have some soy milk. I like to have some cereal and I like to have fruit. So the diversity thing is something that’s literally set up to maintain white dominance, right? Whiteness is still at the core of the rationale for, for diversity. We’re not trying to displace whiteness by saying that there’s been a historical injustice that’s been rendered here and that needs to be remedied. What we’re saying is it’ll make us more comfortable and, and actually like make us feel a little bit better and have a little bit more fun if there were, you know, kayakers and mountain climbers and a couple of folks of color at our picnics, you know, at our, our mandatory workplace celebrations.
Adam: If anyone who is listening or anyone here has ever had the misfortune of working in the nightclub industry, they’re pretty casual about being, ‘Oh, like, we need to have a certain amount of diversity for this party.’ But like they always make sure you don’t have too much.
Jeff Chang: (Laughing) Right.
Nima: (Laughing) Right.
Adam: Like there’s a sort of amount of black people you have where it’s cool and then you go over like a certain percentage and now you’re like, ‘Oh no, like this is too many black people.’ And it’s like, and they’re pretty —
Nima: At a black party and that’s not what —
Adam: Yeah. And they’re super overt about it. Like it’s not even subtle. Um, and I think that’s definitely a dynamic that we sort of want window dressing, but we definitely don’t want, and this is why people, I think a lot of times a lot of people lost their shit over things like Black Panther because it was a movie that didn’t have black characters, even a black hero, it was just, it was almost uniformly black and that was sort of more threatening. Right?
Jeff Chang: Right. And then on the flip side, there is sort of the, the kind of liberal equivalent of it, which is really well represented in, Mindy Kaling did this thing for The Office where were, uh, it was about Diwali and he basically had Steve Carell’s character mansplaining and whitesplaining Diwali for the entire staff. Uh, and so, so diversity becomes a way to kind of certain whitesplain the need to have folks of color around. It’s just so, so cringe inducing sometimes. Speaking personally as a, as, as somebody who is a person of color and, and has been my entire life, uh, I can attest to that.
Nima: Yeah. So I actually, digging into that a little bit, can you also talk about how this very right-wing flattening, identity flattening narrative of Asian Americans being the quote unquote “model” minority figures into all of this and maybe specifically how that’s now related to this case between Harvard and this group called Students for Fair Admissions, which is being orchestrated by the same guy that did the Fisher case down in, in Texas. Can you kind of tell us a little bit about that and just how potentially like this anti Asian bias is being exploited to then undermine affirmative action for blacks and Latinos?
Jeff Chang: Some days I wake up and I’m going, god, you know, am I living through the Eighties and Nineties again? But I was a student at the University of California Berkeley in the late 1980s where the same issue had bubbled up to the top about discrimination against Asian Americans in the admissions process, which you had in that admissions process at the University of California, Berkeley, and really at all, quote unquote “elite” universities. Uh, its this engineering the perfect type of class depending on whatever the social imperatives are at that particular moment. Right? And so me going to school in the late eighties, I was part of the first class at the University of California Berkeley that was a majority minority. And this is in 1985, I’m dating myself now. Um, but this was the first class in which students of color made up more than fifty percent aggregated of the freshmen class. And they did this because the University of California, Berkeley, was very devoted to affirmative action, very cognizant of the way the demographics were changing the State of California at the time and still have and still are. Uh, and, and by the way, this is happening, of course, all across the country now, Pence/Trump. But that’s a whole other story. The affirmative action programs were in place and had created an almost representative number of blacks and Latinos. That is to say that there were nearly as many as a percentage Latinos and blacks represented in the class as were being represented in the State of California at that particular time. We were on our way to achieving what they call parody. And so whites and Asians were supposedly in this purely meritocratic competition with each other for the remaining seats, which numbered of course, uh, about sixty percent of the student body, sixty, seventy percent of the student body. And at that time what the University of California did, was they devised a set of different types of rules changes that ended up discriminating against Asian Americans and effectively capping the number of Asian Americans and about twenty percent. And so we as students got together and formed a group called the Student Coalition for Fair Admissions. I kid you not. This is what we were called and protested against the university to expose their admissions process while at the same time affirming the need for affirmative action to remedy the historical injustices against communities of color. And so this became our position and we won, we actually won. And now the University of California across the board has upwards of thirty percent Asian Americans at most of its campuses, um, some places much, much more UCLA and U.C. Berkeley in particular. I see all this as a prelude to talking about where we’re at now with this situation at Harvard University. What we did at Berkeley was to challenge the meritocracy, to challenge the myth of meritocracy. To say that no, actually there’s no meritocratic ideal, that it’s all engineering. It’s all rules and gamesmanship to try to create the perfect class. And what that should lead us to conclude is that all of this stuff is a farce. That meritocracy is a farce because it is, it’s all engineering, right? And instead, what happened was the right-wing said, well, the reason that Asian Americans are underrepresented in relationship to their proportion of applicants to the university is because of affirmative action. It’s because we’re artificially propping up black and Latino students in this meritocracy and they otherwise wouldn’t be able to compete. And the domino effect began in the mid nineties where there was a ballot initiative put before what was then a primarily white electorate in California on whether or not the state government should continue to, uh, advance affirmative action programs across the board, including at universities and government contracts. And the primarily white electorate voted against affirmative action. And, uh, and this sort of moved out to a number of other states. And so the anti affirmative action movement really was bolstered by this right-wing argument using Asian Americans as cover to try to undo affirmative action specifically to try to undo these programs that were set up to support blacks and Latinos.
Adam: Let’s talk about white grievance, um, specifically as a sort of animating cause of the right since I think probably the seventies, this idea that liberalism had gone too far, which I think we would all kind of agree, based on the ideological makeup of this show, that that’s obviously bullshit. I always found it deeply ironic, if not accidental, that the Dylann Roof shooting was the day after Donald Trump launched his campaign in June, June 9, 2015. Then the primary grievance in his manifesto was this demographic threat. The idea that Latinos were taking over, the Muslims, people from Africa were taking over. That white people were the minority. This is sort of the basis of all white sort of nationalist ideology, which has of course gone super mainstream now that the president is sort of overtly that. Can we talk about the idea of a non white majority country and how much those fears animate this kind of faux victimization narrative? And then can we talk about how that animated the Abigail Fisher case against the University of Texas, uh, my alma mater, as someone who himself was rejected to the University of Texas because of the top ten percent rule. Of course I just transferred in. It took me five seconds, but I guess I could have just had a fifteen-year lawsuit.
Jeff Chang: (Laughing)
Adam: So can we talk about that, that sort of paranoia, that kind of white paranoia about being a, a sort of victim and, and, and this sort of assumption that somehow if there was some black Latino coalition that they will treat whites as bad as whites historically have treated them?
Jeff Chang: Yes, we can. We can definitely talk about that. (Laughs.) You know, the, the, the really interesting thing about this, about the Asian, the case of Asians, uh, in admissions processes to elite universities is that the original reason that these rules were put into place were to protect white alumni who are worried that their students, their kids weren’t going to be able to become students at their alma maters, specifically UCLA and U.C. Berkeley. So there was the impetus to actually engineer these rules that would discriminate disproportionately against Asian Americans. And the irony of it of course, is that by protecting this notion of meritocracy, which has for centuries supported whiteness, right? For centuries, supported a system of exclusion, uh, for centuries locked out communities of color, they might have had to have conceded that there might need to be places for a group of people of color who are literally beating folks at their own game, white folks at their own game. And I don’t want to minimize either that a large reason that this occurred was because of a backlash against immigration. Right? And so if we go all the way back to the Reagan era, right? There’s already these fears that the Immigration and Nationality Act had created this insane influx of brown people. And uh, and so there’s a lot of pressures to, to reduce immigration. And so at some point the corporate wing of the Republican and the Democratic parties say, ‘well, we need to have highly skilled immigrants be able to come here.’ And so immigration laws have been narrowed steadily and actually pretty dramatically since the 1980s, uh, to favor upper middle class, highly educated, you know, uber-degreed families that are largely coming from Asian countries. And so the whole sort of shift that that’s produced in the Asian American community has been the influx of immigrants who are disproportionately wealthy already, are middle class, are privileged. And those are exactly the folks whose kids are applying to compete against the white alumni kids at these so called elite universities. There’s levels and levels of ironies that are kind of working out here. In the long run, you can kind of look at this as sort of a desperation move on the part of elite whites, you know, uh, and I think that this particular case that’s been supported by the right that has been, that comes, I think you noted rightly, as part of a series of cases that till now were largely fronted by white female plaintiffs, right? That this particular type of situation is increasingly sort of trying to kinda scoot back, you know, the, the ocean back into the little tub. It’s the last gasp in some ways. Unfortunately though, what we’ve seen is the Supreme Court has been all too ready to accept the kinds of rationales that support the maintenance of white dominance at elite institutions. And just a last thing to say is that what all of this should make us conclude, again, is that all of this stuff is stacked against us, right? And that Asian Americans really should be taking the lead in questioning the meritocracy, the myth of the meritocracy, this whole entire sort of ideological edifice that’s propping up the state of whiteness at its core reproductive functions right? That the universities are the place where we, we, we make the leaders of the future and that, uh, this particular fight is, is not about getting more Asian Americans into elite universities, it is about trying to redistribute the rewards of the system and create a different kind of leadership for the rest of the century and moving forward in this country.
Nima: So, Jeff, you’ve talked about both the merits and also some of the drawbacks of affirmative action policies, as well as kind of how we find ourselves now at a place where, as you’ve written, resegregation seems to be the price of what we call diversity. Can you tell us a little bit about how you see resegregation figuring into all of this?
Jeff Chang: Well, what we’ve seen steadily over the last three decades has been an increase in cultural desegregation such that we can have the biggest movie this past year being Black Panther, such that we can have a popular culture that’s really driven by African American culture, Afro diaspora culture, and you know, the, the brilliant artists who are kind of advancing that every single day. And yet what we’ve seen in actual public life, everything from education to housing, uh, all the way on down, health is really where the last measurement comes, right? We look at life expectancy and we know that black males have a lower life expectancy by nearly a decade, uh, than white males. Right? And look at that and say, this is why we have to say Black Lives Matter, right?
Jeff Chang: That this is the ultimate test of equity and justice in our country. And what we’ve seen in other words, is these institutions moving closer and closer to what we saw in the past, which was severe exclusion along class and race lines. And this colors everything in terms of looking at, literally colors everything, from, uh, our understanding of what’s happening in the cities or on gentrification and the domino effects that, that lead us out to the suburbs, right? Where folks of color are displaced too. Uh, to understanding what’s happening in education. Even, you know, the arms race that’s happening in universities trying to recruit young people to come to their schools. And on the other hand, you know, families, you have Asian immigrant families that are putting a large amount of their resources literally into, to testing and to SAT prep, uh, so that they can prepare their kids to try to apply to these elite universities that, you know, that’s all a part of what’s happened over the last thirty years. And it’s all connected. It’s all related. And so the ultimate impact of that is that we’re heading into the middle of the century where we’re going to become a majority minority and have potentially much more fixed inequality than we’ve had in the last century. And that’s, I think, the scariest thought about all of this. That’s where all of this stuff leads to in the long run.
Adam: I think that, I think that about wraps it up.
Jeff Chang: (Laughing)
Adam: I think that will take more of your time than we would and we always like to end on a really positive note.
Jeff Chang: (Laughing) Good lord. Sorry about that. Sorry I didn’t realize I was such a downer.
Nima: No, no, no. That’s kind of par for the course for our show.
Jeff Chang: Well, look, we can’t leave on a hopeless note. I mean, one of the things that I find really, really exciting is that we’re in a period of social movements, right? Of resurgent and emergent social movements and that these movements are trying to figure out ways to think intersectionally, to think about how all of our issues connect and how we all move towards freedom. And this is of course led by the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. Um, and also by folks who are behind the Women’s March, the Dreamers, the warriors at Standing Rock, all of these folks are, are pointing new ways for us to, to connect and so, you know, the work that we’re doing at Race Forward is trying to distribute and disseminate and sort of really establish a tools for folks to be able to think about equity and justice at everywhere from the movement level, the community organizing level, the cultural level to governments as well. And policy. We’ve got to be able to think about movements intersectionally and we’ve got to be able to think about how we work on all of these different fronts to be able to establish a different type of vision for this next century. And I think really now is the time to do it. You know, this is a point at which on the one hand it feels like politics and the policy sector is a place of reversal. But I think it’s also a really amazing time for growing our imagination as Grace Lee Boggs would say. And for thinking about how we actually create the future that we want to live in. So I’m actually pretty optimistic. (Chuckles.) I’m actually pretty optimistic. I mean, I think that what we have is a stark contrast, right, and in the way that, uh, that people are seeing the future and that race is the dividing line. Um, and so at this particular point, if we are able to kind of think through that, uh, and continue to find ways that we bring our movements together, uh, we’re really on our way. We’re really on our way to that, to that new future. I think that in a lot of cases, change happens in a really striking, surprising, dramatic kind of way. I think we saw that in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, you know, really coming together in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown. And what we saw in Missouri, you know, in the elections, uh, this summer, was that people were able to remove a Bob McCulloch, the attorney general that refused to prosecute Darren Wilson. We’re able to see on the ground in places like Mississippi, people coming together with these community building types of agendas. We’re able to see millions and millions of people gathering all across the country for the Women’s March and against gun violence and, you know, and so I am optimistic yo. I mean, I think, I think that we’re figuring this out. Uh, and, and I think that the kinds of things that you all are doing in terms of, uh, having this podcast and doing this stuff that you do help us to really reshape our thinking and to push the culture forward.
Nima: Great. So you’ve been working in media and cultural spaces for years. What are you working on these days now at Race Forward and also elsewhere? Uh, and what can our listeners look out for?
Jeff Chang: Sure. Save these dates November 8th through November 10th. And if you can make plans to join us in Detroit for the Facing Race Conference, it’s the biggest convening of people interested in the movement for racial justice in the country. And, uh, you know, community organizers, activists, public policy folks, scholars, of course artists and cultural workers. We are going to be coming together to about how we move this all forward. Um, our keynote is Tarana Burke of #MeToo. We’re going to be announcing other folks as well, and you can get the latest info and register at facingrace.raceforward.org. Come and join us.
Nima: Uh, yeah, no, that all sounds great. And that sounds like an amazing conference that’s going to be coming up. So anyone who can make it, you should do that. Writer and journalist, Jeff Chang, Vice President of Narrative, Arts and Culture at Race Forward, the author of a number of books including Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and most recently We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jeff Chang: Thank you.
Nima: Jeff does really great work. I love his writing and now that he is working closely with Race Forward, I think, um, there’s going to be good stuff ahead. So, uh, we will keep an eye on that and yeah, this conversation about affirmative action and the diversity idea in general is something that I’m glad that we’ve gotten to. It really speaks to how things that aren’t discussed all that often and are used really kind of as like these political footballs all the time. It really speaks to this larger culture war, I think. And affirmative action fits firmly in our American culture wars.
Adam: Well, here’s the thing. I think there was this belief that you could run scared from the right by not being too radical and embracing this kind of superficial notion of diversity, but the reality is they’re going to be a bunch of paranoid racists anyway. Um, so if you’re going to do it, you may as well embrace actual social justice with material transfers of wealth and power, right? I mean, obviously we’re huge proponents of reparations. I know we plan on doing a show on that, like, this is something that Bank of America and Hyatt Hotels aren’t going to sponsor, this is a radical redistribution of wealth.
Nima: Right. You’re not going to get reparations by drinking that glass of chocolate milk.
Adam: And that seems more morally interesting to me as much as I know we think diversity is important because I think that we think is better than nothing, we think it’s better than not having it. Morally and I think it is, I think, generally true that things are better when you have people who don’t just look like Adam Johnson. That to me seems like a more interesting way of approaching this, which is what are you doing to actually reorganize power structures and when the, when the richest people in the world, the top hundred richest people are nodding along with your proposal, it’s probably not a very good one.
Nima: Yes. So these programs that wind up being under attack are really good kind of political fodder. And so to see through how they’re being used and manipulated and to maintain the best aspects of them is I think important. And to kind of see how the media often does not help with that is also important. So I’m glad that we did this show. So yes, I think we should leave it there. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed. Review us online. That is always very much appreciated and even more appreciated is if you help out the show through Patreon.com. Keep it going. Keep the show moving along. Allow us to do more episodes like this one and like the others that you love so much and other content as well. We will keep doing that and all your help is so appreciated through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. Extra special shout out goes to our critical level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The intro music this week, as usual, is by Grandaddy, our outro music this week, however, is by ohyung, a song entitled “Abigail Fisher is the Devil” from the album Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame). You can find that track online and we’ll post it in our show notes. Have a great week everyone. Catch you next time.
[Music: “Abigail Fisher is the Devil” by ohyung]
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, October 3, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.
* Correction: Nancy Leong did not actually “coin” the term “Racial Capitalism” in her June 2013 Harvard Law Review article by the same name. The term was first widely used by political science and Black studies scholar Cedric J. Robinson, perhaps most notably in his landmark 1983 book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.