ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy for a conversation with scholar and activist Rebecca Gordon. Recently, she was on her way to a Black Lives Matter demonstration when she tripped and fell. Nothing was broken, luckily, but time seemed to slow as she went down and the feeling of knowing it’s too late to stop stayed with her. The experience prompted Ms. Gordon to write about America as a failing nation in a slow-motion free fall for TomDispatch.com. Bill Moyers read that essay and called Rebecca Gordon for this interview. She teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco, and at the McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good she explores ethical issues of public affairs. Here, now, is Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Hello there. I have been trying to figure out with whom could I talk on this upcoming July Fourth weekend? And quite frankly, when I read your column this morning, I had the sense that your usual skepticism about things had taken a turn toward pessimism and that worried me. But when I got to the end of your essay, I began to get a twinkle of the possibility. Because you write, “The platform of the Movement for Black Lives represents an excellent place to start when it comes to preventing this country from becoming a failed state.”
REBECCA GORDON: This platform, you know, Movement for Black Lives platform, it essentially contains a prescription for what this country needs. And it’s through the lens of what is needed for the Black community. But there’s a theory called universal design. And the idea is that, if you build or design for people with disabilities, you will actually create better structures for everybody, not just people with disabilities. In a similar way, if we build a country to address the needs of one of the most oppressed groups in the country, and a group with a particular historical record of being oppressed, that we will simultaneously be building a country that will satisfy the needs of everybody.
BILL MOYERS: You point out that the Black Lives Matter movement actually began in this country’s long history of state-sanctioned violence. So, this long history is, you say, the canvas on which Black Americans today are painting real change.
REBECCA GORDON: And the leaders of that movement are a generation younger than I am. And a lot of the new leaders are even two generations younger than I am. So, the things that they talk about are obviously the concerns about violence against the Black community, especially by agents of the state, like the police. There’s a concern about economic justice which includes things like raising the minimum wage. There’s a concern about what it’s fundamentally going to take to bring African Americans into some kind of parity with other people in this country, and that’s addressing generational wealth. And the ways that even Black people who have made it into a professional class and have professional class jobs and incomes do not have the wealth that white people with a high school diploma might have. And how that fundamentally affects the life chances of their kids. And it’s about fundamentally looking at economic disparity and inequality in this country. I don’t have to tell you how much we have seen the acceleration ever since the Reagan administration, but currently with the last two Republican administrations. Just a massive transfer of wealth from people with very little to people who already have more than they could ever possibly enjoy in their lifetimes.
BILL MOYERS: You say you’ve studied theology and ethics and—
REBECCA GORDON: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: –at the graduate level. So did I. And my question is, what do you think theology and ethics have to say to us today, to the present crisis you described so well in your column this morning?
REBECCA GORDON: So, I’m a nice Jewish girl who goes to an Episcopal church, to give you sort of a place where I am. And it happened that my partner is a cradle Episcopalian, so she was raised in the church. So, we about 20 years ago started going to a little church in the Mission. So, to get to your question, what I decided is, you know, the divine is way too large to be contained in a single human symbol system. But that each one of those systems has its very rich particularities that are valuable. So I decided to go as deep as I could into this way of understanding the world that is Christianity. And so when I think about the Black Lives Matter movement, I don’t know if you’ve read James Cone.
BILL MOYERS: A very close friend of mine. He’s generally recognized as the founder of black liberation theology.
REBECCA GORDON: Yep. Wonderful. So back in 1968 his central insight is that the Gospel is about the incarnate God who puts God’s self in solidarity with people who are struggling for liberation. And at that moment in US history, that was the Black Power movement. And I would say at this moment in US history, the Black Lives Matter movement and all that it indicates, not that that’s the only struggle by any means. But if we believe in a God who is present in some way in history, that is where the divine is moving in reminding the world of what liberation can look like and what we are called to be and do. So that’s part of what I would say.
BILL MOYERS: In your essay this morning, “…a century of violent, indeed murderous policing of Black and other marginalized communities has made this country’s use of state violence profoundly illegitimate.” And suddenly, all over the country, Blacks and whites and
REBECCA GORDON: Yep. Yep. And–
BILL MOYERS: browns
REBECCA GORDON: –Latinos and–
BILL MOYERS: –are realizing that this has been something that’s been like the ocean around us. We swim in an ocean–
REBECCA GORDON: Yes, exactly.
BILL MOYERS: –of state-sanctioned violence.
REBECCA GORDON: Yeah. And I think there’s something about this younger generation that is no longer willing to accept that that is the way it has to be. That, when they get the talk from their parents, their reaction is, “Yes, of course I will always say, ‘Yes, sir,’ to the policeman.” But it is also, “No, this is not an ocean I wanna live in. We need to clean this ocean up.”
BILL MOYERS: Why now?
REBECCA GORDON: Why now? So, I think partly, frankly, it’s because people are not in school and are locked up in their homes. And that they literally have more time on their hands. So that people who might not have chosen to be physically in the streets, they might have had feelings of support in their hearts or their minds but wouldn’t have actually gotten out, they have nothing else to do. So, part of it is that that becomes a more attractive activity. I’d like to think, as somebody who teaches that some of it is actually people of my age and people 20, 30 years younger than I am who have been there in classrooms around the country encouraging their students to actively interpret their own worlds and to think that they have a right to respect, to dignity, and to demand it. I mean, the last time I experienced something like that was probably in the 1970s at the height of radical feminism when suddenly, in my world, everybody was saying, “How would we re-understand the world if we were to understand that women are human beings? What would that one radical fact mean in the way that we should construct the world?” And I can’t tell you, I mean, the women’s liberation movement saved my life. It took me from someone who fundamentally believed that, because of my genetic and physical makeup, I was inferior to half the human race, or to a part of the human race, to a person who thought that you could break the whole world open and understand everything differently. And this is what I think is going on now for these young people. They are experiencing a moment in which everything is up for grabs. And you know that when those kinds of moments happen, a form of creativity can be unleashed that is really beyond what you might expect, that’s really extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: You’re describing what the geologists might call the moment of Krakatoa.
REBECCA GORDON: There you go.
BILL MOYERS: Or the moment of Vesuvius.
REBECCA GORDON: Right.
BILL MOYERS: When all of a sudden, underground forces that had been invisible explode.
REBECCA GORDON: Yeah. Exactly–
BILL MOYERS: Not painlessly, not without–
REBECCA GORDON: No. No.
BILL MOYERS: –destruction. And so, you’re thinking that, from what’s happening right now, can come something not just novel but different and new for our society?
REBECCA GORDON: This is what my students have said over and over again is, “We don’t want to go back to normal. We don’t want the country to go back to the way it was before. This is a time when we need to rethink everything.” And I think that we are at a time when the combination of the pandemic and what’s looking to be a very, very deep recession and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those three taken together create an opportunity to talk about, what would it look like to do things genuinely differently? And, of course, it’s not gonna be perfect and it may turn out to be incremental and it may not be what one would hope for. But I feel like this is the first time in a very long time that you see people, you know, serious journalists asking about, you know, “Couldn’t things be genuinely, radically different?”
BILL MOYERS: Your essays convinced me some time ago that you think a lot and think hard about what it means to be a citizen—
REBECCA GORDON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: and a patriot in this republic of ours. Have you lost faith in the basic integrity of our electoral process? Because in the past ten years, 25 states have imposed new restrictions on voting. This troubles you, doesn’t it?
REBECCA GORDON: Oh, it troubles me tremendously. And I’m not going to argue that the electoral process is the only way in which citizens can and should participate in our governments. I think there are lots of other ways that we participate, whether it’s on the streets, or through organizing, through building organizations that have the power to affect what government does. All of those things are important. But when people in my lifetime have died for the right to vote, I’m not gonna kick that to the curb and say, “Well, I don’t care about that.” I– you know, I– electoral organizing is not my favorite kind of organizing because you have to touch many, many, many people very lightly rather than touching a smaller number of people more profoundly. But in 2016, my partner and I spent two months in Nevada, working with UNITE HERE! which is the hospitality workers union, and is one of the most effective unions at organizing especially recent immigrants, women of color. And they run the best electoral campaigns I have ever seen in terms of not wasting people’s time, and in terms of effectiveness. I got to be one of the data nerds, they call us. My job was to do a lotta stuff with spreadsheets, keep track of our number of contacts every day, and the number of identified voters, and so forth. And also design the maps that people were going to be walking with. So, all of which is to say and that was like a –really was a 12 to 18 hour a day job, seven days a week, ’cause that’s what campaign mode is like. And I don’t know how many more of those this old lady has in her. But I will be working with them again starting in August on the 2020 campaign. So, yes. I have not lost faith. But we have to fight for the right of people to vote.
BILL MOYERS: So what do your students say when you stand in front of them and challenge them? And you say, “It’s not just theory and academic principle or heroic ideals. If you want to change America, go out and change the electoral college”? Do they go blank?
REBECCA GORDON: They probably do. I’ll tell you– I teach a lot of courses that are what are called community engaged learning, which means that students work in local community-based organizations. And the things that we study in class, if it works well, give them some theoretical tools to interpret the experiences that they’re having out there in the field. And then what they learn by working with community organizations is something they can’t learn in a classroom. But it helps to give some real texture to the theory we study in class. So that’s the place where I start is, you’ve been working with UNITE HERE! as they’ve been– boycotting, encouraging people not to stay at the Marriott Hotel, for example. So, you know, and you’ve learned how to use a bullhorn and how to hand out flyers to people who don’t want them. And what’s really great is that where I teach, the University of San Francisco, has one of the most diverse student populations in the country. Over half my students are young people of color. A lot of them are Latinx or African American are smaller number, Filipino, many students from a variety of Asian communities, and then a good sprinkling of people from other countries, which is great ’cause it gives more perspective. So, I’m not mostly talking to people for whom the system is already working well. So, in some ways, that makes it easier to suggest they might want to change things. But in other ways, it makes it much harder to think that that change might involve something as obscure and boring as the electoral college as you’re saying, right? One thing I do often is I teach Danielle Allen’s book OUR DECLARATION. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but—
BILL MOYERS: Very much so.
REBECCA GORDON: Yeah, I thought you might be, yeah. And it’s really great, because a lot of them are skeptical and don’t even buy her argument that this is a document they can actually take for themselves and find useful for themselves. But the conversations that we have in that context are really, really interesting. And I think that probably they won’t really want to work on an issue like the electoral college in the big hurry. But that’s okay. Their job is to work on Black Lives Matter at this point. And Black Lives Matter’s job is, in some ways, to look at, “Okay, what are the levers that we can push that are actually gonna give us the things we need in the long run?” Not easy.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever tell them now that sooner than later they’ve got to leave the streets, as inspiring as that action is, and go to Nevada and organize data and—
REBECCA GORDON: Oh yeah, they know that. They–
BILL MOYERS: –and knock on doors? Like you have done. Doing what’s necessary to elect somebody to office.
REBECCA GORDON: Oh yeah, of course. Absolutely. And, you know, the thing is it’s so interesting. Before 2016, they could not be bothered to vote. I taught the day after Trump was elected. And I had a student literally in my arms crying because she was so terrified about what was gonna happen to her family—
BILL MOYERS: Is she
REBECCA GORDON: –under Trump.
BILL MOYERS: –African American?
REBECCA GORDON: She was an immigrant, actually. And her parents were undocumented. And she was just terrified. And a young man came up and asked me– a young white guy who had sat in the back of the row and was kind of, you know, your basic C student. He’s on the baseball team. Nice guy, but, you know, not really engaged. And after the class, he said, “You know, I don’t want to insult anyone. But can you explain to me why that girl was crying?” And I said, “Well, did you vote?” And he said, “Well, no.” He said, “You know, my life is set out. When I graduate, I’m gonna go to work for my uncle in this hotel. And I’m gonna have, you know, everything is all set for me. And really who’s president of the United States doesn’t make any difference in my life.” And I said to him, “Well, in her life, it makes all the difference.” And I tried to explain to him why that might be. And it was the first time he ever thought about voting. But I have to tell you, the next midterm election in 2018, different group of students, but, you know, basically the same sort of– the same demographic bunch. They were all about the election. They were registering to vote. They were out on campus registering students to vote. They were all about it. So my feeling is that the election of Trump actually was the first time ever that some of these students saw that who you vote for matters. And the other thing that I’m realizing is these students I’m teaching now in their formative years, there was a Black man who was president of the United States. And that in a sense was their picture of a normal president.
BILL MOYERS: So let me play for our audience something Donald Trump said in 2019 in a speech to young conservatives.
DONALD TRUMP: “And then those illegals get out and vote, because they vote anyway. Don’t kid yourself. Those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged. You’ve got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times not just twice, not just three times. They vote — it’s like a circle. They come back. They put a new hat on. They come back. They put a new shirt on. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on? It’s a rigged deal.”
BILL MOYERS: Are your students worried about that kind of malicious rhetoric this year?
REBECCA GORDON: Absolutely, they are. Many of them have parents who are undocumented. And they are very worried about their parents. Many of them are DACA recipients. And they’re worried about their own futures. But yes, they are worried that the very process of voting may not be safe for them. And here in California, we have a history of voter intimidation, specifically of people carrying signs in Spanish warning people that voter fraud is a federal offense. And standing 101 feet away from the polling place to intimidate people. So yes, they are worried. And they know it can happen. And they’re also young, which means they’re brave, right? They still have (a lot of them) that sense that we really can’t we’re immortal. I don’t know how old I was when I first realized that wasn’t true. Probably 20, 22? But a lot of them are younger than that. So they’re still immortal. So, they’ll do things even if they’re dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: How are you gonna advise them to celebrate the Fourth of July?
REBECCA GORDON: I might tell them to read Frederick Douglass’ famous address about the Fourth of July in which he argues that this is nothing for him and his people to celebrate. What I am trying to do is educate people to believe that it is important to be citizens. Citizens of the country they live in, but also citizens of the world. And that if they want to spend their Fourth of July thinking about, “What does it mean to me to be a citizen? What do I have to think about? How do I have to act?” I think that’s a great way to celebrate the Fourth of July. And maybe some decent coleslaw.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I wish you and your partner a wonderful Fourth of July. Thank you very much for sharing your time and your insights with me.
REBECCA GORDON: Oh, Bill, thank you. This was wonderful. I really enjoyed it.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. Until next time, read Frederick Douglass’ famous speech WHAT TO THE SLAVE IS THE FOURTH OF JULY and more on James Cone at Billmoyers.com.