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From Black Lives Matter to January 6, how ‘Black grief’ and ‘white grievance’ shape our politics
20th March 2024 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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The last decade has seen the growth of two political movements that appear diametrically opposed: the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Donald Trump.  But as our guest on this episode explains, these two movements are linked, and can only be understood together. 

On this episode, Dan Richards talks with political scientist Juliet Hooker about how these movements are just the most recent evolution of two of the most powerful forces in American politics — what she describes as “Black grief” and “white grievance.” 

Hooker’s new book, “Black Grief/White Grievance: The Politics of Loss,” explores how these two forces have related to each other throughout American history, what they can teach us about how to build a better democracy, and what they tell us about how feelings of loss shape not only our psyches but our politics.

Learn more about and purchase “Black Grief/White Grievance: The Politics of Loss”

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts

Learn more about “Humans in Public Health,” a podcast from the Brown University School of Public Health

Transcripts

DAN RICHARDS: Hey there. If you like Trending Globally, I want to recommend another show I think you'll really enjoy. It's called Humans in Public Health. The field of public health has gotten a lot of attention over the last four years, but public health is about much more than infectious disease. It includes our legal and health care systems, climate change, substance use, online misinformation, and the food we eat. On each episode of Humans in Public Health, award winning journalist, Megan Hall, explores these topics with guests from Brown's School of Public Health.

The latest episode which we'll link to in the show notes, looks at how noise pollution and hearing loss are affecting the lives of America's truck drivers. You can listen to that and every other episode by subscribing to Humans in Public Health wherever you get your podcasts. All right. On with our show. From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards.

The last decade in US politics will be remembered for many things. But there are two phenomena that historians, politicians, and activists will be thinking about and analyzing for a long, long time. Trends that are both diametrically opposed, and in some ways deeply intertwined. I'm talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Donald Trump. As our guest on this episode explains, they represent the recent evolution of two of the most powerful and long standing forces in our politics, Black grief and white grievance.

JULIET HOOKER: These were two responses to loss that reflected the uneven distribution of loss in US democracy.

DAN RICHARDS: Juliet Hooker, is a political scientist at Brown and author of Black Grief, White Grievance the Politics of Loss. And on this episode, you'll hear from her about how these two forces shape our politics, how they relate to each other, and what they both can teach us about the range of ways that loss shapes not only our psyches, but our politics. Juliet started writing what would become this book almost a decade ago, in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

JULIET HOOKER: It was after the Ferguson uprising. And those images that we all saw of folks going out into the streets and protesting after the killing of Michael Brown, and his body being left in the street.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

- Hands up. Don't shoot.

- Michael Brown had a right to live. He had a right to see another--

[END PLAYBACK]

And then that hugely militarized police response.

[VIDEO PLAYBACK]

[GUNSHOTS]

- For several nights this week, this was Ferguson, Missouri. Tanks, combat gear, assault rifles.

[GUNSHOTS]

- Yeah.

- You are in the streets blocking the roadway. You are unlawfully assembled.

[END PLAYBACK]

The grief and anger that people were feeling was being responded to in this very actually violent way. And there were also these ways in which even some Black elected officials at the time were criticizing the protesters for not protesting civilly in the way that the civil rights movement activists had. And so it raised for me all of these questions about, well, what are the ways in which Black people are allowed to mobilize around loss? What are the constraints on protests? How do they turn their grief into activism?

[THEME MUSIC]

DAN RICHARDS: At the same time another, political movement was growing.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

- I am officially running--

[CHEERING]

--for President of the United States.

[CHEERING]

DAN RICHARDS: Trump's campaign was in many ways defined by anger, frustration, and race-based grievances. At his rallies and in his speeches, Trump often painted a picture of America as a white country that was under siege.

- Want build the wall. We need the wall. We have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out.

- Donald J. Trump, is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

- Donald Trump demurred when asked whether he'd condemn supportive comments from former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke.

- Anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.

DAN RICHARDS: Underneath this anger, Juliette saw something. That there was a sense of loss being expressed in the Trump movement. But not the kind of loss and grieving that she observed in the Black Lives Matter movement, something very different was going on. These differences brought up questions for Juliette about who in America is allowed to experience loss, and in what ways, and how this all affects our politics.

And if there was any doubt about the power of these forces in American society, the end of the Trump presidency hammered them home. The pandemic revealed the deadly nature of systemic racism in America, as Black Americans were dying at significantly higher rates than white Americans. And then, in the final year of the Trump presidency--

JULIET HOOKER: In Twenty Twenty, we had the racial justice protests after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

[CHEERING]

And then we had the January 6 insurrection.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

- We're going to walk down to the Capitol.

[CHEERING]

[END PLAYBACK]

And so it seemed like these moments kept recurring, and in a way sort of affirming the arguments I was making in the book

DAN RICHARDS: Before we get into those arguments, let's take a step back and define these two political forces as Juliet does in her book. Let's start with white grievance.

JULIET HOOKER: What I call white grievance is this sense of displacement of loss that people feel when they feel like they are not at the center of US politics. Right, that they're being displaced, and then they respond with grievance.

DAN RICHARDS: Since about the Nineteen Sixties and especially, since the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, white Americans have been asked to share more of their political power than they historically had to. The result, many white Americans from before the civil rights movement right up through to today.

JULIET HOOKER: They feel like they are the victims, they are aggrieved. And anytime there's any kind of racial progress, any kind of progress towards more equality, they feel like that is a loss for them.

DAN RICHARDS: From anti-immigrant movements like the John Birch Society, to the Refrain Make America Great Again, to the way so many Trump supporters believed that in Twenty Twenty the election had been stolen from them. The sense that something unjust has happened to white people in the last half century in America. That something has been taken away that they deserve to get back. It's at the core of right wing politics today.

JULIET HOOKER: And there is a sense of a backlash, that there is something that has gone wrong that needs to be attended to.

DAN RICHARDS: So these feelings come out of a perceived sense of loss, as you describe, of status, of political power. Why is anger so wrapped up in this feeling of loss as you describe? We're going to talk about loss in a bunch of different contexts today, but is anger and frustration inherent to the way white America processes losing this type of status?

JULIET HOOKER: So I think, first of all, I want to say, I don't think that all white people have historically or today responded with grievance, but I think many have. And I think that yes, I think, that those who feel displaced and aggrieved have often responded with rage.

[THEME MUSIC]

DAN RICHARDS: Juliet's book is subtitled the politics of loss, and how people manage feelings of loss, whether that is loss based on reality or just a perception of loss. That plays a huge role in how our society functions or doesn't. And one reason for that is that--

JULIET HOOKER: Loss is actually central to democracy. We tend to think about democracy as being about empowerment. You go out there, you mobilize with other people, and you get your preferred policy enacted. But in fact, in democracy, if we're having these debates about policy, if you win, that means somebody else lost. So loss is as central to democracy as winning. And so in a way, January 6 came to confirm that sense that losing is central. And if we don't lose well, we really threaten the very foundations of democracy.

[THEME MUSIC]

DAN RICHARDS: I want to talk more about loss and the politics of loss especially, as it relates to the other half of the dichotomy you pose in the book, which is of course Black grief. But let's stay with white grievance for a moment. Something that you bring up in the book is that, when we think of white grievance as we were just expressing, I think a lot of people might have a sense of visibly angry, frustrated, white person, maybe even our former president might come to mind. But you also write that white grievance doesn't have to look necessarily so visibly angry, that it takes other forms in our society. What do you mean by that? How else can white grievance look?

JULIET HOOKER: Yeah. Grievance has become so central, I think, to the right wing that we tend to associate it with them. But I think, there's another concept that I use in the book, which is kind of white refusal. And by that I'm referring to the refusal to sometimes agree to changes that would make the US more equitable, but that would require the loss of certain material or other kinds of privileges.

I think you also can see it when public policy is being discussed and how people react to changes that are meant to open up opportunities that were previously not available. So if you think about attempts to build, for example, affordable housing. And when people reject those because they want to hold on to their property values, but there's a whole history of how race has shaped the ability to own homes in this country, how that has been a major driver of wealth inequality, and how it was the result of state policy.

And so when we try to think about things like affordable housing or trying to open up these ways in which people in the US are able to move up the socioeconomic ladder, those kinds of things can generate a lot of pushback, even if it's not somebody yelling, or screaming, or engaging in violence.

DAN RICHARDS: Is it almost a parallel to how we maybe should think about racism? That it's not always this individual act of bigotry, and that there's a systemic foundation to it, and that this grievance doesn't have to always just be some caricatured yelling old man on Fox.

JULIET HOOKER: Absolutely. I mean it's not just-- yes, it sometimes is let's say, the folks at the Unite the Right Rally in Charleston in Twenty Seventeen, but it's also the folks now who are very concerned, for example, about diversity, equity, and inclusion, about in corporations, in universities, people who argue that our students are snowflakes because they require us to think about their pronouns. That there are all of these ways in which people, I think, can react to changes that are aimed at recognizing that the US is a diverse democracy that I think are not simply the caricature that you were mentioning.

DAN RICHARDS: Something that has been reported on and written about extensively over the last decade has been sort of the economic suffering of the white working class in post-industrial America, rural America. And some people who see this type of coverage and maybe see it in their own lives depending on where they live, and say I deserve to be angry. This I really did get screwed. This isn't just me unfairly annoyed that there's more diversity at Harvard, my community really is suffering. What would you say to a person who is kind of seeing that type of damage, and is feeling angry? Are they justified to feel angry, or is there another way they should-- someone should be thinking about those types of trends?

JULIET HOOKER: What I say in the book is that it all depends on how you frame the loss. Absolutely, there have been losses that white working class people have been suffering with the changes in the economy, globalization, et cetera, but they're not the only ones. So I think we can recognize those losses and talk about how economic inequality as a whole in the United States is a huge problem. And that it's very difficult to have a functioning democracy when you have the exploding levels of inequality that we have, and when you have so many people who feel like they cannot live a life with dignity.

And I think that when you frame it in those ways, what you're doing is saying, this is a problem that we all need to attend to that affects us all. But I think when you frame it as, I've been displaced and therefore, I'm going to blame immigrants, or I'm going to support political projects that, I think, are going to make me and my group dominant, then that, I think, is a problem for democracy. Whereas if you frame the loss as something that is an issue that is affecting the whole political community, that's a different thing.

I think the other thing that I would say about this is we also need to be careful because we tend to focus on the white working class. But when you look, for example, at Trump voters, Trump supporters, they're from across the economic spectrum. And a lot of the people who feel very aggrieved, who feel like they are losing things, aren't necessarily the people who are the most economically precarious.

DAN RICHARDS: Let's turn to the other central concept of your book, which is Black grief. How do you define Black grief?

JULIET HOOKER: One of the things that I write about is this long, historical pattern of a violent death in Black communities becoming the catalyst for political mobilization. So by Black grief what I mean is this long standing historical pattern where Black communities have mobilized in response to white violence, to Black death. And in the process of these public spectacles of mourning, they have become activists and tried to get justice for their dead, and then this becomes the catalyst for transformations in US democracy. So iconic example of this is the funeral of Emmett Till.

DAN RICHARDS: In Nineteen Fifty-Five, Emmett Till, a Black, 14-year-old boy from Chicago was visiting his family in Mississippi. While there he was accused of whistling at a white woman, he was tortured, and lynched by the woman's husband and some of his friends. After his death, his body was brought back to Chicago. And

JULIET HOOKER: His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, decides to have this open casket funeral in Chicago that draws thousands of people to come and see his body. There are images that circulate of his disfigured body. And this becomes this moment that really mobilizes people into seeing that lynching was ongoing, that it was an ongoing problem, and this issue of anti-Black violence. And so it's credited with being a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

DAN RICHARDS: Emmett Till's death, at the same time that it was being mourned over by his family and loved ones, was used to advance the civil rights movement on the national stage. This combination of personal grief and public action is a combination and perhaps dissonance that Black Americans still often find themselves navigating.

JULIET HOOKER: The movement for Black Lives is another example of these moments when you have these absolutely tragic and violent killing of Black people. And then the mobilization of Black communities to mourn their dead, to seek justice for their dead then become these larger occasions that can often lead to transformations in the broader political community.

[THEME MUSIC]

DAN RICHARDS: And a key part of the centrality of Black grief in our politics as you explain is how grief is transformed into political action by grieving Black Americans so often. And I feel like when you first hear that thought, one might think, I maybe had thought like, what a silver lining to a tragic thing? But you write how there's really a tremendous cost to this pattern. What are the issues you see with this pattern?

JULIET HOOKER: There are a number of them. But one of them is, I think, that one thing that we should think about when we look at this is, yes, these people are heroic, they're engaging in this amazing activism, and taking these strategies, and using them to try to do something for the rest of the community. But there is also the enormous cost that goes from not being able to simply grieve the loss of a loved one and having to become an activist. The other thing is, I think, that it has become almost an expectation that this is how Black people will respond over and over to loss.

DAN RICHARDS: One moment that epitomizes this dynamic came in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Twenty Twenty.

JULIET HOOKER: This was the rare case in which the police killing of a Black person actually resulted in a conviction. And after the verdict, both the Mayor of Minneapolis and then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, thanked Floyd for his sacrifice.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

- So again, thank you, George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice.

[END PLAYBACK]

And that to me was-- and I think a lot of people also felt like it was so problematic. And it was problematic because Floyd wasn't an activist, he was just trying to live his life, and he was killed. It becomes almost this expectation that this will be the work of democracy that Black people will do.

DAN RICHARDS: The pressure to turn grief over racialized violence into something quote, "Productive," it has profound tolls on Black Americans. There are individual psychological tolls, but it also takes a toll in perhaps more subtle ways on our politics, which brought us to another key concept of Juliette's book, refusal.

JULIET HOOKER: So I use the concept of refusal to talk about how I think the alternative isn't that we should become apolitical and withdraw from politics, but to refuse that script of sacrifice for the sake of US democracy. We end up creating these patterns that need to be refused. These expectations that the only way in which people will see some of the really unjust ways in which people are suffering is if we offer up their pain, and then you will have a response. So that's a little bit of what I mean by refusing that script and finding other ways to do activism, and to try to make their communities better without engaging in that.

DAN RICHARDS: This relates to another point in your book, which is that perhaps American society is not as democratic, lowercase d, democratic as many of us have been taught. That our democracy maybe isn't something, that is fundamentally sound, and can simply be repaired by kind of tinkering around the edges with a little bit more activism, and a little bit more involvement, which we largely rely on Black Americans to do. And then maybe some of that refusal also involves refusing that narrative. And I guess I wonder as a scholar of politics and lowercase d, democracy, how do you think about democracy in America?

JULIET HOOKER: So I think that depends on where you're sitting, if you're-- I mean, one of the things that I say in the book is that if you're thinking about this question from the perspective of Black communities in the United States, the US still isn't a full multiracial democracy because there's still so many barriers. And I'm talking here not about all the other things we could talk about in terms of economics or anything else, but simply about politics.

The ways in which African-Americans and other people of color don't have the same kind of representation because of gerrymandering or because of all the ways in which their ability to cast their vote is restricted by voter ID laws, by having one polling station in your whole community as opposed to other communities that have multiple ones, or-- there are all these ways in which the ability to exercise citizenship is still not equally distributed.

And so I think there are all of these ways in which if we stick with this idea that the way to respond to the Trump presidency and to what is happening in the GOP right now in terms of their acquiescence to him is simply to say, oh, just need to get back to normal. That's a problem because there were a lot of problems with normal. And this is where I think the language of repair can sometimes lead us astray because if you're repairing something, you're just kind of tinkering around the edges because it's basically fine and you just want to get it working again. But actually, there are parts of it that were and are pretty broken.

[THEME MUSIC]

DAN RICHARDS: So if getting back to normal in Juliette's eyes is not really the path we might want to take, what's the alternative?

JULIET HOOKER: So instead, I think, we need to take this as an opportunity to think about, how do we actually think expansively and boldly about making U.S democracy actually really something that people feel that they can really participate and have a stake in?

DAN RICHARDS: One way to consider throwing out the scripts is by asking white Americans to get more comfortable with something they have historically been very uncomfortable with, losing. Losing Status, losing political power, and instead, seeing that loss as part of their role in being good Democratic citizens.

JULIET HOOKER: Part of what needs to happen is that whites as a group need to learn to accept legitimate loss. That one of the things that happens in democracy and that is actually central to democracy is that we all lose, nobody can win all the time.

DAN RICHARDS: We should also all be asking ourselves, when it comes to building a stronger democracy, what are we doing to help that project?

JULIET HOOKER: When we look at these activists who are doing this kind of heroic work, what we need to think about is not are they doing their activism in just the right way so that I will be moved? But rather what we need to ask ourselves is, what are my obligations? So what are the things that I can do rather than expecting these folks to do all of the work of transforming the way we think about either racism, sexism, whatever the case might be.

DAN RICHARDS: I want to look a little bit at some of these ideas in the context of our politics right now. And we're at the beginning of what is going to be a bruising election year for everyone involved. But I think there are also some interesting points that I'm curious to hear your thoughts on in terms of these two forces of Black grief and white grievance.

One is, if we go back to Donald Trump, who on one hand is this figurehead of white grievance in so many ways. But also over the last year, according to a number of polls his standing has improved among certain Black and LatinX voters. And I wonder what you make of that. Is it reflecting something that he is attracting in non-white voters? And how does that fit with your understanding of these issues?

JULIET HOOKER: One of the things that is attractive about Trump, and about his rhetoric, and about the discourse of white grievance in general is this ability to participate in domination. That there is a way in which the anti-immigrant language, the dehumanizing language of other people can give people who feel like they're not in that group, and that they're part of the group that's actually dominant over those people. That it gives people a sense of pleasure, of self-worth. And I think that this works in a variety of ways. I mean, if you think about white women, there's a sense in which Trump is, of course, quite sexist.

DAN RICHARDS: And yet--

JULIET HOOKER: There are a lot of women who follow him, and are very attracted to that. So how do we make sense of that? Well, historically, white women have participated in projects of white supremacy because it gives them the ability to participate in the domination of racial others who are subordinate, even if they are not equal with white men in this project that they're participating in.

And I think we can do a similar analysis when we think about in particular Black and Latino men, who might be attracted to the gender politics, and to the sort of misogyny because they are attracted to that particular project. And I talk about white grievance as being gendered in these particular ways and being complicated. And yeah, I think, we need to have an intersectional analysis that can make sense of why people would be drawn to this project even as the rhetoric seems like it shouldn't be attractive to them because it on some aspect of their identity, they are part of the groups that are being dehumanized. But on these other dimensions, they are feeling empowered.

DAN RICHARDS: So we're going into an election year in America, where we have the two front runner candidates. One actively refused to accept the loss of the last election, the other is pretty clearly going to be very dependent on the support of Black Americans, and especially Black women if he is to have any sort of fighting chance of winning. It feels like your entire book can apply in different ways to this race. And how are you thinking about the election year ahead?

JULIET HOOKER: I think it's a very challenging and scary time. I think the things that I am trying to keep in mind is that, while white backlash, white grievance has been a recurring pattern in US history, it's also the case that we're not doomed necessarily to repeat it. That if there is mobilization that we don't have to go down an authoritarian path, but that it will take people mobilizing and it will take people being willing to say, I will not stand with this project, and I will oppose it.

The other thing that, I think, is really important is to not demonize the people who are doing the kind of activism and bringing the kind of energy to democracy just because we might think they're too radical, or they're too out there. I mean, I'm thinking here about young people and folks like climate activists, who sometimes people are like, oh, they're asking for too much. It's always too much too fast.

DAN RICHARDS: Right. And they're going to incite backlash or they're going to--

JULIET HOOKER: Yeah. And I think those are the folks that give me hope. And I think for better and for worse, there are a lot of people mobilized right now.

[THEME MUSIC]

For example, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, there are a lot of people fighting really hard to gain back a right that we had that we have now lost. And it sucks that that is what people are having to do, but I think giving in to despair and giving up is not an option.

DAN RICHARDS: And maybe also waiting for other people to heroically--

JULIET HOOKER: Exactly. That we can't just rely on the work of those activists, that has to be all our work. If we all care about US democracy, we all have to be trying to save it. If it really is, and I think it really is in serious danger. It's all of us in the places that we find ourselves, we also have to try to make the kind of changes that will make democracy work.

DAN RICHARDS: Juliet Hooker, thank you so much for coming back on to Trending Globally.

JULIET HOOKER: Thanks for having me.

[THEME MUSIC]

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. Our engineer is Eric Emma. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, and additional music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you want to learn more about and purchase Juliet Hooker's book, you can find links to it in our show notes. And if you like our show, please hit the like and follow button wherever you listen to podcasts so that you never miss an episode. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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