By Theodore R. Johnson Marcia Chatelain, Kenisha Grant, Ted Johnson, and Mark Whitaker discuss the history of the Great Migration and how it reverberates in mass incarceration and voter suppression today.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Throughout the 20th century, six million African Americans fled the Jim Crow South in an exodus called the Great Migration.
Georgetown history professor Marcia Chatelain writes in her book South Side Girls about the challenges faced by young women as they resettled in Chicago.
MARCIA CHATELAIN: African Americans leave the South and they find new opportunity in the North. And that’s absolutely true. But if we see this history through the lens of girls and young women, people who are most vulnerable to harm and who do not always have the agency to make the decisions when they arrive in Chicago, what kind of story do we get?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Brennan Center Senior Fellow Ted Johnson looks at the Great Migration story through the prism of criminal justice. He argues that this mass migration presaged an era of mass incarceration.
TED JOHNSON: Why is it that Black folks that are looking for economic opportunity suddenly find themselves imprisoned? Why is it that Black folks running away from racial terrorism find themselves incarcerated? I mean, what is it about moving to pursue the American dream that makes folks intolerable?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: This is Brennan Center LIVE, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. I’m Michael Waldman.
In early March 2019, Johnson and Chatelain sat down with Howard history professor Keneshia Grant and journalist Mark Whitaker to discuss the legacy of the Great Migration today.
This event was part of Carnegie Hall’s citywide festival on migration.
Mark Whitaker: I looked at Black Pittsburgh which, although it was small — the Black community of Pittsburgh was small in relation to Harlem, Chicago, some of the bigger Black communities — in the period that I look at from the late 20s until the early 60s was arguably after Harlem, New York and Chicago, the most influential Black community in a variety of areas. One was journalism where the Pittsburgh Courier during this period was the most influential Black paper.
It had overtaken, at least for a while the Chicago Defender, which was the original great national Black newspaper. The two greatest Negro League teams of the 1930s both came from Pittsburgh — The Crawfords and the Grays. Some of the greatest jazz musicians of that era came from Pittsburgh. Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstein, Mary Lou Williams. And in the middle of all of this, in 1945, August Wilson, our greatest Black playwright was born in Pittsburgh. So to a large extent, my book is a celebration of the accomplishment of this community despite everything they were up against. And I think one of the things that’s interesting about the Great Migration is that you can make broad generalizations about the experience of all the migrants. But I think the actual, the story of the communities in individual cities varies partly on where the migrants came from and the conditions that they encountered when they got there.
In the case of Pittsburgh, one of the things that sort of made for this great period of creativity and entrepreneurship was a lot of the migrants who came from Pittsburgh, particularly in the first waves of the migration came not from the Deep South, but from the northern eastern parts of the South. So some of them came from families that had been freed for generations. Those who came, who were descendants of slaves, often they had been house slaves and therefore had learned to read and read music and play instruments. So they arrived in Pittsburgh with a lot of culture. Second, in the wake of the Gilded Age in Pittsburgh — Carnegie, Andrew Carnegie and the Mellon family and so forth and so on — the public schools in Pittsburgh were very well-funded in the early part of the 20th century and they admitted not in huge numbers, but they admitted Black students.
So a lot of the people I write about in my book, were beneficiaries of that public school system in that era. And the third was that there was a sort of a spirit of entrepreneurship. Pittsburgh was a kind of an industrial town where Black folks, often they were serving the Black community, but were starting businesses and so forth. So that’s what created this renaissance. But then I talk at the end of the book about what destroyed it. I think a lot of the factors here I think are common to a lot of these communities. Number one obviously was industrial decline and the migrants in Pittsburgh had come as migrants did to Chicago and all the other cities for jobs in the factories or other jobs that would depend on the strength of those industries.
And all of a sudden those industries very quickly started to go into decline at a period when white folks could get loans and moved to the suburbs and transition to other kinds of jobs. Black folks were stuck in the city to deal with that. The second in Pittsburgh, but I think in other cities, too, was the disastrous effect of urban renewal, particularly in the early waves of urban renewal where in the case of Pittsburgh, the Hill District — which anybody who has seen August Wilson play knows about the Hill District — was literally torn down to build a civic arena in the late 50s. And in addition to destroying the most historic and vibrant part of the Black community of Pittsburgh, it cut the rest of the Black community off from downtown. And instead they went on to lives and careers elsewhere. And at precisely the point when those Black communities needed leadership, they were left without it.
That’s the story of my book. As I say, largely a celebration of the accomplishments, but then with a really sad, poignant, tragic end.
Keneshia Grant: So my book is primarily trying to kind of reshape the way we think about how Black folks get into the Democratic Party and we use the lens of the Great Migration to say all these people who could not participate in the past go to the North and in the North, they can participate. And so how do they show up in politics? I think they show up as Democrats, because the Democratic Party kind of works hard in the cities I write about to get them out to vote and to have them participate. The first part is about how white politicians respond to the migrants. And so white politicians have varying responses to the migrants. In a place like New York, Mayor La Guardia is interested in having Black folks in his coalition because he is interested in defeating the Democratic Party.
And so he works kind of harder than some of the other mayors to get Black folks on board with his work. In a place like Detroit is not so … Detroit doesn’t have parties in the way that Chicago or New York has parties. And so the people who are running for office in Detroit run campaigns that are very racist, that say these Democrat, these Black people are coming from the South, they are going to integrate your neighborhoods and if you want a pure white neighborhood, you need to vote against these white liberal people. And so kind of how white politicians interact varies from city to city.
And so I wanted it to be the case that we had a book about Black people with Black people in it, who moved to these cities and got elected to office. One of my favorite stories is about a man who lived in New York. His name was Edward Austin Johnson. So Edward Austin Johnson is from Raleigh, North Carolina. In Raleigh, North Carolina, he is elected to the city council in the year 1898 and he is a Republican in that story. He’s in coalition with white Republicans and the white Republicans decide later that year that they don’t want to work together with Black people anymore. Instead, they want to be in coalition with southern white Democrats who were kind of racist at the time, very racist at the time. And so as a part of that, he loses his seat on the city council.
He’s not able to participate in politics in the same way, he’s furious about it. So in 1907, he decides that he wants to move to New York City. And so he does. He moves here, he establishes a law practice, and he gets involved in politics kind of immediately. Ten years later he gets elected as the first person to be seated in the New York state legislature. So if you can imagine in your own life, moving to a place and 10 years later, not only being registered and only being active, but getting elected to office, that’s what these people did.
Marcia Chatelain: My book is called South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. If the title of my book is dedicated to Michelle Obama, the shadow title of my book — which I would say is the “Audacity of Hopelessness” — is a shout out to the president, because one of the things that I thought was really important in writing a book about the experiences of girls and young women during a period of time that is often framed as a triumph, right? African Americans leave the South and they find new opportunity in the North. And that’s absolutely true. But if we see this history through the lens of girls and young women, people who are most vulnerable to harm and who do not always have the agency to make the decisions when they arrive in Chicago, what kind of story do we get? And so I try to be very attentive in the book to the poignancy of the experience of opportunity. I think that my orientation toward looking at the mixed emotions that change in genders comes from the fact that I’m from an immigrant family — that on one hand we moved to another country because there’s so many opportunity.
And then there’s a deep sadness because so much of our experiences about separation, separation from family members, from loved ones, from community and a sense of space. And I wanted to really honor and appreciate that — that girls had mixed emotions about an experience that for their parents, they not only imagined as providing economic benefit or relief from the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan or the opportunity to engage in a leisure culture that was designed for African Americans. All of those things are true and it was deeply difficult. And so the book looks at different responses to the presence of African American girls in Chicago.
I talk about girls at school and the challenges that a lot of African American girls in the south had going to school. So, so much of the great migration rhetoric is the fact that in some cities — Chicago wasn’t one of them — did not have room for African American children. And so the children who actually go to school, the teachers are a little hostile towards them. They really question whether these girls can succeed. And then on the other end of the spectrum are these really talented African American girls who finish high school and maybe even complete college. And they realize that the only economic opportunity for them is domestic work. And so they say, like, “Why did we uproot ourselves for this?”
As a younger historian, when I said that I was writing a book about African American girls, people would say, well, there’s no archive. Where are you going to get their stories? How are we going to get their voices? One of the things I learned from doing this project is that we cannot assume that we are the first one to come up with an idea. So I’m not the first one who ever did research on African American girls, but I am of a generation that actually has a platform to publish about it. And so when I went to the University of Chicago archives, there were beautifully written dissertations about African American girls, but because they were written by women, because they were written by African American women prior to the 1960s, no one published them.
And the other kind of major discovery that I made for the book was I was at Howard University’s archives, and I said, let me go through the papers of E. Franklin Frazier who I think is one of the most important sociologists in the United States. And everything that E. Franklin Frazier thought, he wrote it down and found a way to publish it. But one of the things that I found in his papers is that he had an entire notebook of interviews with African American girls who had participated in the Migration, who were in a special program for girls who had unplanned pregnancies. And what that discovery revealed to me was these voices were always there. The question is what were the social shifts that needed to happen for me to emerge and be able to be a professor and a historian to take those voices seriously?
And I think that the Great Migration is a topic that we can always think that we’ve heard all of the stories, but so much of the storytelling is mediated by the politics of who has the opportunity to write those stories and who we think we should listen to in understanding this period of time.
Mark Whitaker: Ted, tell us what you’ve been up to.
Ted Johnson: Yeah, so I want to approach the topic from the perspective of the work we do at the Brennan Center. Certainly the Brennan Center cares about voting rights and about liberty and national security, but one of our other thrusts is around ending mass incarceration. So we know the story. It’s well known that the United States locks up a lot of folks. 2.3 million people locked up — the highest rate in the world; in real numbers, more people than any other country in the world, including China and India that have a billion more people each than us. It’s also well known that the majority, the disproportionate amount of our prison population are Black folks. Black people make up 13 percent of the nation’s population, but comprise over 33 percent of the prison population. Because these two facts are well known, we tend to conflate them and assume that they’re related.
That is, when the war on drugs was enacted and the prison population spun out of control, there was also aggressive policing of Black communities that, in racially disparate ways, that also led to racial disparities showing up in the prison system. However, the racial disparity in our prison population predates the war on drugs. It goes all the way back to Reconstruction, in 1880 Black people were 2.4 times more likely to be locked up then white people. In 1940, Black folks were five times more likely to be locked up than white people. And today, that’s about six times. So between Reconstruction and the Great Migration, the racial disparity in our prison population, more than doubled, 110 percent increase. Since the Great Migration, since 1940, including the war on drugs into today, that racial disparity has increased by 20 percent. So the Great Migration did more for racial disparity in our prison system than the war on drugs.
So the problem we see in our country today is not a new one. This is baked in and the migration of Black folks to northern cities exacerbated racial disparities that were already existing in our society to a level that we haven’t seen since. So the question though is why? Why is it that Black folks that are looking for economic opportunity suddenly find themselves imprisoned? Why is it that Black folks running away from racial terrorism find themselves incarcerated? What is it about moving to pursue the American dream that makes folks intolerable? The question of course is rooted in racism, but it’s animated, it’s exacerbated by something else and that is immigration, but European immigration. Between 1890 and 1910, you get about 12 million European immigrants — white European immigrants — coming to the United States. Shortly thereafter, you have Black folks moving from the South to the North.
Now when white immigrants came to the United States, they weren’t seen as white folks, like American white people. They were seen as second-class citizens. And so while they’re trying to figure out their way in America, you get a lot of Black people that arrive too. And now they’re arriving in these very congested urban northern cities where the social order’s not been worked out, where the racial hierarchy isn’t as binary as Black and white. It’s sort of white American, those white immigrants, and then those Black people from down South. And so because white European immigrants arrived before Black folks migrated to the North, they were able to establish themselves politically and socially through patronage jobs, law enforcement jobs, that sort of thing that once Black people began to arrive, they were able to leverage those positions to establish their own economic security, security for their own communities.
And the Black migrants bore the brunt of their search for freedom and opportunity. And so you now have white immigrants who are seeking the security of becoming white, like white Americans, and Black migrants bearing the brunt of that. Now this isn’t just punditry, this is what the data actually show. Irish immigrants, for example, were arrested disproportionately in northern cities, but once Black folks began to show up, Irish immigration … the arrest rates for those who immigrated from Ireland decreased while Black folks increased. We saw in Pittsburgh, for example, a 78 percent increase in Black arrests, and they were never for serious things — things like being suspicious, things like being disorderly in public. And so these were petty crimes that wouldn’t send them to jail for a long time, but long enough to miss work tomorrow, which would lead to firing in an overcrowded market.
Now white immigrants were trying to establish themselves in these cities, which put them in competition — economic competition, residential competition, social status competition — with Black migrants. And so every time a Black person was criminalized, they became less competition for an already limited job market. So a 78 percent in Pittsburgh; New York, Detroit, and a few places in Ohio, we see the same thing and it becomes a problem in the North and leads us to where we are today. So what we all have after a 100-year sweep of history here, you have Black people in the South who were enslaved and then freed after the 13th Amendment and then they were criminalized in order to help replace the labor force that slavery had abolished. So the 13th Amendment, I’m sure as you all know, has that little clause in there that says slavery is over, except if you’ve been committed for a crime, then it’s justified. And so Black folks were criminalized there to replace the labor force.
So they get out of there and they come North and then they’re criminalized so that they can’t get into the labor force and present competition to the white migrants, the white immigrants who are now in these cities. So criminalization of Black folks happens to keep us in the labor force in the South and out of the labor force in the North. Taken together, you get mass incarceration, which is terribly racially disparate, and that’s what we’re seeing the effects of today.
Mark Whitaker: So what I found in the Pittsburgh … in studying Pittsburgh, is that what happened, as with Reconstruction where there was a brief period following the Civil War of great advancement politically and socially and culturally and optimism within the Black community, that led to a severe backlash.
A lot of the worst of Jim Crow sort of came into being in the wake of Reconstruction, and that’s what Black folks were escaping. In Pittsburgh, at least, at least for a while, even though things were never great, they were better than they were down South. Even through the Depression, until you get to World War II, when there was a period of real hope that Black folks would be able — as did a lot of these poor migrant groups — by supporting the war going off and fighting for America, proving their patriotism, they would come back and they would finally get a greater measure of equality. In fact, the opposite happened, right? So once you have another period, a brief period of Black progress and optimism, it’s totally shut down after the war.
And that’s when you start to see even worse housing discrimination. You see white flight from urban neighborhoods, the schools get worse. We have the problems with the criminal justice system. So here we are today in the wake of eight years of our first Black president when a lot of people will be saying, the same thing is happening. We finally got to a point in racial progress where we can elect Barack Obama and then we get what we have now with this president. So is this a pattern in American history? And if so, I mean, did you find that in the areas and the cities that you covered? And if so, what do we do about it? Because it suggests that it’s not hopeless. We do have these periods when things move forward, but then we have the savage backlash periods afterwards.
Keneshia Grant: I think the short answer is yes. I had conversations with … I got in trouble in 2016 because I was trying to tell my friends that I thought Donald Trump was going to win. And they looked at me like I had a third eye and I was like, listen, if history is any indication when there is great progress in the United States of America, there is great sadness afterwards. They call the period after the Reconstruction the nadir, Black people did. And so I don’t think that kind of having Donald Trump as a president is a surprise. I think that in my book at least, I saw the same kinds of things happening. So in Chicago for example, there is a mayor, Kelly who is kind of doing okay. And then we have liberal mayors who come after him.
And as soon as a liberal mayor gets elected, is in office, does their thing, supports Black causes, they are immediately followed by conservative mayors who run on these platforms of, “We just had this liberal person who supported Black people. I know that you all out there don’t like this kind of progress that’s happening for Black people. If you are upset by that progress, vote for me.” And members of the white community come out and vote for the more conservative candidate. And so that happens in a number of cases in my city, in the cities that I studied.
Marcia Chatelain: I think yes, that we understand that progress backlash is the kind of force of history. But I think that upon reflection, over the changes in the political climate in the past few years, I think that we are witnessing something that we have yet to really reckon with. And it’s the fact that in the United States we never stick to any of our good ideas. Our very good ideas, there is always some mechanism to abandon them and then minimize them. We never really did Reconstruction. It was a great idea, that the second it showed its return, there was a mechanism to take it away. And we never did the war on poverty. When I show these things to my students, sometimes they say, “Well, why were these people so naive?” And I said they weren’t naive because in their own lifetime they had gone from a Jim Crow regime to seeing the registration of voters in the South.
So of course they think to themselves, by 1980 we won’t have these problems anymore because they saw this rapid change. But again, we never gave school integration a real chance. We never did open housing a good chance. You know right now, the students at Georgetown University are working on a referendum in which they would collect student fees as a reparations gesture towards the fact that the University sold 272 people in 1838. And these young people are being ridiculed and I’m thinking to myself, they have a good idea. Let us see an opportunity. And so all of this is to say that when I look at the ways that people from the Deep South saw something in front of them in the migration process, they saw the good idea of freedom and mobility.
And the second that could be realized even in the smallest way, like a guaranteed wage or maybe a labor union that would accept them as equal members or maybe an opportunity that their child could go to a school that had real books in it, that was taken away. And so I think it’s a cautionary tale to all of us to perhaps invest more in our radical imaginations than our deep desire to suggest that we invalidate any idea that seems new to us because perhaps this is what has been missing this whole time.
Ted Johnson: We believe or the nation believes that there’s not enough America to go around for everyone. And what that really suggests is that there’s not enough power for everyone. And United States history would agree with that assertion. The Compromise of 1877 is when Rutherford B. Hayes is out of Ohio. Republican Samuel Tilden is the Democrat from New York. Tilden wins the popular vote. He’s winning the Electoral College and there are 20 disputed electoral votes. And what the Republican Party says is we will effectively end Reconstruction, we will pull federal troops out of the South, if you allow to shift those 20 electoral votes in dispute to us and allow our Republican candidate, Hayes, to win the election of 1876. And this was agreed to. And Hayes becomes the president on March 4th, 1877 and within a month he pulls federal protections out of the South that ensured Black folks’ right to vote, that ensures Black folks’ right to own property, in exchange for the White House.
So the voting rights that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that the nation effectively went to war over — a million casualties — was undone in exchange for the White House. Now in sociology, they would sort of categorize this generally as the group threat theory. The idea that when an out-group moves in, the in-group feels a threat to their interests and develop negative attitudes about the out-group. And they use the threat to their interests and those negative attitudes as a way to justify the subjugation of those new arrivals. So after Reconstruction when you enfranchise Black folks, there was a threat to the in-group’s interests and that has to be repelled. After the civil rights, Great Society legislation of the 60s, there’s a threat to white social status, agency, whatever, that needs to be put on the back burner.
And the war on drugs becomes a vehicle to criminalize a lot of Black communities. After eight years of a Black president, we get this backlash in the election of Donald Trump, and the idea is that there was a sense of loss. So I mean the word was economic anxiety, but what it really was, was a sense of loss of social status. That something had happened to white people in this country, that they were being put in the back of the line behind immigrants, behind ungrateful Black folks who kneel during when the national anthem is played and they needed to recapture their status, recapture their place in the hierarchy. So the backlash is often about some sense of loss, real or imagined. And I don’t know what the solution is to allow people to feel like America can be expansive and that it’s not a zero-sum game — that you can actually grow the democracy without disenfranchising people in the process.
Mark Whitaker: Because of the Great Migration, because of the fight for the right to vote and so forth, Black folks have acquired a lot of political power. And right now, I think it’s pretty clear that they, for a while now, have been the most reliable part of the Democratic base. But the question is what are they getting in return? And if they’re not getting enough is that because of some structural problem with our politics or is it also a function of Black leadership in terms of settling for what in many cases are symbolic gestures as opposed to real policy changes?
Marcia Chatelain: If we have a vision of an expansive America, then we have to have a vision of an expansive political process. We know that so many people are disenfranchised because of their citizenship status, their age, felony conviction records. Like there are a number of people who are just out of that process. And at the same time, these are also people who are on the ground leading incredible political movements. Like the city of Chicago. If you see the kind of organizing that Black Youth Project 100, all of those young people are not voter eligible.
I think we have to remind people of the power that they have in other capacities because it’s usually in those capacities on the local level. If we look at the civil rights movement, those people weren’t voters either, but they had an ability to organize and through education bring people closer to political processes to get those needs met. So I think it’s a both/and.
Keneshia Grant: I think that the greatest possibility for us to have impact is at the state and local level. And it is most often the case that even for those of us who do participate, we are generally thinking about the presidential election as the most important thing when the truth is, your city council person matters. I think in terms of the national question though, there’s so much that we have to reimagine.
Ted Johnson: So one of the things we work on at the Brennan Center is trying to get more states to adopt automatic voter registration, to do exactly what you’re talking about, which is expand the electorate and get more people involved in the political process. And we’ve had some really good success over the last couple of years. But to your question about Black interests, unfortunately, if history is a guide, the Black interest is never the national interest. And when it is, when we realize racial progress, it’s because it is in the nation’s interest to expand rights to Black folks. So the Civil War didn’t come about because Abraham Lincoln had a moral epiphany about the condition of Black people. He knew that if the union was allowed to break up, that internecine warfare was going to break out in the continental United States in the same way it did Europe. So saving the union — and this is from Lincoln’s words, his own mouth — saving the union was the priority for the Civil War.
If Black folks got freed in the process, good, and I’m happy for it. But let’s just be real pragmatic about why it happened. And the civil rights movement from really from ‘48 to ‘68 and that time period, that progress from the desegregation of the armed forces through to the Fair Housing Act of ’68, you had presidents who realized that being the champions of democracy and liberty and freedom on the world stage, while Black folks were being lynched and disenfranchised wasn’t a good look. And the Russians knew it, too. The Soviets knew it too, because every time we would get on our high horse about democracy, they would say, “And you lynch Negroes.”
Ted Johnson: That’s a hard thing to come back from. And so a lot of civil rights progress benefited from the fact that we were in a cold war with a communist nation that called us hypocrites on the world stage. So the book I’m currently writing is about: How do we find a way to create multiracial solidarity and create racial progress without having to latch a Black interest to something that’s unrelated to Black people? And the idea, at least in my own thinking, is to show that racism is not just about how to subjugate Black people. Racism is a crime of the state against all of us. White Americans get less from their nation when they allow their nation to practice racist things. Black folks get less than less. But none of us benefit from a racist society. We all come up short. And from Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 or the postal strike of 1970, every time a multiracial coalition is formed, the elites — political economic elites — find a way to break that coalition by pulling out the racial cleavages.
Marcia Chatelain: If the young people in this room were super excited about elective office, I think that a progressive campaign to vote in secretaries of state, to have a 50 state ground game in changing voter laws would probably be one of the best movements that could be ignited right now. Not very sexy, not very interesting, but if you get a bunch of people who understand the importance of access to the ballot, then the ballot can actually mean something. And I think that these are the types of strategies that we did see after 2014 with the rise of the movement for Black lives that people were running for local office and young people were running for local office on these really progressive platforms.
And so I think that lowering the voting age, reducing voter suppression is the first step. And then having a popular education-based national movement to teach people about the different ways that they have power. How exciting is that? Is anyone else excited? I’m so excited.
Mark Whitaker: I’m wondering if you all could, since we’re talking about migrations, comment because this is actually something I hear young people debating, which is there is now a reverse migration going on that actually a lot of the Black populations … As the Black populations of the northern cities continue to decline, Black populations are increasing again in the South. Now there are cultural reasons for that. But there is also a debate or an argument that if you are young and mobile and wanting to have a political influence that you potentially could have a far greater political influence moving back to the South or maybe just some other currently red state and trying to make a difference there, rather than staying in a place where you can be active and [inaudible] and so forth, but ultimately it’s not going to change anything in terms of the electoral map. What do you guys think about that?
Ted Johnson: There was a great New York Times op-ed maybe a year or two ago about this very thing. And it was written by a Black woman who was saying, “I think I’m going to move to Atlanta and leave New York.” Her reason was racism is everywhere, but it’s expensive as hell in New York. And so if I’m going to experience racism, I might as well have a lower mortgage and be able to buy a home and stretch my dollar. So a lot of that reverse migration is still about Black folks seeking some sort of economic security that’s very hard to find in bigger cities. And so the motivations aren’t really that different.
Ted Johnson: And the last thing I’ll say is I know a number of folks who have left the North to move to North Carolina, where I’m originally from, to Atlanta, even to Charleston. And they say, “I come to Atlanta, for example, and I see lots of Black middle class people and they’re families and they’re driving these fancy cars and have great jobs and live in these big neighborhoods with million dollar homes, all Black folks, and the only time I ever hear the N-word is on in hip hop songs or sort of in social settings. But I’ve never been called that in these places.” It was in when they lived in Chicago, in New York, where they were actually called the N-word. And so it’s not just a matter of like economic security, but there’s also a social, a community of Blackness in the South that feels different and a relationship across racial lines in the South that comports itself differently than it does in the North.
Marcia Chatelain: The economic motivations for moving is really important. And it’s something that you hear people talking about. I want to go to Atlanta but I don’t want to just go to Atlanta. I want to go and be in Jack and Jill, I want to go in like play with a —
Mark Whitaker: Does everybody know what Jack and Jill is?
Kenisha Grant: Oh, so Jack and Jill is this organization of women who get together, in the North in many instances, so that their Black children will have other Black children to play with. But not just Black children, like upper or middle class Black children. I was not in Jack and Jill, so I don’t, I’m telling you what I heard, right? So I think what I’m trying to say is that they’re looking for community, but a specific type of community that you can’t get unless you necessarily have a large population of Black people. I think the return migration is something that’s really important. That will be book number two hopefully. And I think that that leads to a Stacey Abrams, right? And so we not having conversations about a Black woman being competitive in Georgia, unless the Black people in Georgia’s coalition are big enough to be in coalition with other people and then put her in a position to get elected, except they stole it.
Marcia Chatelain: So in this conversation, I’m going to be myself and be a little bit of a downer. So I think out-migration is fascinating. And I remember in Chicago in the 90s, like my friends’ families are being like, “We’re done with the snow. We’re done with the cold, we’re done with this nonsense. We’re going to Atlanta, we’re going to Atlanta.” But if you remember the mortgage crash and the ways that this out-migration really, really affected the precariously middle class families that were searching, is for me reminiscent of the family that moves to Chicago and is living in a kitchenette with three other families for $25 a week when they shouldn’t be living in those conditions.
So some of these movements, again, are the ways that even when African Americans are well educated and well situated, they are painted into this corner that doesn’t allow for the generational wealth building and sometimes only allows for temporary access to power.
Ted Johnson: Government is responsible, is responsive to organize business interests and economic elites. Period. Now in those instances where you could get elites to line up with what the public wants or what a movement wants, then you would see movement on those issues.
But if the government only responds to those with resources, then it looks pretty dire for the public. And so this is why campaign finance reform is important because if politicians are self-interested folks and they are — as most of us are in various ways — then they care most about reelection. And if their reelection is not contingent on big dollar fundraising, but there is contingent on winning the support of the majority of the populace to include financial support, then perhaps we get a government that’s more responsive to the public than to the moneyed. So it’s not just about being responsive to the people, but also being a liberal democracy where the majority doesn’t overrun the minority just because they have a superordinate numbers.
Kenisha Grant: I think I’m going to continue to be an optimist here and encourage you to think about or look at local elections. And so I kind of come into politics, FAMU — shout out to the Rattlers. And this wonderful, very dynamic friend of mine is running for city commission. His name is Andrew Gillum. He just ran for governor of Florida. And so Andrew Gillum is a student at FAMU. He is running for the city commission against a young white man who is so old in Tallahassee family history that like, one of the main streets where Florida State University is located is named after this kid. And so he’s the heir apparent. He’s going to win. What they don’t recognize is that the kids at FAMU have a plan. We have register to vote, they weren’t paying attention. We stayed home for the first summer election, they weren’t paying attention. We showed up and we voted Andrew Gillum into office.
And so, yes, government in many ways is beholden to business interests, elite interests. Absolutely, especially at the national level. But sometimes there is magic at the local level where you can get your people together, figure out what your win number is, and move folks to the polls to upset some stuff that people might not think you can upset.
Mark Whitaker: What is something you can do, that you can do? I mean that’s not waiting for society to change overnight.
Keneshia Grant: I think you work with the people who live in these places to determine what they want and need and then you just got to figure out like how the systems are organized to create these bad situations and then figure out like how it might be possible to shake that up.
I don’t have a specific answer for you, but that would be my guess. I think you need to be in community with folks who live in the community. I think you need to think about what you want to accomplish. Put those things in order, kind of think about what is possible or not, and then figure out what the systems are and how you attack them.
Ted Johnson: You have to have concrete asks of the community. So you can’t say that we want more economic justice in the hood, because if the mayor were to say, “Okay, let’s do that,” now you don’t have a plan of action. So it has to be very concrete. It could be $15 minimum wage, but it has to be something that a person can actually deliver on instead of a broad, overarching objective. And so the more you’re able to narrow down this is what my community needs and be very specific about those needs, the more likely you are to find an audience or at least be able to negotiate around that specific ask instead of the broader principle. No one, I don’t care, I mean … On both sides of the aisles, both parties will probably say, yes, we want more economic opportunity in the inner city.
But the ideas of how to get that in the inner city are very different on both sides of the aisle. And so just saying economic opportunity isn’t sufficient. You have to have some very specific ask. The other part of this though is that government is meant to … I don’t want to say it’s meant to frustrate you. Government bureaucracy is constructed in a way that is extremely frustrating for people who want to get things done. And so you cannot disengage because the system is constructed for those with resources, not just money, but time. Those are the folks that are able to affect change. And so when you bump up against roadblock after roadblock, it’s easy to say, “These folks ain’t going to listen to us anyway. Let’s go find something else to do.” Don’t disengage but redouble your efforts and be very specific about your demands and fight the good fight and beyond that.
Marcia Chatelai: And remember, everyone has something to offer. Everyone doesn’t have to wait until they’re educated, perfect, eloquent, can talk to 7,000 people. Someone’s good at making sandwiches, someone’s good at babysitting. Someone can make a sign, someone can make a phone call, someone knows how to use social media, everyone has something to offer. And at the end of the day, the thing that really sustains good movements is the capacity for people to do something well, feel empowered and try more things. And within communities that amplify that, people love each other radically. And this is really the key thing that’s going to keep any group that’s in any type of struggle together. A deep love and commitment to what’s being done and an appreciation for what people have to offer.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Thank you for listening to this episode of Brennan Center LIVE, with Georgetown Professor Marcia Chatelain, Howard Professor Keneshia Grant, Ted Johnson of the Brennan Center for Justice, and journalist and television executive Mark Whitaker.
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