History, culture, and policy all influence the state of Black America and democracy today, HKS faculty explain

February 23, 2024


By Nora Delaney | Harvard Kennedy School
February 23, 2024

Attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the United States, worries about the state of American democracy, and a range of complex issues affecting Black communities were top of mind during a recent JFK Jr. Forum on the state of Black America. The Institute of Politics (IOP) event featured Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Cornell William Brooks, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Sandra Susan Smith and was moderated by IOP Director Setti Warren.

Warren set the stage, noting that it is a “critical time in America,” with a national conversation about the state of American democracy and fears of its collapse. He asked Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at HKS and director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, to explore the difference between past African American-led pro-democracy and civil rights movements and what we are seeing today.

“We are facing uncharted waters,” Muhammad said. “By that, I mean every pro-democracy movement in this country has largely been modeled by or led by African Americans. That is just a consequence of the size of the most excluded population, save for women writ large. … Over the past 60 years, we could arguably say, we were moving towards a healthier, more expansive, and inclusive multiracial democracy that peaked with Barack Obama's election.”

However, since then, Muhammad said, the country has regressed: “It looks like we have the underpinnings of textbook fascism.” The Voting Rights Act has been gutted and voter suppression activity has grown exponentially, and the country has seen the political ascendency of Donald Trump, who touted the birther conspiracy and attempted to criminalize Black resistance movements, such as Black Lives Matter. Today, Muhammad said, we are seeing “the absolute erasure of truth and education in this country,” including bills to ban books, and attacks on DEI efforts and education on race (including, specifically, an HKS course that Muhammad and Smith created).

“It is not the case, in my opinion, that this country has ever been able to accept the role of Black people included in this democracy at a scale that would not fundamentally threaten what America thinks of itself,” Muhammad said.

Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Kennedy School, considered how the state of Black America reflects the state of American democracy broadly. Brooks, a former president and CEO of the NAACP, referred to the National Urban League’s long-running annual State of Black America Report. “We are in a moment where people question whether there should be a State of Black America report,” he said. “Should we speak in racially specific terms and with analytic granularity about Black people as such?”

“When we talk about the state of Black America, we are talking about the state of America and the state of this democracy. ... When Black people’s lives are in peril, when Black people’s access to the ballot box is in peril, so is the country.”

Brooks said we are seeing voter suppression that affects Black people—and it also affects young people, disabled people, and others. “The harms perpetuated against Black people are not just illustrative, they are predictive.” And when it comes to attacks on DEI, Brooks said these are a proxy: “It’s not merely DEI that is being weaponized; it is Blackness itself that is being weaponized.” For our democracy to function, we have to have hard conversations, he said. “We have to talk about the state of Black America to understand the state of America.”

Warren asked Sandra Susan Smith to speak about policy—and the successes and failures of policy in supporting Black people in the United States. Smith, a sociologist, is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. She spoke about the ways in which culture underpins policy failures.

“We fail to grapple with the cultures that lie underneath,” she said. “In a context where you are trying to achieve racial equity, you have to take into consideration the history of race and racism, but we live in a culture of denial. How do you achieve equity if you are denying the fact of—or erasing a history of—poor treatment and not addressing it?”

Smith said that our culture tends to be shortsighted: “You have to engage with the long view in mind.” This means, she said, “We need restorative justice. We need to hold people accountable in real ways, in true ways.” Smith said we need to build bonds of trust and bring people back into community, but instead we have a punitive culture “and especially so when Black people are involved.... We need to be attentive to who is benefiting from policies and pay attention to this over time.” More often white people benefit, and that “speaks to a culture that benefits whiteness.”

“Where I get hope,” Smith said, “is where I see examples in communities of color of people taking control of their situation and creating solutions for themselves.” Smith provided an example of maternal deaths among Black women: Black women die in childbirth at higher rates than other demographic groups in the United States, but we are now seeing Black women, especially in the South, opening their own birthing centers to improve care. Another example she gave was community action in the criminal legal system: bail funds, participatory defense, and court watching.

“What we see on the ground happening is people organizing in communities,” she said. “When people get involved in any specific case, it has a ripple effect. They join with others and bring other people into the process. … All of a sudden, ‘We the people’ become the people in the communities who were never considered to be the people. … That’s what I’m inspired by.”