Adam Harris

John Lewis and The Third Reconstruction

Air Date: August 10, 2020

Atlantic Magazine staff writer Adam Harris discusses the legacy of John Lewis, The Big Six, and how Americans can pave the path of a new Civil Rights Movement.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome Adam Harris to our broadcast today. He is a staff writer for the Atlantic. Welcome Adam.


HARRIS: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: Adam, do you think the nation will take ownership of John Lewis’ legacy in a way that is not fleeting, but that endures. And what do you think that’s dependent upon, the idea that John Lewis through a Voting Rights Act through a renamed bridge through a cultural shift can be preserved not just in these weeks, but as part of the fiber, the permanent fiber of this country?


HARRIS: Yeah, it was interesting because the day after John Lewis passed I had spoke with several you know, pretty prominent figures from activists, politicians, and they all kind of said that, right, where it’s, we need to make sure that we’re not only honoring him, but we’re emulating him in kind of the way that we’re living. And I think it’s interesting particularly in this moment when the country is having this national reckoning on race you’ve seen kind of bills moving, or at least legislation moving in different states on police brutality. You’ve seen calls for things like you know, shifting zoning laws and, dealing and addressing school segregation. I think that there’s some really practical things that people are thinking about right now in this moment that kind of speak to that legacy that speak to you know, the sort of the quality that John Lewis spent his entire life fighting for him


HEFFNER: And also awareness that he was one of the big six, and he was the last living member of that coalition, which of course included Farmer and King, you know, I wonder how much Lewis thought towards the latter part of his life, that there had to be a succession plan for that big six, you know, folks like Reverend Barber and others who were activated now in the society and discourse, but really during the Obama Administration and for the last three decades have not been as apparent. And, and do you, from your reporting have any sense of a feeling that that was a lapsed, that there was sort of a lapse in the trajectory from Louis and King and farmer on in the decades that followed or not so much?

HARRIS: I don’t know that there was a lapse. I mean, you know, you, you did have kind of activists at the kind of grassroots level that were sort of advancing this sort of equality agenda. So, over the stretch of time from the sixties, the seventies and eighties, you had kind of this, this handed off the baton, but you also had the consistency of John Lewis there and the consistency of some of these kind of elder statesmen, Jesse Jackson, still being there. I think that what we’re saying now is in kind of the aftermath of the Obama election, the Obama presidency, we’ve seen this shift to this Trump era where I think people are more acutely aware of kind of some of the systemic inequities and the need to not only kind of passively address them, but actively work to dismantle some of those systemic issues that kind of lead you to the place we are now as a nation. So I think kind of where you’re seeing people like Stacey Abrams, you’re seeing people like Reverend Barber, that’s sort of not only the fact that they’ve been pushing for this their entire lives, but that people are now listening to what they’ve had to say that these causes, aren’t just something that are happening in a vacuum that people are fighting for, but that America is now waking up to hearing kind of what these activists are doing.


HEFFNER: Right. Adam, whether the term lapse is the correct one, because you did have figures like Jackson and Sharpton, you mentioned and Chisholm and others. But there was a period of either complacency or inactivity when it came to legislative and political reform. If you read Elizabeth Hinton, if you read the history of that period, post Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the continuity in instilling those values permanently in institutions just wasn’t there. I mean there wasn’t the appetite for it, the endurance. And I just, you know, I don’t know if you see that there’s the potential now for a new, big six, but there are those who would say and Khalilah Brown-Dean on my program recently questioned the necessity of having a new King, like whether it’s necessary to have a new King or a new Lewis, but do you think that what you document on a day to day basis in the racist institutions and discourse in our country still to date led by Trump, that we do need a new big six. I mean, it’s, it’s not that we don’t need a multicultural, multiracial coalition, you do, but you still need stewards of that coalition. And I just wonder if you think that the millennial and now really the Gen Z cohort is aware of what might have been missing in the preceding decades between King and Louis and their rise and today,


HARRIS: Yeah. I think that there is …kind of looking at the long scope of history. So from right after the civil war, we were thinking about reconstruction. Then we think about kind of this, this second reconstruction that we had in the 1960s, I think more than a new, big six, we would need a third reconstruction era. And then I that the, that period after you know the rush of civil rights legislation in the sixties was followed by things like the Bakke case in the seventies where you have kind of heavy pushback against gains that are being made in sort of social equality. So I think, you know, you have things like affirmative action that came along and they were, they were positive. And then, you know, you have the Bakke case. And then from 1976 to the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, you kind of have stagnant enrollments at highly selective higher education institutions. I think those are direct reflections of kind of a pushback to those legislative accomplishments. So I don’t know that it’s necessary necessarily a situation where you need a single set of individuals. I think that if you look at kind of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s kind of there are no, there’s no one single kind of leader of that movement. But it’s kind of pervasive now. And you know, you, you see kind of historic support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that what in the same way that John Lewis and Reverend King were trying to basically put America’s systemic issues kind of right in front of people, I think that one of the things that the killing of George Floyd did was put all of the systemic issues, kind of right there for people.

You could see him laying on the ground, you know, an officer pressing his knee into his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. That’s something that you can see it’s visceral. And one of the things that came out of the Kerner commission in the sixties kind of after a wave of protests and riots was essentially, they were they were positing that the people who were more likely to see and witness systemic racism or systemic injustice, were more likely to rebel against it. And that’s something that you saw after during the King era, that’s something that you’re seeing right now. So I don’t know that it’s necessarily leaders that we need as much as kind of a collective understanding. And that’s something that you had after the civil war. That’s something that you had in the sixties.


HEFFNER: Right. And, and this is the exception to the, those other two periods in the sense in the nature of the decentralized response. What can you say so far about the efficacy of the decentralized response in places like the Twin Cities?


HARRIS: Yeah, I think and I actually wouldn’t even limit it to places like the Twin limit it to the Twin Cities. I think if you look at Connecticut which is, which has actually been an interesting kind of an interesting case study so they’ve had over the last several weeks not only protest against police brutalities, but as I mentioned, kind of protest against zoning laws, kind of racist zoning laws that have locked black people into impoverished communities. And that movement had been kind of building over time. And I think that what this moment has allowed has allowed those, those grassroots organizations that have been building that now they have a wave of support. There are people who are now willing to listen to what they had to say. So now when they say that, hey, you know, this is, this police brutality is happening in these areas because black people are locked into these areas because those areas, and then those areas are now over policed. It’s like all of these factors are working together. Those areas where the black people have been locked into have lower housing prices, which means that fewer property tax dollars go to the schools. So it’s kind of an acknowledgement of all of these interlocking factors. And know,


HEFFNER: But, are you confident that a decentralized approach can be successful in cities around the country to address sort of the systemic racist elements, not just in police forces, but on Facebook and on YouTube and looking at the problem more completely then than just what we understand to be the most eye-opening sore, which is the monetization of brutality and the allowance and tolerance of that brutality, but can the decentralized approach work this time around in the media environment in which we exist?


HARRIS: Yeah, I think more than the individual approaches for each city, I think that individual reforms in each city can help. I think that where there actually does need to be kind of leadership on this would be from the federal government. You would need lawmakers who are kind of pushing for pushing for legislation that practically changes institutes kind of a national guidance for this. I mean, for this moment you’re not going to see that coming from the White House. You know, you have like kind of a split legislature right now, so it’s, it’s going to be difficult to find middle ground, but I know that a lot of Democrats who I’ve been speaking with have basically argued that, you know, if we are to take back the Senate chamber you know, if Joe Biden wins in November, then we have a real opportunity to kind of form this new reconstruction that a lot of people have been kind of calling for us, just a reassessment of what it means to, to live up to those founding ideals.


HEFFNER: You are author of the forthcoming, “The State Must Provide.” And I’m wondering what research you’ve done to date and how it has informed the way you view the racial justice and economic fairness mobilization now in response to the corruption, not just from Trump, but the corruption of our police force, the corruption of our education institutions.


HARRIS: Yeah, I think so one of the big themes of my book is that the structures that we recognize today were often put into place or encouraged by federal, state, local leaders. So there is a lot of responsibility coming from, it’s not just to say that, oh, these were things that were happening by private individuals. And they influenced that, that kind of influenced the scope of, of history. You know, this was kind of intentional action. So, I mean, if you’re looking at the higher education system you know, when the federal government decided to make the biggest investment in history and higher education, only white students were allowed to attend those institutions. When they decided that they would do a federal investment for black students by 1890 that investment was about a 10th of what that original one was and the white institutions ended up getting money on top of that. So when you, when you look at the, and then of course black students were locked into a certain subset of institutions for the next, you know, 80, 70 years. So when you look at, just kind of how baked in systemic inequities are, I think that it’s impossible in the same way that, you know, Richard Rothstein showed in “The Color of Law” and, and Ibram Kendi has shown in any number of works. When you look at how public policy has influenced the systemic inequities that we see today, I think that the thing that, that becomes clear to me is that one of the few ways to actually address that is with policy. When I spoke with Elizabeth Warren last April, when she was running for running for president she said, you know federal policy got us into this, you know, federal policy has to get us out. I mean there are very few systemic ways to undo things that are actually written in the law other than making new and better laws.


HEFFNER: Making better laws, and, you know, a Supreme Court decision that was, we often have broached this on the set on the show that was intended to have a cascading effect for desegregation and to provide for a space of American society that is not just legally, but morally and ethically and economically financially desegregated. But that, like you’re saying with those two waves of funding for educational institutions that never really happened. And I’m just wondering from the reporting you’re doing both on the new civil rights movement, if you want to call it Black Lives Matter and also in the political sphere, how necessarily cognizant do we have to be of the vast segregation that you’re alluding to in the form of educational institutions, but that segregation that has persisted and specifically targeting that segregation, it’s something that was a pretty significant argument that Kamala Harris was making in the Democratic debates. And it, and it kind of got diminished as just the single busing issue rather than the pervasive desegregation and segregation issue.

HARRIS: Yeah, I think that I mean, one of the reasons of course that a lot of reporters tend to stay away from things like education is because it it’s really complicated. It’s a very difficult thing to make, to draw just straight narrative from. I think that you know, I think that there’s a pretty broad understanding of how education gets funded in this country. You know, people think, oh, education is related to property taxes. I think that it’s of course more complicated than that. But I think that when you have that kind of base level of understanding, kind of you’re mentioning how cognizant do we need to be. I think what activists have been trying to do for the last several decades is say, hey guys, this is the problem. We’re trying to explain this problem to you as succinctly as we can. And then on top of that, they’ve been trying to persuade lawmakers to kind of dig into the weeds of it all, to say, okay, what are some of the specific policy things that we can tweak in order to make this more equitable? When I, when I speak with people like Rebecca Sibilia at Ed Build or others, they say things like, you know, maybe if we if we kind of reframe this thought right to say, local control of schools does not mean that you get to keep all of your wealth in your school district. It means that you get to make decisions for your school district. But if you think about how systemic inequities have been built into zoning, and they’ve been built into these school districts, if you get to keep all of your money there, then you know, that’s only going to exacerbate these inequalities, people who’ve been locked out of these neighborhoods will not be able to access them. So if you’re looking for equity, then maybe the better thing to do would be to pool that money at a state level or at a region level in order to kind of level the playing field for all students. So I think that when we kind of get into the cognizance is kind of understanding that there needs to be not only the, the piecemeal details, but also kind of a broad reframing of these issues, kind of when you, when you expand what you, you think schools can and should do and how they should operate and how they should be funded. When you think about how policing operates and how it should be funded, what it does. We kind of do that, but broad reframing, I think that’s how you get to that system.


HEFFNER: Adam, how do you think Black Lives Matter activists or some of the leading preachers and political civil rights figures of this era are thinking about the question of segregation today, because there were decades of a movement to desegregate, and now we’re dealing with a problem self segregation, and in many municipalities, it’s not illegal. You know, it’s sort of de jure vs. defacto here in terms of the segregation. Now, when I say segregation, you’re talking, you’re invoking housing with zoning. Education is one piece of it, but I just, you know, so many courageous, civil rights activists and leaders fought segregation. And it seems like they’re not speaking in that direct language about having to fight segregation all over again, when it comes to economic fairness being pretty connected to the question of segregation or self-segregation. And I don’t hear many honest conversations about that, maybe Senator Booker or a few other folks who are sort of open about those questions, but I just wonder how you assess that right now.


HARRIS: Yeah. I think that there is um, when you’re thinking about segregation broadly, I think that that actually permeates to it’s kind of the underlying issue that, that rises up when you’re, when you’re thinking about what Black Lives Matter activists are protesting, what, what modern civil rights activists are protesting, right? If you’re, if you’re saying, you know, we’re over policed that typically means you’re being over policed in the black side of town, that means that, you know, the people who have been segmented off are being over policed, our communities are being over policed. When you, when you think about housing, as you mentioned, kind of this, this kind of wealth gap, the racial wealth gap that disparity is exacerbated by segregation, which has been exacerbated by housing laws. And there ends up being this interesting thing, particularly with education, where, when you start to have conversations about segregation broadly at a high level, people say, oh yeah, you know, I, I don’t like segregation. I would not ever want to have my kids and in segregated schools, but when you start having the conversation of how do we address that, how do we get, you know, white kids and black kids in schools together, how do we get them living together? That becomes a very contentious thing. It’s something that you’ve seen in New York. It’s something that you see in D.C., something you see in city after city, after city. When people talk about top high-level segregation it’s fine. But when, when you start to get into nuts and bolts, your kid’s going to have to go here. Your kid’s going to have to go here, which is how that, that Kamala Harris conversation about busing sort of boil down…


HEFFNER: I want to ask you about Harris. Do you think that in this pandemic reality, her argument would have resonated and she might have had more success in reaching a popular constituency within the party? It, her attacks fell on deaf ears to some, and I think that they ought to resonate with us today in light of the disproportionate harm that this pandemic has caused black and brown communities. And I just wonder if you thought that, you know you cover politics and race and the intersection of the two, if she was making that argument today on a debate stage, a virtual debate stage in the pandemic, and it was not limited to busing, but it was revealing that the Obama Administration had not achieved parity in a way that was recognizable, in fact, the opposite then do you think she may have had more, more success which is leading me to think, you know, she must, we may know who the VP is by the time this airs, but she she’s awfully close to being considered or tapped for that position. But do you think in this culture, at this moment, that discourse would have resonated better?


HARRIS: Yeah, I think that it likely would have. I mean, if you’re even, there’ve been a lot of, a lot of the, the Democratic candidates had the sort of ideas that, that if they didn’t resonate and, in you know September of 2019 or, or October things like, you know, universal basic income and the way that people have acknowledged that, oh yeah, well maybe, maybe Andrew Yang was onto something when he was saying that, you know, the platform that he was running on was universal basic income. Maybe, you know Senator Harris’s childcare plan or education plan for K through 12 was something that we should have taken a second look at. Maybe we should be canceling student debt. I think that when people are now sort of starting to come around to the idea that government should be for something more than just kind of maintaining the status quo, that government, when you’re, when you’re actively falling you know, you should, that’s not what you should be thinking about government being the safety net and having to build a robust safety net. I think that people are starting to understand because they may have started falling themselves, that they need a safety net in order to kind of live in this, this sort of America that prospers in the way that they, that we’ve all kind of understood it in childhood.


HARRIS: And I think coupled with what you’re saying, Harris would not have had to launch it into any attack on the vice president or insinuate anything about the vice president, because she would be pointing to the reality of conditions on the ground and not the vice president’s record. And that might speak, that might’ve spoken for itself. Can you share with us any insight from your reporting on the importance to the Democratic Party and to the electorate overall now that the vice president’s VP, that Joe Biden’s VP candidate is a black woman, or he said it’s going to be a woman. So what has your reporting what has your reporting suggested about how pivotal it is that that person be a black woman?


HARRIS: Yeah, I think that there is a large portion of the electorate that looks at it and says, hey, you know, black women have been the base of the Democratic Party. I mean that’s the most loyal base of the Democratic Party. Selecting a black woman as your running mate would likely point to the fact that you are actively taking their concerns and cares seriously. Then there’s another site that says it’s not necessarily about the representation, as much as it is about the policy that you are putting forward. Are you doing things that actively help black lives or that, that actively look like they care about black lives? And I think this is something that you’ve seen throughout history when you know, when you look at Carl Stokes’s election in the sixties and Ohio and the subsequent kind of quashing of a rebellion about a year later, I think one of the things that, that researchers and scholars have looked at from that is that, you know, when you, you can’t just put a black face on an office and expect things to change, it has to,…


HARRIS: Let me, let me ask you in the, in the seconds we have left Adam is there anybody besides Elizabeth Warren though, who would resonate in that way of the white women under consideration? You’re making a really important point. It’s not clear that there’s anybody other than Liz Warren, who has that credibility with the, with the community.


HARRIS: Yeah. And I think that that’s why you’ve seen kind of the heaviest push for a white woman to be for Elizabeth Warren. I mean, people look at Kamala Harris, they look at Stacey Abrams, but then outside of that it’s kind of Elizabeth Warren standing alone, in a way. And in terms of people who are propping up policy, that, that may actively move the needle along on addressing some of this.


HEFFNER: It will be interesting if he chooses someone like Tammy Duckworth or someone who isn’t clearly established in policy realms around social justice, racial justice, what, what the result is. I urge all of our listeners and viewers to check out Adam’s work at the Atlantic and to find his book in 2021, “The State Must Provide,” we look forward to that very much, Adam,


HARRIS: Thanks so much.


HEFFNER: Thank you.


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