Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostPartisan | Opinion

'The ideology of anti-racism becomes its own kind of prison': Khalil Gibran Muhammad

By Jonathan Capehart

April 11, 2017 at 9:06 AM

President Trump speaks last week at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

"We may have to lose some battles over facts … to win the war over truth. And winning the war over truth to me is one of the cherished traditions for African Americans that we might be at risk of losing at this moment."

"We" are African Americans. And the battle over facts for Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, was a grade-school history lesson in Colonial America that turned his daughter's South Orange, N.J., class into international news. Among the assignment options was creating a visual representation of the period. Some students made posters advertising a slave auction.

In the latest episode of "Cape Up," Muhammad and I pick up the conversation we started last week while at New York University's campus in Florence, Italy, for a salon to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." A conversation that got into what happened when he did a deep dive on his daughter's assignment and pushed back on the narrative taking hold among African Americans. That's a big deal when you're a scholar on race, the author of "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America" and a great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad.

"A lot of parents were responding to a bigger context. And so the assignment took on a life of its own," he said, mentioning other instances of intolerance that have happened recently. "We're in Trump America in the sense of an anxiety and fear of racism and white supremacy."

Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, left, stands with other participants of New York University’s Florence salon celebrating the 65th anniversary of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” last week at Villa La Pietra. To the right of Muhammad are Kimberly Bowes of the American Academy in Rome; Lisa Cesarani of NYU Florence; The Post’s Jonathan Capehart, holding his copy of the book from college; Ellyn Toscano, director of NYU Florence; Grace Ali from Of Note Magazine and NYU Tisch School of the Arts; and salon organizer Allen McFarlane from NYU Student Affairs. (Courtesy of Stephanie Lawson Muhammad)

But the experience worries Muhammad. Specifically, legitimate fears of Trump "may have an unintended consequence of pushing people, who have long cherished our democratic principles, into a space where the ideology of anti-racism becomes its own kind of prison," he said. In short, "You replace one kind of authoritarianism with another kind of authoritarianism," he continued. "The authoritarianism of the right versus the authoritarianism of the left."

"It seems to me that our legitimate fear cannot manifest itself in shutting down debate and nuance and complexity and working through ideas in a public arena where we then come to terms, where we agree on shared facts," Muhammad told me. He found the resistance to that in the slave-poster controversy "deeply troubling." Exacerbating the problem, he said, is the democratization of information and knowledge.

Related: [“How can there be [trusted sources] until we figure out… how to decide what a trusted source is?”]

Listen to the podcast to hear Muhammad explain what he means by that. Find out why he is uncertain whether our democracy could survive a moment like this when facts are not regarded as truth and trust is in short supply. And hear him talk about why African Americans have an "outsized role" in saving the nation.

"If we only search for a narrative that is most convenient to us, then we ourselves may be part of this nation's going over the cliff," he said. "We, in this moment, in some ways, have the unfair burden of being truer to the nation's principles than perhaps other groups."

"Cape Up" is Jonathan's weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.


Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes for the PostPartisan blog. Subscribe to his podcast Cape UP, available on iTunes and Stitcher.

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