“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.”
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.
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.”