Last year, Jeff Chang, the executive director of Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, visited Ferguson, Mo., on the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown.
“I went intending to be a fly on the wall and check it all out from a journalistic, intellectual point of view, but I was immediately drawn into it,” he says.
Chang joined the protests of police brutality and was even arrested. Those experiences inspired the author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” to write a series of essays about the current state of racial inequality in America. Those essays turned into a new book, “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation,” which he’ll discuss at Kramerbooks on Sept. 19.
How is the current Black Lives Matter movement different from civil rights movements of the past?
There’s a deep moral and ethical framework the organizers are bringing to the movement and there’s definitely a critique of older generations and how previous movements have marginalized women and queer people. The Movement for Black Lives organizers are approaching this with an eye towards helping the folks who are the most impacted by the structures of inequality and racism. But I think there are also a lot of continuities with previous movements. They all have the goal of pushing us towards our highest ideals.
You wrote that America has been going through cycles of progress toward racial equality and then backlash. Can you elaborate?
After the Civil War there’s Reconstruction, where the Union tries to make the Confederacy end segregation, to allow black people to be elected to office and to be able to gain power. As that begins to happen, there’s a backlash and Jim Crow segregation comes in. Then, almost a hundred years later, there’s the second reconstruction, which begins with the bus boycott in Montgomery and spreads to Birmingham and Selma and results in the passage of all these pieces of legislation, from the Voting Rights Act to the Civil Rights Act to the Immigration and Nationality Act. But then, towards the end of the ’60s, there’s a huge backlash and resistance to that. Leaders are killed; there are firebombings and cross burnings, including in St. Louis County [where Ferguson is located], as desegregation is coming into place.
And that kind of leads us to the current moment, where there’s been a concerted effort to roll back these laws. And we have had the creation of new types of enforcement and segregation that result in heavy-handed policing, that result in the resegregation of schools, that result in the resegregation of higher education, that result in the ongoing imbalance of power between different racial groups in the country.
What should we learn from this?
We need to call attention to the fact that we don’t naturally fall into a situation that is equitable. Equality is something we have to fight for. And I think that is ultimately the point of the book, to get people to see that it takes concerted thinking and action and attention to be able to bring about a just society.
It’s hard to know where to go from here. I thought it was interesting that you took inspiration from Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
“Lemonade” and the Black Lives Matter movement are both grappling with this question of how to live with someone who has wronged you, and this idea of moving forward with love and compassion. This is why we keep coming back to the concept of grace, to things old people like to talk about in church. Reconciliation isn’t a strong emotion like anger, so it’s harder to write compelling music about. But is anger a good mode for living? A way of designing societies? The older I get, the more doubts I have about it.
Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sept. 19, 6:30 p.m., free.
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