Stephen DUBNER: So, Charles, you have said that you didn’t want to write a “race book.”
Charles BLOW: Yes.
DUBNER: I assume that you would, however, consider this book a race book?
BLOW: Well, the race books that I knew were of specific genre, right? So there was the race history. I cannot write a race history book. I am not a historian. Even the historical portion of this book, I was pulling my hair out and thinking maybe I was getting something wrong and calling every historian I know, making sure that I wasn’t missing something. So I couldn’t write that. And then there were the synthesis-of-our-racism-and-its-deleterious-effects books. And I certainly didn’t want to write one of those. And that’s primarily where my dislike of the genre comes from, which is that I never really felt that those books were ever written for Black people. They were always explaining something that I already knew to someone else. I assumed it was all to white people. And I wasn’t interested in that.
DUBNER: So who’s this book written for?
BLOW: Black people.
DUBNER: How do you feel about white people reading it?
BLOW: Oh, I love you, read it. It’s wonderful, you know, Jane Austen wasn’t writing to me. But I can read those books and they could be wonderful to me, but I wasn’t the audience for those books, so we can read things where we are not the target audience and still appreciate that it was written and the content of it.
Welcome to the latest installment of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, in which we interview an author and hear excerpts from the book. Today’s author is Charles M. Blow, an op-ed columnist at The New York Times.
BLOW: Hello, hello, hello.
And his new book is a manifesto. It says so right there in the subtitle. It’s called The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto. Here’s a short passage.
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BLOW: Black people fled the horrors of the racist South for so-called liberal cities in the North and West, trading the devil they knew for the devil they didn’t, only to come to the painful realization that the devil is the devil. As Julian Bond once put it, “‘America,’ after all, unscrambled, spells ‘I am race.’”
* * *
We tend to think of manifestos as relics of the past: The Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft; Common Sense, by Thomas Paine. You don’t expect to come across one in 2021. At least I didn’t. But I would argue that anyone who reads Charles Blow’s book will be changed by it, and moved — though in which directions, it’s hard to say. The Devil You Know is both deeply personal and unashamedly political; it is calmly descriptive one moment and fiercely prescriptive the next. It channels the arguments — and the disappointments — of Malcolm X and James Baldwin and Charles Blow himself. It is a slender book built around a large idea.
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BLOW: It occurred to me that I had been thinking too small, all my life, about my approach to being in the world and conceiving my role in it. I had to remember that a big idea could change the course of history. And, I was uniquely positioned, as a writer, not only to express such an idea but also to push it out into the world.
* * *
The idea grew out of Blow’s reckoning that white supremacy is an enduring feature of America. And what some people accept as progress really isn’t.
BLOW: I simply cannot accept the progress argument, because the progress argument is premised on this: “You should be happy with and applaud the fact that I am inching my way out of oppressing you. And it has only taken 400 years so far and soon, maybe another 100 years or so, we may be finished. My growth may be complete. I may come out of my cocoon and be a butterfly.” That’s crazy to me. I was born into it, it is very likely I will die with these bodycam videos of Black people being killed, because nothing about that architecture has changed. My liberation cannot be contingent on your evolution. I can’t wait for you to grow. It is such a passive position for me to have to take. And I won’t take it.
Blow argues that too many Black Americans have been abused for too long in too many ways, and that too many white Americans pay nothing but lip service to anti-racism. He writes that the Black Lives Matter protests last summer were “a social-justice Coachella” for those “deprived” by the pandemic “of rites of passage, parties, and proms.” He also argues that too many Black Americans have been blinded by personal ambition or co-opted by a Democratic Party that cares about them only during elections. He finds the status quo grotesque, and not worth preserving.
BLOW: It just struck me one night. I said, okay “Let me just write this down.” And I wrote for like five days 25,000 words of a book proposal, a rambling, messy, full-of-grammatical errors thing.
The proposal became a book, and the book contains a plan.
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BLOW: I realize that I’m proposing nothing short of the most audacious power play by Black America in the history of the country.
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Today on Freakonomics Radio: what, exactly, is Charles Blow’s audacious plan? How viable is it? And is it already happening?
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Charles Blow was born 50 years ago and grew up in the tiny town of Gibsland, Louisiana. It was situated on the site of a plantation once owned by a Dr. Jasper Gibbs.
BLOW: Having grown up poor, to know that your ancestors were not necessarily poor — it’s a strange thing.
Blow’s first book is a memoir called Fire Shut Up In My Bones. It was published in 2014.
BLOW: It didn’t dawn on me until I was writing this book that the entire genealogy of my family are all freed Black men as far back as I can trace it. The great-great-great-great grandfather in Alabama, he’s the one who’s said to have saved up money and bought his own freedom.
Blow remembers once seeing an old family photograph, a cousin of a later generation.
BLOW: I flipped it over and the date the picture was taken was on the back. It was in the middle of the Great Depression. And then the price of the frame, which was extraordinarily high, and then I started like Googling inflation adjustments and like, what Black man in the middle of the Great Depression has the money to spend on this ridiculously expensive frame?
Charles was the youngest of five sons; his mother worked in a poultry-processing factory before going back to school and becoming a home-economics teacher. His father wasn’t in the picture. He was, as Blow writes, “a construction worker by trade, a pool shark by habit, and a serial philanderer by compulsion.” Charles was a good student; on a field trip to the state capitol during high school, he thought he might like to become governor of Louisiana one day.
BLOW: They took us to the governor’s mansion, and Governor Edwards struts into the receiving room, and I was like, “Oh my God, this guy is so cool.” He was running against David Duke. At one point, he says, “The only thing David Duke and I have in common is we’re both good under the sheets.” I was like, “I want to be this guy.”
He stayed in Louisiana for college, attending Grambling State — a well-known H.B.C.U., or historically black college or university. He wound up studying communications. Even early on, he had his doubts.
BLOW: We had a career day and one of the women who came clearly was unhappy with her work. And she says, “You know, journalists starting out only make” — and I think she said something like $16,000 a year — it was really low. And I remember like excusing myself from the seminar and going to the bathroom and literally throwing up. I just kept thinking, “I cannot have gone to college and be poor. I can’t do it.” So then I just made up my mind, I said, “I’m just going to be the best at this. And hopefully the money will come later and I’ll be comfortable.”
On that dimension, he has succeeded. He interned at the Shreveport Times, in Louisiana, and then moved north: a couple years at the Detroit News and then to the New York Times, where for years he was part of the team that produces maps and charts and diagrams. He left, briefly, to do similar work at National Geographic, and returned to the New York Times in 2008 as an opinion columnist. He has become a star attraction, especially in recent years, as his focus on race and racism has intersected with a broader interest in these topics. But this success came at a cost. As he writes in The Devil You Know.
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BLOW: I always felt safe in my majority-Black hometown and my majority-Black college town. I never understood how much of a gift that was until I ventured north and that sense of safety was replaced by a stalking sense of dread.
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Blow’s move to the north was an echo of what has come to be called the Great Migration. From roughly 1915 until around 1970, some 6 million Black Southerners moved to destination cities like Detroit and Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. They were fleeing Jim Crow laws and searching for better work; in the beginning especially, a majority of the migrants were single men. This left behind a South that was missing many of its men.
* * *
BLOW: I was born in 1970 in Louisiana at the end of the Great Migration into a world shaped by vacancy. My tiny hometown of Gibsland lost a full quarter of its population between the 1910 and 1920 censuses, during the first wave of the Great Migration. By the time I was born, there were clearly more women than men, and the most recent Census estimates there remain three women to every two men in town.
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DUBNER: So the original sin here is obviously slavery. But can you talk for a minute about how significant, long-term, was the fact that freed slaves weren’t given land that they’d been promised, they weren’t given access to healthcare and education. It seems like that’s what ultimately led to the circumstances that made migration to the northern cities so appealing, yeah?
BLOW: Well, there are a lot of impediments. At the end of the Civil War, in the years after, a quarter of all Black people in America got seriously ill or died. What little healthcare infrastructure they had, collapsed with the Civil War. Some of the bigger plantations, just as a way of protecting property, would treat the enslaved people for certain illnesses. They’re displaced from all that. And the federal government’s saying to the states, “You have to take care of these people,” and the states are saying to the federal government, “What are you talking about? We have good white boys coming back limping. We have to get them into the hospital.”
And so no one stepped in. They’re freed into starvation. Into enemy territory. You don’t own anything. Where are you going to go? But somehow, even in the midst of all that, these pockets of survival and prosperity even, pop up, where Black people just say, “No one’s going to help us. We just have to do it ourselves.” And they create economies and communities. Part of the human spirit is that it wants to work, it wants to create something, it wants to be remembered. It wants prosperity, and so it will create it out of nothing. We should all be cheering that story. But that is not the way it happened. And in fact, all of those communities, one by one, got burned to the ground or dismantled in some other way. Because it was a threat to white supremacy. “How dare you succeed with all of this against you?”
The destination cities up North, meanwhile, beckoned with higher-paying work and a supposedly enlightened view on race.
BLOW: It was easy for white people in the North to look down their noses at white people in the South, and say, “You’re behaving boorishly, this is abhorrent.” But when Black people showed up in real numbers in the North and Midwest, they had to put their money where their mouth was. And they ended up using many of the very same tactics that the South had used: housing segregation, educational segregation, massive police oppression.
As Blow sees it, those tactics have created a 21st century that’s less different from the 20th than we’d like to think.
* * *
BLOW: For 150 years, Black Americans have been hoping and waiting. We have marched and resisted. Many of our most prominent leaders have appeased and kowtowed. We have seen our hard-earned gains eroded by an evolving, refining white supremacy, while at the same time we are told that true and full equality is in the offing. But, there is no more guarantee of that today than there was a century ago.
* * *
DUBNER: You write, “We like to masculinize white supremacy … when in fact it is just as likely to be spritzed by perfume. White women have known from the beginning in this country that they possess the power to activate white supremacy and spur it to extreme violence. The activation of white terror is a white woman’s soft power.”
BLOW: When you write in these categories, it’s always with the unspoken “not all white people, not all Black people.” But, in the aggregate, this is true. Forty percent of all slave owners were white women. They made a market for Black women’s breast milk. Black women, many of them were treated, literally, like cows. And in fact, many of those women’s own children went without proper nutrition, because all the milk was being used up. If you look at many, if not most, of the seminal moments around tremendous white terror in this country, it was about — or at least white men couched it as — a defense of white femininity. Emmett Till is killed, which is like the big bang of the Civil Rights movement, because he’s suspected of talking slick to some white woman who later in life says he didn’t do any of that. Now you see the same thing popping up with these cell phone videos of largely women saying they’re going to call the police on people, knowing full well that the police are the muscle.
* * *
BLOW: White moderates in the North and West plead their desire to be better allies, but they refuse to recognize that the system uses their very presence as a weapon, employing brutal police tactics in the name of keeping them safe, promoting hyper segregation and imbalance in the name of keeping them comfortable. They want to “do something” but relinquish nothing. It’s all an enormous pageant of faux probity in $80 yoga pants, holding $8 lattes. They award themselves laurels for doing the least bit of labor to lessen the pain of an affliction rather than cure it. They focus on mitigating the impact of white supremacy rather than eradicating it. And, in its worst form, this misdirected, milquetoast nursing and nannying tries to fix people — Black people — with whom there is nothing wrong other than being trapped in wastelands of despair, starved of access, opportunity, and resources. Among the wealthy who are thus inclined, they give a little and expect to be praised a lot.
* * *
Before the Great Migration, the vast majority of Black Americans, perhaps 90 percent, lived in the South. By 1970, that number had fallen to roughly 50 percent. The standard argument holds that this migration was, on balance, worthwhile. Charles Blow’s argument is that the experiment has failed.
BLOW: Black people moved north and west during the Great Migration as the result of a combination of a push and a pull. The push was the racial terror and racial oppression of the Jim Crow South. The pull was the hope of a better life: economic, social, and political. I say the same sense of terror and oppression that pushed people out of the South has been re-incarnated in the North and West. Hyper militaristic policing, predatory incarceration, and the rebirth of a hate-group movement are rendering destination cities unwelcoming, inhospitable, and, in some cases, uninhabitable.
And this is where we get to Blow’s thesis, what he calls “a grand generational undertaking, a rescue mission for Black America.”
* * *
BLOW: This book is my big idea. Black people in America should reverse the Great Migration, and return to the states where they had been at or near the majority after the Civil War, and to the states where they currently constitute large percentages of the population. In effect, Black people could colonize and control the states they would have controlled if they had not fled them.
* * *
DUBNER When you first started voicing this idea to people you knew, what was their response, before you’d written the book?
BLOW: Everybody’s jaw is on the floor, and I’m like, I’m not fully appreciating that they think this is such a radical thing, because, to me, it’s completely logical. It was important to me that I wasn’t centering whiteness in the narrative of this book, I was literally talking to a young 20-something Black person, hasn’t committed to a job, still not married, just trying to get their toe in the world, still free enough to be anywhere in the country who might be considering where they want to call home.
DUBNER: And how targeted do you want the reverse migration to be? In other words, I could see that if you really want to optimize political power, you would want to be standing there with, like, flags—.
BLOW: A clipboard? No, I’m not going to be with a clipboard. But I did single out specific states that I think should be considered. And they stretch from Louisiana up to Delaware. So it’s not some of those Appalachian states. It’s not Tennessee or Kentucky or West Virginia. It is also not Florida and not Texas.
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BLOW: My reverse migration argument targets only nine of the states that are included in the Census’s count: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Specifically, I suggest gravitating to the major cities, arranged like jewels on a chain, which dot the Interstate 20–Interstate 95 corridor from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Wilmington, Delaware.
* * *
DUBNER: Explain why state power is the optimal force to gather versus federal, per se.
BLOW: Well, federal is great, but there is a reason that we’re called the United States of America. Half of the power in the country is reserved for the states to exercise independent of the federal government. In fact, the Constitution specifically says any power not specifically delegated to the federal government is reserved for the states. So, even if they didn’t think of it in the Constitution, if they didn’t give it to the federal government, it belongs to the states, and so the states have real, and sometimes, disproportionate power over many of the things that Black people are most concerned about.
Mass incarceration is, by and large, a state and local issue. Most of the criminal code is developed on the state level. And it is executed on the local level. You could take that on to health policy and educational policy. In addition, there are already 1,200 majority-Black cities in America, 90 percent of them are in the South, but there are no cities in the Constitution. The state can preempt anything the city wants to do. So you’re not truly free, even if you live in an Atlanta or a New Orleans, where you have a majority of the population, because the state can say, “Yeah, you’re free up until we say you’re not.”
DUBNER: Let’s say that all the Black people in the U.S. who don’t live in the South — or even 50 percent of them — were to move to the target states and cities that you propose. I’m curious how much political leverage that would actually produce, and whether federal leverage maybe isn’t the point.
BLOW: My argument is that gaining state power would increase both federal and state power. This is strategically arrayed like just the right amount in the particular states that, half moving back, you could control a whole band of states in the South, the six, maybe seven. Now, that gives you control of up to 14 Senate seats. That’s federal power.
DUBNER: Can you talk about what you see as the strongest antecedents for a movement like this, whether it’s the Republic of New Afrika in the 1960’s, whether it’s the Back to Africa movement.
BLOW: Well, some were Black nationalist proposals, meaning they wanted to break away another separate country within the country. That is not what I’m proposing. I am proposing that you consolidate power within the country. I actually think the strongest antecedent is not Black people, but white people moving in mass to Vermont, specifically for the purpose of consolidating liberal power and changing a state from more conservative to more liberal. And it worked. But I modeled my advocacy around the Black journalists who advocated for the Great Migration in the first place. There was a long history of Black people using the press as a clarion call to reach out to Black people. And I’m trying to be part of that legacy.
Here’s a passage from The Devil You Know where Blow argues that this legacy of Black leadership has stalled, perhaps even curdled:
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BLOW: I fear that Black activism is creeping toward its own form of elitism, a way of building strata and hierarchy of the supposedly woke over the supposedly asleep. Too many of our most lauded thinkers, most in the North and West, have rendered beautiful meditations and delivered blistering orations on the subject of Black liberation. But in the end, many succumb to a certain monotony of urbanity and arrogance, a plaintive howling into the wind, the building of a case without action, the diagramming of a problem without a solution.
Activism becomes an exercise in credentialing, a way of positioning in pursuit of power. These missives often represent as desperate longings by the authors to be anointed by white liberals and the white academy, collectives that address Blackness from a clinical distance, turning Black struggle into anthropology and Black pain into pedagogy. It seems to me that on the racial question, the white liberal has a nearly insatiable hunger for guilt-laden self-flagellation. In the same way, the white conservative has a thirst for absolution from legacy guilt and affirmation of current contempt. The markets to appease both are robust. But Black colonization of the South isn’t a philosophy or an intellectual posture. It’s an actual plan.
* * *
The New York Times columnist Charles Blow has written a book called The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto. In it, Blow urges Black Americans living outside of the South to reverse the Great Migration of the 20th century and return to the region where their ancestors came from. He has targeted a particular set of southern cities and states with a dual goal of maximizing Black political power and creating a sort of anti-racist sanctuary.
* * *
BLOW: I am talking about a grand generational undertaking, a rescue mission for Black America. And that mission begins with the states, which are the true centers of power in this country, and as such control the lion’s share of the issues that bedevil Black lives: criminal justice, judicial processes, education, healthcare, economic opportunity, and assistance.
* * *
DUBNER: You include a quote at the very beginning of the book, from James Baldwin, who said: “For the Negro, there’s no difference between the North and the South, there’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact.” Does that to some degree cut against your argument in the book, however?
BLOW: What I am saying is not that Northern racism is so much worse than Southern racism, and there’s a utopia in the South, but rather that racism is everywhere. Stop pretending that you can run away to the North and achieve an anti-racist space. It’s everywhere. I do say, however, that some of this behavior by the Northern police state and the Western police state is aberrant. It is a throwback to something that the South did, but is doing less of.
DUBNER: And is that because the South outgrew it or why?
BLOW: I look at racism as having kind of developmental cycles. It’s an old man in the South, and it’s a young boy acting out in these other cities. You have to go through the stages.
DUBNER: What’s the larger priority for you, political leverage or establishing or enlarging a majority-minority community for its own sake, to diminish the exposure to the racism?
BLOW: I believe political power is on par with a cultural cohesiveness. I believe that something is lost when you are constantly thrown into racial warfare, when you’re constantly having to defend yourself, defend your right to exist, defend your physical body, defend yourself in court. Where you could be in a space that just sees you as a human being and honors you for whatever you bring to that human experience.
DUBNER: It’s hard for me to imagine how that feels every day, to be devalued so consistently and systematically, and it makes me wonder how you don’t just explode, honestly.
BLOW: Well, some people do and some people go to early graves. You look at mortality rates and you see that Black people, even when they adjust for other factors, are dying a little bit sooner than other people, and they attribute a lot of that to racial stress. So it’s literally costing you years of your life. But racial bias — pro-white, anti-Black — among white people, the percentage of it, no different in the South than in the North, or in the Midwest. And it seems to me that the cleaving point is cruelty. There are certain people who don’t mind cruelty whatsoever and there are other people who are aghast at the idea that you would treat a living thing cruelly. That doesn’t mean that they believe that Black people and white people are equal human beings. There were abolitionists who abhorred the idea of slavery, but they were complete white supremacists. When Abraham Lincoln gives that Lincoln-Douglas debate, one of them, he makes clear that he is a white supremacist. But he doesn’t want slavery.
DUBNER: So, the entire book was written during the Trump administration?
DUBNER: I’m curious whether you feel the argument has become any less intense because of a new presidency that is less white supremacist, etc.?
BLOW: No, it doesn’t depend on any one administration. If it did, Barack Obama would have solved the problem, or Bill Clinton would have, or Jimmy Carter would have. It’s not Democrats/Republicans even, specifically. It is: Black people don’t have enough power to force the political structures to respond.
DUBNER: You argue in the book that if Black people in the South were to acquire the real political leverage you are describing, that they and the Democratic Party wouldn’t necessarily be on the same team any more.
BLOW: Well, Black people on social issues are not very liberal. They just cannot abide the Republican Party’s courting of the racists and so they vote Democratic. A hundred years ago, these parties were flipped. So if Black people can get over the absolute racism of the Democratic Party 100 years ago or 75 years ago — this was the party of the Klan. It was the party of slavery. Black people were able to get over it and the Democratic Party was able to completely transform itself. So, if it is possible for the Democrats over a 100-year span, it may be possible for the Republicans over a 100-year span, who knows? We often think that liberalism includes racial egalitarianism, and it does not. Just because I believe in fighting climate change, and a woman’s right to choose, and that gay people should get married, does not mean that I am necessarily also a racial egalitarian.
DUBNER: Although the stated preference for racial egalitarianism co-travels with those things, typically.
BLOW: Because political parties are organized around that. You’ve been taught that the coalition should include all those things.
DUBNER: You can’t belong to this party unless you buy every single thing we sell.
BLOW: But human beings operating their own lives pick from whichever basket they want to choose from and then leave things in the other basket. I am strongly in favor of gay marriage, but there were a lot of Black people who were not.
DUBNER: Including Obama for a while.
BLOW: Including every president until Obama.
* * *
BLOW: In the decades preceding the Great Migration, not even racial oppression and racial terror were enough to dislodge Black people from the South. They needed a nudge, a shock to the economic system to jolt them out of migratory stasis and into action. That shock came with the boll-weevil infestation in cotton states beginning around the turn of the twentieth century. The combined forces of an economic crisis and a social-justice crisis finally set the migration into motion. I believe that we are seeing a similar scenario with the economic crisis created for Black people by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a grand twist of irony, the staggeringly incompetent response to the crisis by Donald Trump, a white-power president, may well provide the necessary accelerant for a Black power migration.
* * *
DUBNER: When I saw the data on the reverse migration that you’re encouraging, especially the numbers for the Atlanta metro area, I was sure it was a typo. That area has had an increase of around 250,000 — a quarter of a million — Black people just between 2010 and 2016. So you, Charles, are not the head of this movement. You may not be the tail of the movement, but you’re not the head.
BLOW: No. It has been going on for, I don’t know, two decades. Maybe more. The Black population of Georgia has doubled from 1990 to 2020. The first Black mayor of a major southern city was Maynard Jackson in Atlanta in 1973. That was because Atlanta had become majority-Black just in 1970. Now, almost every major city in the South, not including Florida and Texas, has a Black mayor. And most of them are majority-Black cities. It has changed the whole dynamic of the South.
DUBNER: Let’s say that you create great political leverage on the municipal and state levels and then you say, “Okay, it’s time to really make it happen on the federal level.” What, at the federal level, would you most want to use that leverage to accomplish?
BLOW: State power and federal power overlap when it comes to Senate seats and Electoral College votes. When Black people were the majority of the coalition that delivered Georgia for Joe Biden, it was the first time since at least Reconstruction that that had happened. When you can deliver the state as the majority coalition, that’s a whole different calculus. You’re not the 10, 15 extra percent around Detroit or in Philadelphia, that they need to excite at the last moment when white people basically split their vote down the middle. And when you have people elected to the Senate where the majority of the coalition who sends them there is Black people, they have to pay attention to Black agenda items. So all the bills in the Senate now, like studying reparations, for that to advance, you have to have people in there advocating for it.
DUBNER: I asked this friend of mine — he’s mid-to-late 30s, he’s Black, he grew up in what I’d call the mid-South — when I described to him your idea, he wrote back to me, he said, “It sounds interesting. It’s a clear and understandable strategy, which is more than hoping the rest of the country sees the light. I’m sure it will be met with a lot of resistance and violence. I assume white people will change the rules or completely circumvent them in some way. The North will suddenly become very, ‘conservative.’”
BLOW: All of that’s likely. And it would be disingenuous for me to say, “Oh, I’ve worked it all out down to the last period, and I’ve figured it out and I have your flights and your bus tickets.” What I am saying is that this is a revolutionary act and revolutionary acts are never without resistance and they’re never without risk. But you have to decide, do you really want power for you, and your children, and their children, or not? Do you really want to create a space in this country where white supremacy is not the governing ethos, or not? If you want to stay nestled in your little apartment in Brooklyn or in the south side of Chicago, that’s a choice that you are making. But I want you to make that choice in the full knowledge that that is not the only option you have.
* * *
BLOW: Whenever Black people make progress, white people feel threatened and respond forcefully. Emancipation and the Civil War gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, which formed just months after the war ended. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down racial segregation in schools, gave rise to the white supremacist Citizens’ Councils. The election of the first Black president gave rise to the Tea Party. It took centuries for America to hone its instruments of oppression. Every time part of it fell, it simply reemerged in a more elegant form. Battling racism in this country is like cutting heads off the Hydra.
* * *
DUBNER: Can you talk about putting this idea to political and social and religious leaders? Talk about the sort of responses you got.
BLOW: In general, it is hesitation. And this is why I like to talk directly to the people reading this book. The establishment, even Black establishment, is the establishment. Their power is vested in the status quo. There are districts in California that depend on Black people being in them for them to have Black representatives. Those representatives are never going to say, “Oh, this is a great idea.” Black mayors of cities in the North and Midwest are never going to say, “Oh, this is a good idea.” So I already know going into this, I cannot count on the establishment, including the Black establishment, to agree with me.
DUBNER: And that includes Barack Obama, correct?
BLOW: I did not put it to Barack Obama, because getting to Barack Obama is very difficult.
DUBNER: You do write about him quite a bit in the book. You call him, “a feel-good Black leader, who would allow white liberals to purchase absolution on the cheap.” So my sense is that you don’t feel that he would be interested in it, correct?
BLOW: My gut tells me no, but I don’t know if he would be.
DUBNER: Let’s talk a little bit about the Obama presidency. One would think that the first Black president, who was a Democrat, would have addressed racism in a way that would satisfy, or at least address, a lot of the problems that you’ve identified in the book. Let’s say that’s the assumption. How would you judge the actual accomplishment, then, toward that goal?
BLOW: There’s just so little that the federal government can do on those big things — mass incarceration, or community policing. On the health front, hands down, Obamacare is hugely important for Black people. But it doesn’t get fully utilized because the Southern states where most Black people live, most of them have Republican governors who refuse to take the money to expand Medicaid. So, he does things, but I wasn’t expecting him to solve American racism in four or eight years.
DUBNER: Do you feel he was too much of an accommodationist, though?
BLOW: I believe, some of that, he may have felt was by necessity. That’s why I connect the through line with a lot of the major Black leaders over time. They felt like they had no other choice. But in retrospect, it doesn’t help Black people.
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BLOW: As I pondered Obama’s hope speech that night in New York, it occurred to me that he was only the latest ambassador of the political hope doxology and the inevitable blindness that it renders, that he has many other comrades in that crusade, perhaps the most famous of whom being Booker T. Washington. Eventually both men were forced to confront the truth that all Black idealists must reckon with: White supremacy cannot be appeased. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be convinced. It is America’s embryonic fluid. America was born in it and genetically coded by it. No amount of hoping or waiting, coalition-building or Kumbaya can redress that reality. Hope, as a religious tool, may well be essential; but hope, as a political tool, is folly.
* * *
BLOW: You see Black leaders over and over again, say to themselves, maybe if I just do this, they’ll stop terrorizing my community. And they give an inch — one of the Black power leaders of the 60s, he says, “You give an inch, they’ll take a yard, you give a yard, they’ll burn a cross on it every time.” That’s how white supremacy works. They’re not giving an inch. It’s only you giving an inch.
DUBNER: You write about W.E.B. Du Bois and his embrace of what he called “the talented tenth,” which you argue is elitist, essentially. And now, 100-some years after Du Bois wrote that, you write, “Too many of the Black elite get drafted into a white-adjacent privilege suckled by personal prosperity and personal comfort, blinded by the glamor of high society…”
* * *
BLOW: Too many of the Black elite get drafted into a white-adjacent privilege, suckled by personal prosperity and personal comfort, blinded by the glamor of the high society. They become the neo-house Negroes, placated, passive, a resurrection of an antebellum relic in which the best and brightest of Black society, those who would otherwise be the generals in resistance and rebellion, are lulled to sleep by luxuries. The more talented and successful you are, the more tightly the moneyed establishment embraces you, cleaves you from the struggling plight of your people, and beknights you as an honorary member of theirs. It is easy to get lost in this, seduced by it, convinced of it.
* * *
DUBNER: I’m curious, were you lost in that, ever? Were you seduced by that?
BLOW: I was in it. If you are what Holly Peterson calls the “accomplisher’s class” in New York, you’re part of this. A successful cocktail party has, you know, a newspaper man and an artist and that becomes your social life. And it is artificial.
DUBNER: Did you enjoy it in the beginning?
BLOW: You can enjoy it. A lovely glass of wine with a beautifully-made crudité is wonderful. And you go home comfortable and buzzing from the adrenaline and the aura of it all. And yet the masses of Black people have not been helped by that one bit. And you see your own success, this becomes the talented-tenth fallacy. “If I just succeed, that will be the shining light for everybody else, my coattails will drag other people into prosperity.” That’s not true. The reason they’re not prospering is not because they don’t have an avenue, it’s because they’re being actively suppressed. And someone has to actively start fighting that oppression and it needs to be our most talented people, our strongest fighters, our best writers and artists have to get down in the trenches. Release the martini glass, get down in the mud and help fight.
Charles Blow himself has released the martini glass, at least the New York version. He still writes for the Times, and he still keeps an apartment in Brooklyn, but last year, he moved to Atlanta.
DUBNER: So when did you start feeling that that might be a good idea for you personally? Forget about the treatise that you wrote, for you personally to move back down South?
BLOW: Well, as I started to write, it became clear to me that I believe—.
DUBNER: You said, “I can’t write this book and not move back.”
BLOW: That’s part of the impulse. But also, I actually believe what I’m writing. I believe that this is a solution. I’m not trying to convince the 50-year-olds to move. It’s really not about my demographic. It is more targeted at younger people, who have always been the majority of any migration.
DUBNER: Let’s say that your book inspires hundreds of thousands of young Black people, maybe millions, to move to the cities and states you suggest. What does it look like there in 20 years? Describe what 70-year-old Charles Blow sees when he looks around — socially, politically, economically.
BLOW: I see an accelerated attempt to disenfranchise the new voters who are coming. We’re seeing that already after this election. But that the forces of change overtake them. You get a Democratic governor, possibly a Black one, maybe Stacey Abrams, and also possibly a Democratic state house, which Georgia hasn’t had in forever, and you start to take on the big issues which disproportionately affect Black people. You look at the state criminal code, there’s a lot of work to do there that would make life safer, more fulfilled, more happy for Black people, and also just stop wasting human capital in cages.
We examine what our children are learning and from what textbooks, because those decisions are made on a statewide basis. Make sure our textbooks are reflective of the truth and the fullness of our history. We expand Obamacare. There’s a raging H.I.V. infection rate here in Georgia, largely around young Black people. A lot of them are low-income and low-income people with H.I.V. disproportionately get their medication from Medicaid. All they have to do is take the money and expand Medicaid, you save those people’s lives. You continue to send the two senators from Georgia who represent Black interests to the Senate and possibly more representatives to the House, depending on where Black people settle in this state. Likely, you’ll also see some white flight. It’s just the history of Black majorities: white people leave it.
* * *
BLOW: Black density wouldn’t prove beneficial only for political reasons. Black people also need to reunite to combine purchasing power, brainpower, and cultural power. Our dispersal has exposed us to exploitation, for which density could prove curative. Black people have $1.2 trillion in purchasing power and Black talent produces untold billions for other people. How powerful would the Black community be if that money and talent remained and revolved internally, between Black people and Black business?
* * *
DUBNER: You wound up going to college at Grambling State; you had a variety of other offers, but you chose to go there. I’m curious, if you look at H.B.C.U.’s today, would you like to see, as part of your proposal, let’s say the top Black high-school athletes all go to play for H.B.C.U.’s instead of the A.C.C. and the Big 10 and the PAC 12 that make so much money from Black athletic talent?
BLOW: Absolutely. All of that money that that talent generates does not get circulated back into Black communities. If you truly believe in integration, turn the glove inside out. If the Black kids go to Black school, why aren’t the white kids who want to play that sport and be with the highest caliber players go there, too? You know, I look at my kids who did not go to H.B.C.U.’s. It was their choice. But I think I should have been saying to them more vociferously that they should go to them.
DUBNER: Why do you think you didn’t?
BLOW: Buying into the same white credentialing that the rest of the world buys into. “Oh, if you can go to an Ivy, go to an Ivy.”
DUBNER: Do your kids regret it at all or no?
BLOW: They don’t know anything else, right so they don’t know what it would have been like to go to an H.B.C.U.
DUBNER: Your oldest is maybe mid-to-late 20s?
BLOW: Yes, he’s 26 right now.
DUBNER: He went to Yale and he’s now studying medicine at Cornell, is that right?
BLOW: That’s right. That’s right.
DUBNER: Those are credentials, all right.
BLOW: Yes, but I can see in my son, him covered in these racial battle scars. His, sometimes, unease with himself in spaces, because he’s always been one of the two or three or four or five in the space, in the class, whatever. And so you just never felt what I felt, which was: Every room I walked into, a Black person was the smartest person in that room. So the idea that I could be the smartest person in any room I wanted to, it was always in my head. It doesn’t mean it was egotistical. It’s just that I don’t walk in with the handicap of knowing that I am going to be minority in this room and everybody’s going to be looking at me and thinking, why did I get here and was there some affirmative action involved, da, da, da, da, da.
DUBNER: Okay, but life is full of tradeoffs, right? And he’s going to become a doctor with credentials that will let him do a lot of different things that he might not have been able to do otherwise to help other people, that he might not have been able to help.
BLOW: Possibly, but are the medical students graduated from Howard not going to be able to do that?
DUBNER: I don’t know the answer to that question. But sometimes credentials exist because they’re worth it, sometimes not.
BLOW: But you can’t divorce the history from the present. The legacy admissions of places like the Ivies have led to a particular kind of alumni that largely excluded people who look like me. The testing criteria, which benefits people who make millions of dollars and can keep their kids in $500-an-hour tutors and go to Costa Rica and build a hut during the summer is not going to advantage people who can’t afford those tutors, can’t afford violin classes for eight years.
DUBNER: I’m just asking whether you can disentangle the white supremacy of the institutions from the benefits of the environment.
BLOW: How beneficial is it to have your sense of self diminished? That becomes the tradeoff. I went to Grambling. They did not have Nobel laureates on the faculty. They did not have high-tech facilities with all the latest equipment. They did have people who absolutely taught me that I was valuable and smart and that there was nothing I couldn’t do.
DUBNER: Have you told your kids that you kind of wish that they had gone to historically Black colleges?
BLOW: You know how it is. I write things and then they read it like, “What?” you know? So I think I might have written it, and like not actually told them.
DUBNER: What did I fail to ask you that I should have or what further would you like to talk about that we haven’t?
BLOW: Well, I like to make this point, which is, I am not suggesting that people would be moving back into a utopia. Because if white majorities created racial utopias, every white person in America would be prospering. You will still move back into basic human problems. You will still have poverty, you’ll still have crime, you’ll still have income inequality. That’s just the human condition. But it is undeniable to me that it is better not to live under white supremacy than it is to live under it, because in the aggregate, the people who don’t live under it do better than those who do. And I am saying, if racism is almost universal in this country, it is better to consolidate your power, that you have enough power to actually fight it than not.
And here is one last passage of Charles Blow reading from The Devil You Know:
* * *
BLOW: We need a bloc of states — a region — in which we, and our children, are equally conditioned to success, support, and safety. We need a space in which Black imagination is equally encouraged, where we recognize that Black children dream too, that they gaze upon the same stars as all others, that adventure and invention are universally human traits that demand to be nurtured in all. The Black story must be much more than slavery, oppression, and poverty. It must be so much bigger than the part of our literature white America chooses to reward: stories wrapped around racism, stories of struggling for self-acceptance and societal acceptance in a white world riven with that racism. We need space to reverse the absorption of white anxiety into our flesh — their fear of us, contempt of us, disdain for us.
I say to Black Americans in destination cities: If you’re happy and prospering in those cities, by all means stay. If you feel physically safe, economically secure, culturally celebrated, and spiritually edified, you have found your home. But if that is not your lived experience, if you have tired of fighting the same battle that your parents fought, there is another option that is not only viable but desirable.
As Frederick Douglass once wrote about escaping slavery, “I prayed for 20 years but received no answer, until I prayed with my legs.” Black people must pray with their legs.
That was Charles Blow. His book is called The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto. His first book, which I mentioned earlier, is a memoir called Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and it has just been adapted into an opera, with music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Kasi Lemmons. It opens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this September; it will be the first opera by a Black composer ever to be performed at the Met.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Matt Hickey, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, and Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from Jasmin Klinger. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Charles M. Blow, op-ed columnist at The New York Times.
- The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, by Charles M. Blow.
- “The Rise of Black-Majority Cities: Migration Patterns Since 1970 Created New Majorities in U.S. Cities,” by David Harshbarger and Andre M. Perry (Brookings Institution, 2019).
- “Reverse Migration Might Turn Georgia Blue,” by Alana Semules (The Atlantic, 2018).
- Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Charles M. Blow.