Robin Kelley

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Robin Kelley in 2014

Robin Davis Gibran Kelley (born March 14, 1962) is an American historian and academic, who is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA.



Interview with Democracy Now! (2022)

  • Community policing grows out of "broken windows" policing, which involves targeting Black and Brown residents with surveillance, harassment, using predictive technologies for policing. And think about what would have happened had $37 billion went into things that people need to make them safer, like housing, healthcare, environmental protections, jobs. But let me just say, one, this is not a glimmer of hope. I’m not making a case — you know, but I'm making a case that despite the Biden people’s opposition to defund, there’s an element of it that was a response. That is, you know, $15 billion of grants for nonpolice first responders for mental health crises. Let’s see how this is going to turn out. I’m not sure. But clearly, movements make a difference. And this is part of the argument of Freedom Dreams, that movements do make a difference, especially when you think beyond the immediate needs to something bigger.
  • [B]ack in 2000, 2001, you know, it felt like the Bush-Cheney election derailed a lot of our movements, despite the fact that we witnessed the largest antiwar protests in history, you know? And I was in New York City during 9/11, and I remember the Islamophobia. I remember the real uncritical celebration of cops as first responders. And keep in mind, this is right after, in the wake of the Cincinnati rebellion in April 2001, after the killing of Timothy Thomas. This is in the wake of the Amadou Diallo protests around the acquittal of the cops who killed — again, these two, both cases, unarmed Black men. And, you know, Cincinnati looked like Ferguson. It was like a precursor in many ways. So, we're out here protesting Bush-era militarism. That militarism continues to escalate, despite the claims that there's an end to the war on terror. You know, your last guest talked about this continuation of these wars. And militarism continues to this day. Sometimes it takes on the form of, you know, U.S. support for Israeli occupation of Palestine. It takes on the form of the expansion of troops in Africa, you know, through AFRICOM. So, a lot of what we were fighting for then — or, fighting against, still exists, still persists. So, I think that's important. The other side, in thinking about the whole attacks on critical race theory, it’s an interesting problem, because what I can say briefly is that the latest wave of intellectual McCarthyism, the sort of attacks on CRT, is not really attacks on critical race theory, it’s attacks on liberal multiculturalism. And it’s interesting that — you know, it relates to Freedom Dreams in that the backlash is a backlash to a movement, and not necessarily a backlash to, say, President Obama. It's driven by white heteropatriarchal nationalism, which was there in 2000, persists throughout the 21st century, and it uses the racially coded language of anti-wokeness. "Anti-wokeness," DeSantis's use of that term is not an accident. It's supposed to signal something. But it works. It works because it convinces a large segment of the country that the real threat to their lives are nonwhite people, queer people and our history. You know, this is the real existential threat, not privatized healthcare, not climate catastrophe, not crimes of the state, not global recession, not food and housing insecurity, not the threat of war with China, not economic policies that make the rich richer, you know, like this CHIPS bill, so that rich people could buy Black and queer art, as a fun right-wing causes. So, you know, in many ways, if there’s a basic sort of lesson that Freedom Dreams continues to sort of convey and that the movements that erupted since then have actually taken up and expanded, it is that we don't have the luxury to just fight for reform. We can’t survive that way. We've got to fight for revolutionary change. That's the only way we’ll survive as a planet. And the only way to do that is to think beyond the immediate needs and concerns and crisis that are right in front of us.
  • Grace Boggs is the inspiration, in many ways, for Freedom Dreams. You know, we go back to like 1992, and she started this debate with me about, you know, you need to read Dr. King, you need to pay attention to people's needs beyond protest. Like, how do you build the society we're trying to establish in time, in the present, as opposed to just continuing to fight for reform? And so, we had this ongoing debate, and she forced me to rethink some things. Even after Freedom Dreams came out, she had more critiques, of course. And so, I end the book with an epilogue that has a very substantial section on what is being built in Detroit right now as a result of the Boggs Center and the work that Grace and Jimmy Boggs did. And so, that’s a really important part of the story, saying that freedom dreamers are basically building that society of creating new human beings, new ways of being together that don’t fall into the same old trap of, you know, the Marxist seizing state power.
  • it was amazing for me to see, in cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Detroit, or even to see my own students, you know, for whom I wrote the book, go on to lead a number of these organizations that erupted in the mid-2010s and in 2020. It was also a chance to reflect on the developments of the last 20 years, you know, the shifting political landscape, the extraordinary expansion of a radical vision. You know, there’s so much — we have such an expansive vision, more so now than 20 years ago, in terms of the power of feminist and queer and trans movements, Indigenous movements for decolonization, in climate justice and disability justice. So, it’s really an extraordinary moment.
  • it doesn’t have to be reciprocity. We don’t build solidarity for the sake of getting something back. We build it because we’re together. And that old slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,”
  • on the one hand, liberalism wasn’t that helpful for us. You know, Clinton gave us the crime bill. Clinton gave us welfare reform, you know, gave us the deregulation of the financial industry. And some of those same policies continue into the Obama administration, especially around finance and around war, the continuation of the war. So, you know, one of the important lessons about fascism is that liberal regimes, you know, open themselves up to fascist change. They’re not necessarily always a hedge against fascism. And so, yes, it is true that Trump and Trump’s people were a backlash against this Black president, but this Black president basically continued policies that were Bush-era policies, you know? And I think it’s important to remember that. So, when I talk about the threat of fascism, I am talking about something that is some ways new under Trump, but I’m also talking about something that’s very old and rooted in American history, the fact that we’ve been here before, that Jim Crow itself is a system of fascism, when you think about the denial of basic rights for whole groups of people, the way in which race is operating as a kind of nationalism against some kind of enemy threat, the corralling of human beings in ghettos. I mean, this is what we’ve been facing for a long time. But part of what makes me hopeful is that the same organizing efforts against — right? — the Obama administration, against the Obama years, in terms of the height of anti-police protests, is the same force that could basically be the hedge against fascism. The question is: Where are we going to stand? How are we going to support them? And how are we going to move beyond simply, you know, trying to put another liberal in office to continue the status quo, to doing something radically different, something that’s more abolitionist?
  • yes, Black Lives Matter was important. It was part of a whole wave of movements — We Charge Genocide in Chicago, Assata’s Daughters, the rebellion in Ferguson, which was separate from Black Lives Matter. I mean, it was really a kind of insurgent movement saying an end to state violence as we know it. But it was also an insurgent movement against white supremacy, though it didn’t always take the form of the Klan or the Nazis. It took the form of the police. It took the form of state policies and right-wing state legislatures passing laws that made protest a crime, you know? I mean, we saw this. When we think about the problem of white supremacy, it is the perennial problem, from before the founding of the nation. And, you know, when we think about, for example, the anti-Klan movement, the modern anti-Klan movement in the 1970s and '80s emerges where? It emerges in prisons, where prisoners are saying, “We've got wardens and guards who are Klansmen, and we need to fight them.” And it expands across the country. And I think we have to keep remembering that over and over again, because some of the same people who end up being elected to office are the — in some ways, the political offspring of the Klan and the Nazis and white supremacist organizations of the '70s, ’80s and ’90s. And then, you know, you know, because you've covered this so well, how many cases of racial violence, whether it’s against Sikhs, against Black people, against undocumented immigrants, that we’ve seen every year. Every year, you know? And we keep coming back to this question of, “Oh, well, we’ve got to deal with assault weapons.” That is important, but it doesn’t solve the problem of continuing and sanctioned white supremacist violence.
  • keep in mind is that we have conservatives who call themselves Christians, who don’t know the Bible, because in Jubilee, you know, debt cancellation is part of the biblical injunction. You’re supposed to cancel debts, you know, periodically. That is part of it. And I just wish the right would read their Bible, because, you know, maybe they would support this as a biblical move. I mean, I’m an atheist, but still, I read my Bible.
  • disability justice. It’s a framework that embraces abolition. And that is to say, it demands nothing less than the overthrow of all forms of ableism, you know, and the structures that support it. So, the difference between disability justice and disability rights is that disability justice says, you know, we’ve got to deal with racism, sexism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, that these are the forms of oppression that make even disability differential. And so, if you think about the way that we responded to the COVID-19 crisis, for example, and to this day how we’re still responding to it, that disabled people who are Black and Brown and poor, undocumented, Indigenous, queer, gender nonconforming, they’re the ones that end up getting differential care, sometimes less care, sometimes inhumane care. They’re the ones who end up incarcerated, end up homeless, end up jobless, housing insecure. And that’s what disability justice tells us. And for me, I was forced to really come to terms with it by a number of folks who really were involved in the disability justice movement, who really forced me to think deeper about, like, what is a radical freedom dream, you know? Aurora Levins Morales, for example, is one who’s a really important disability justice activist who really kind of pulled my coattails on this.
  • Aja Monet specifically, as a poet and activist, embodies everything that Freedom Dreams tried to be, you know, because part of what the book argues, or a central part of what the book argues, is that we need to think like poets, that poetry, as Aimé Césaire talks about, is not just, you know, pretty words. It's not simply trying to find the right metaphors. It was a splattering. It's a kind of pulling from the unconscious the deep sense of both pain, suffering, but also our imagination for creating something different. And one of the things I felt like social movements needed, or lacked, at least, at that moment was, this scramble to deal with crises every day made it difficult to stop and think like poets. And one of the things I added to the book was an epilogue that I wrote originally for the book, that I decided not to put in, which describes what I call a proletarian revolution. And so people could read that in the book. But the key thing is that poets — or, poetry is not something that is the reserve of professionals. It is something that we all do, we all practice. And in order to find our way to the New World, we’ve got to be able to think like and dream like poets, because that is the dream that we can’t see in the same tangible way. It’s the one that we build, not blindly, but with our eyes wide open.
  • I'd love for Biden to talk about the long game in terms of what democracy should be. Democracy shouldn't simply be money in politics, electing officials who then speak for us or speak for whoever's giving them the money. Democracy should be participatory. Democracy should be economic...In other words, imagine Biden saying, "You know what? Debt cancellation is the most democratic thing we can do to create a fair chance for everyone to succeed. Single-payer healthcare is the most democratic thing we could do to create a fair opportunity for people to get decent care. The abolition of policing and replacing police with something that is actually safer and kinder is the best thing we could do. Open the prisons and the jails, that’s the most democratic thing we can do." You know, that's what I would love to hear Biden say. But, look, I'm not holding my breath. And it’s the movements that build the agenda, not our presidents.

Freedom Dreams (2002)

  • Radical black feminists have never confined their vision to just the emancipation of black women or women in general, or all black people for that matter. Rather, they are the theorists and proponents of a radical humanism committed to liberating humanity and reconstructing social relations across the board. When bell hooks says "Feminism is for everybody," she is echoing what has always been a basic assumption of black feminists. We are not talking about identity politics but a constantly developing often contested, revolutionary conversation about how all of us might envision and remake the world.
  • Today's mic-hogging, fast-talking, contentious young (and old) lefties continue to hawk little books and pamphlets on revolution, always with choice words or documents from Marx, Mao, even Malcolm. But I've never seen a broadside with "A Black Feminist Statement or even the writings of Angela Davis or June Jordan or Barbara Omolade or Flo Kennedy or Audre Lorde or bell hooks or Michelle Wallace, at least not from the groups who call themselves leftist. These women's collective wisdom has provided the richest insights into American radicalism's most fundamental questions: How can we build a multiracial movement? Who are the working class and what do they desire? How do we resolve the Negro Question and the Woman Question? What is freedom?

Quotes about Kelley

  • Robin Kelley is the preeminent historian of black popular culture writing today.
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