Section: News

On the Record: Dr. Alvin Tillery

On the Record: Dr. Alvin Tillery

Dr. Alvin Tillery is an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.

What are you hoping to get across with this visit in particular? What are you hoping people will take away?

I’m going to share some of my academic research and just try to get them to think about the current state of social movements for multiracial democracy in the U.S. and try to give them some metrics for assessing how the movements are doing.

What are some of those metrics?

In my research I try to focus a lot on how people living in marginalized communities feel and think about the movements. So I’ll present some evidence of that. And then I also look at some of the activism that’s generated by members of the movement. So I look at their Twitter feeds, statements to the press …

Your talk poses the question ‘Is Black Lives Matter Winning?’ What’s your take on that question? Is there a clean answer?

It’s not a clean answer. It’s ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I think that they are winning in terms of public sentiment, in terms of their impact on certain broader struggles of marginalized communities, I think they have some success — especially in places like Chicago —, they had some electoral successes. In terms of stopping police shootings, they haven’t been winning.

One argument I’ve heard is that a movement like BLM is ‘focusing on the wrong issue.’ Not saying that shootings aren’t important necessarily, but that things like public education need more attention. Do you see that argument come up in your research?

Not really. I think Black Lives Matter thinks that it’s focusing on all of those things, and their statements and their behavior suggests that they are. The data that I have shows that people want them to focus primarily on shootings but that they do see them as making inroads on these other questions as well. So I don’t see that bifurcated opinion in my work.

I want to talk a little bit about your other work, specifically to do with [Alexis de] Tocqueville and critical race theory. For someone who, say, is not familiar with either, how would you say these two are relevant to politics in the U.S. today?

Well, we live in very tumultuous times for American democracy, and we have elected a president in part by courting and generating racial resentment on the part of lower-status white voters. And that’s the first time in the history of modern presidencies that this has happened. We see an incredible spike in hate crimes, an incredible spike in hate speech, and it beckons the question, ‘Is Tocqueville’s concern that we would devolve into a society that wasn’t able to live as a multiracial democracy —  Is that happening?’ So, that’s why I think it’s relevant. I think Tocqueville had very ominous predictions about the racial future, and we’ve far exceeded any standard that he would have believed possible. But I do think that the sentiment of the ‘Three Races’ chapter, where Tocqueville talks about the permanent condition, the permanence of racism in American society, is very poignant for today. And this might be the jumping off point for critical race theory.

Critical race theory believes that racism is a permanent operating framework in American democracy and that you have to be attentive to it if you are going to live in society and not expect it to go away. So in that sense I see Tocqueville as a real progenitor of the critical race theory line, and that’s what my academic work has really pointed to. And I think that the Black Lives Matter people share this assumption. So I think that’s why understanding some of the sources of Tocqueville, some concerns about why he believed that multiracial democracy would be impossible, are instructive. So for him the answer was that there was a ‘master race’ inherent in psychology on the part of whites that was very, very hard to root out. And I think that’s something that we have never really attempted to do in American society.

Have you seen anything more recent, especially after the election of Trump, to point to any sort of attempt to actually root out that entrenched white racism that was made explicit for a lot of people?

I think there’s a lot of racial justice organizing happening. Black Lives Matter is just one component of it. I think it’s happening in churches, in community centers — communities really pushing back against it. So yes, I do see that.

After Obama’s reelection in 2012, several pundits predicted that the GOP might work with Democrats for something that would line up more with the Democratic platform today. We obviously didn’t see that happen. Why did they miss that?

Well, I think that would have made more sense for the Republicans, but I think Trump fundamentally disrupted their ability to do that. I also think that our electoral institutions really advantage and privilege, even, the most ignorant and backward elements of American society with regard to race relations, so that’s a real barrier to progress moving forward. I do think that the Trump style of election is really the last gasp of the old order. You have very aged, rural, low-status, low-income whites who embrace this ‘Build a wall’ mentality, and they’re dying off, and they’re being replaced by a more tolerant generation of millennials. So I think that the Trump playbook for winning elections is not really going to be available for much longer. And I think that what really happened in 2016 is that Trump did hyper-mobilize that one third of the white population that has those attitudes. But more dangerously, the gender element has been under-explored. I think that you have a lot of college-educated, suburban whites who voted for Trump because they were not ready to handle a woman leading the republic, and I think that’s a much bigger problem than the ‘Build the wall’ crowd, because that’s a much bigger segment of the population. So Trump flipped 200 counties that had voted twice for Obama, and he didn’t flip them because the white folks there woke up in 2016 and said, ‘Aha, I’m going to be racist today.’ I mean, he flipped them by hyper-mobilizing low-status whites that hadn’t turned out in those cycles, but also convincing upper-status whites that there was something they just couldn’t pull the trigger on with Hillary Clinton. And, survey data shows that might just be a skepticism toward women’s leadership, so that’s a much bigger problem that has to be tackled in society.

Do you think the window has shifted on that with [ the #MeToo movement ] changing a bit of the conversation around sexism and sexual assault in particular?

I’m not sure. I think #MeToo might be hyper-mobilizing more recalcitrant white men to vote Republican. And so, look at what’s playing out with [ Brett ] Kavanaugh’s nomination. Support in that third of the population that considers itself to be Republican is crystallizing around Kavanaugh. I’m not certain — I mean, this won’t make me popular, but I didn’t become an academic to become popular — I’m not certain that running a woman against Trump in 2020 is the best antidote for Trump.

That that would hyper-mobilize in the same ways.

Right.

In general, what do you think a Democratic strategy should look like for 2020?

I think someone that can really energize the Obama coalition of young, urban, educated whites and people of color across the mainstream. That’s the winning playbook. I’m not even sure President Obama realized how important that playbook was, because he didn’t really do much to nurture it while he was in power. He spent his time saying he was ‘president of all people,’ which he was, but he had a core base constituency that he didn’t — the loss of millennial voters in 2016 is a huge reason why we’re here. And why President Obama didn’t do more to hold that coalition together is a big mystery. But I think to win in 2020 — and again, this won’t make me popular — will take a young, progressive politician out of the mold of a Frank Capra movie, like a Beto O’Rourke. Or an older man of color with some real gravitas. Deval Patrick or someone like that. I think that that hyper-mobilizes the base because those 200 counties that Trump flipped are filled with working-class white male voters who unionized, who had no trouble voting for Obama, who have no trouble rooting for African Americans as sports heroes, who don’t hold hard-and-fast racist views, who were just opposed to Clinton. So you put someone that those people can get behind, and that people in the cities can get behind, and that college students can get behind, and that’s a very difficult formula for Republicans to contend with. Trump lost to Clinton by 3.2 million votes. I mean, it wasn’t even really close. You’ve just gotta gin up turnout, particularly in those areas where Republicans have been very astute at suppressing votes, and so you’ve gotta make people of color and young college kids feel excited to stand in line for three, four hours at a time to vote.

Do you think the window has shifted on that with [ the #MeToo movement ] changing a bit of the conversation around sexism and sexual assault in particular?

I’m not sure. I think #MeToo might be hyper-mobilizing more recalcitrant white men to vote Republican. And so, look at what’s playing out with [ Brett ] Kavanaugh’s nomination. Support in that third of the population that considers itself to be Republican is crystallizing around Kavanaugh. I’m not certain — I mean, this won’t make me popular, but I didn’t become an academic to become popular — I’m not certain that running a woman against Trump in 2020 is the best antidote for Trump.

That that would hyper-mobilize in the same ways.

Right.

In general, what do you think a Democratic strategy should look like for 2020?

I think someone that can really energize the Obama coalition of young, urban, educated whites and people of color across the mainstream. That’s the winning playbook. I’m not even sure President Obama realized how important that playbook was, because he didn’t really do much to nurture it while he was in power. He spent his time saying he was ‘president of all people,’ which he was, but he had a core base constituency that he didn’t —– the loss of millennial voters in 2016 is a huge reason why we’re here. And why President Obama didn’t do more to hold that coalition together is a big mystery. But I think to win in 2020 — and again, this won’t make me popular — will take a young, progressive politician out of the mold of a Frank Capra movie, like a Beto O’Rourke. Or an older man of color with some real gravitas. Deval Patrick or someone like that. I think that that hyper-mobilizes the base because those 200 counties that Trump flipped are filled with working-class white male voters who unionized, who had no trouble voting for Obama, who have no trouble rooting for African Americans as sports heroes, who don’t hold hard-and-fast racist views, who were just opposed to Clinton. So you put someone that those people can get behind, and that people in the cities can get behind, and that college students can get behind, and that’s a very difficult formula for Republicans to contend with. Trump lost to Clinton by 3.2 million votes. I mean, it wasn’t even really close. You’ve just gotta gin up turnout, particularly in those areas where Republicans have been very astute at suppressing votes, and so you’ve gotta make people of color and young college kids feel excited to stand in line for three, four hours at a time to vote.

If I can, I want to turn away from national politics and talk about local issues, especially here at Kenyon. I don’t know how much you know about last year —

Nothing.

So, the short of it is, there was a draft of play written by a playwright-in-residence here that was released to the campus, and there was a great amount of protest and controversy over that due to some credible readings of it that alleged that the one Latinx character in it was a racist stereotype. And that was sort of an inflection point on this campus of the free speech, political correctness debate. And then there was another incident surrounding a white student using the N-word against a black student, and then a great deal of black students feeling like the administrative response wasn’t sufficient. So they wrote an open letter entitled ‘I Am Not Your N-Word,’ critiquing the College for this, and then held a sit-in. And so this, I think, has been on everyone’s minds around here lately since last year —– about how to address these issues of diversity on college campuses. I was wondering if your research or just your position as an academic sheds any light on how to address these issues of diversity and civility on campus.

I run a diversity research center, but I don’t focus on college campuses. I’ve been on college campuses for 25 years as a professional. These are tough issues, and administrations are often wedged into really difficult cul-de-sacs because of who their constituents are. I don’t want to offer Kenyon any advice, but in general I do think that power dynamics tend to not disappear on campus. What I’m always struck by is the person saying ‘n—-r’ or telling a joke or dressing as a slanty-eyed Asian American on Halloween — this kind of ‘it’s just free speech, it’s just a joke’ — I think this is really reflective of the power dynamics in our broader society. I, as an African American professor — if I were to walk into my classroom and say, ‘I think white kids are lazy, and that all their grades are reflective of inherited privileges,’ and that I’m gonna go around the country to give lectures on why I think white kids’ SAT scores should be even higher given all the deeply entrenched privileges that they have.’ — I don’t believe that any university would stand for that. I think that they would be outraged. They would probably not be able to get rid of me, because I’ve seen professors do really horrible things and get away with them. But no one would come and celebrate me like they come and celebrate the buffoonery of Charles Murray. Murray gets to say those things and make millions of dollars touring the country, peddling discredited ideas that have been shredded in the academy since I was a graduate student, because there are wealthy trustees and donors, and his position amplifies the baseline racism of many in the student body. That person is protected or gets a kind of benefit of the doubt: ‘Well, Charles isn’t really a racist. He’s just expressing an unpopular viewpoint.’ Okay, that’s fair, but we don’t hear this when issues about other sacred cows come up. Capitalism, U.S. foreign relations, Israel-Palestine. There are all these contrarian viewpoints that get short shrift because they don’t replicate the dynamics of the powerful, and I think that puts college administrators in a very difficult position, because often people where you sit want reform and want action. People that sit above, you assume, are typically more conservative. So how do you manage that? I don’t know. I know that I never want to be a college administrator. I’ll stay being a researcher.

You mention Charles Murray as an example of an ideologue that won’t go away, and also how his ideas have been discredited for a long time. If that hasn’t really worked in unentrenching those ideas, do you see other ways of fighting that kind of racism?

You’ve just gotta be direct. I don’t entertain scientific racism in any of my professional discourse. I just say, ‘That’s scientific racism, or eugenics. It’s nonsense. I don’t want to talk about that.’ But I think that civility is typically used to reinforce the power dynamics of those that have power. You know: ‘Why are all these people in the Senate chamber yelling about a Supreme Court nomination? We just want to have our normal proceedings.’ Okay, well, two years ago you guys stole a Supreme Court seat from a sitting president. That was uncivil. And so I think that we have to see through these rhetorical devices. And sadly colleges and universities are filled with many smart people who just can’t help themselves but take the bait in these devices.

What might you say to students who are maybe looking to address these issues on campus, but also entering the broader world, with these movements and the national politics you look at? What can they do to prepare themselves for dealing with those rhetorical devices and arguments?

I would say read broadly. Engage widely. Keep your passion and know it all boils down to the foundational issues of the republic, which are equality, liberty, and citizenship. And we didn’t even begin to realize those ideals until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Remember that, and remember the length of the fight, and don’t ever give up. When dealing with your administration … remind your administration that you’re future donors. And it’s sort of the same dynamic — Why was Mitt Romney smart in saying the Republican Party has to diversify in 2012? Because demographics are destiny, and he sees the future. When we run surveys on what your generation cares about, the top two issues they care about are climate change and racism. If I were a smart Republican operative reading those tea leaves, that’s not going to change. Demographics are destiny, and you can wield that power on campus as well. The future modal Kenyon alum is not going to look like or have the same values that the modal member of the Kenyon trustee board does today. And in all of these great fights where there were dynamic changes at universities —– in my generation it was freeing Mandela, and the generation before it was divesting endowments of industries in South Africa. Derek Bok was able to get Harvard to divest by pointing out that the divestment argument was the argument of the future donors, alums, parents of Havardians, not the argument of bankers who were invested in South Africa themselves. So power comes from reminding power that you will one day have power. I think that’s the best advice I can give.

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