Willa Glickman: How did you come to focus on housing activism? And what led you toward academic work?
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: When I moved to Chicago in 1998 the racial segregation across the city struck me like a brick wall. I had never seen anything like it, and I grew up in the South. So it began with an interest in how the geography of the city fed and shaped its political culture. I read a lot of books about Chicago and its politics, and then in 2005 I began a job with an organization that helped tenants circumvent their evictions in court. I was a tenant advocate and became well versed in Chicago tenant law. This coincided with the beginning of the housing crisis in Black communities, which eventually devolved into the full-blown housing meltdown in 2007. That crisis was mostly confined to homeowners, but poor and working-class renters are always in crisis in the private market. For me, the housing insecurity that pervades the lives of ordinary people is incredibly personal, and politically it is the epicenter of capitalism’s failure. My mom was foreclosed out of our house when I was twelve. We moved houses when I was in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, and then again in my sophomore year of high school—then I moved away altogether. My work as a housing advocate during the greatest catastrophe in the American housing market compelled me to understand why this could happen. After dropping out of college twice, I returned to school to finish my degree so that I could go to graduate school and answer the question.
Your essay describes disagreements about anticapitalism in the radical Black left of the 1960s. How do you think these arguments have changed (or not) among activists and academics working for Black liberation today?
What those debates in the 1960s were really getting at was, “How do we change this society?” There were some who may have felt that the problems confronting Black people were overwhelming, and so we should focus on those issues that we can control. Thus you get an emphasis on community control and community politics on the one hand, and on the other hand, some who delved deeply into cultural politics. Others, like the Black Panther Party or similar revolutionary Black nationalists, believed that capitalism is too powerful a force for us to try and work around, and that our politics must be geared toward fighting capitalism. But even that did not create a political consensus of what the struggle should then look like: Do we engage in armed conflict against the American state, as the Panthers once argued? Should we attack capitalism at the point of production in the nation’s factories, as the different expressions of the Revolutionary Union Movement argued? Or do we build a socialist movement on the basis of solidarity, which seeks to unite the different factions, as the Combahee River Collective argued in the late 1970s after radicalization had come and gone?
The debates have changed today but they are still rooted in the question of how to change our society. Now we contend more with whether we can use the money and resources of foundations and NGOs to build revolutionary or radical projects. What is the relationship of the radical left to the Democratic Party, a question very much alive in the 1960s but imbued with important differences today? The main difference being that fifty or so years ago, Black electoral politics was emergent. Today, we have lived through two terms of a Black presidency and the highest concentration of Black elected officials in Congress and beyond in American history. So the question of whether we can vote our way into liberation is no longer an abstraction. Most importantly, how do we build democratic, accountable political organizations that are truly representative of ordinary people? It was a crucial question in the 1960s and 1970s and it is the crucial question facing us today.