The writer and intellectual James Baldwin wrote, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
Today, Baldwin’s words resonate more than ever. A two-tiered system of justice dividing the powerful and the politically connected and the rest of us only seems to grow by the passing day. This gap is meticulously detailed in Marc Lamont Hill’s latest book, “Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond.”
In it, the Morehouse College Professor, journalist, CNN political commentator, and VH1 host details how the deaths of unarmed African American victims from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland and the residents of Flint, Michigan are victims of a political and economic system that refuses to acknowledge their suffering.
Hill and I recently spoke about his latest work, how it fits into the current news cycle, the revolutionary solutions being proposed by Black Lives Matter, and his new program on VH1.
Kevin Patrick Kelly: Let us talk about the title of your latest book. Who exactly are the “Nobodies”?
Marc Lamont Hill: It’s those who are marked as vulnerable. It’s the vulnerable of America, those who live on the wrong side of American democracy. Those who have been victimized by a broken economy, by institutionalized inequality, it’s those people who have been “disappeared” by the criminal justice system. It’s those who are often rendered disposable.
KPK: You discuss the deaths of numerous African Americans in your book. The names are familiar to most Americans. For example, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, etc. I have noticed that immediately upon their deaths, there are those in the media that attempt to assassinate their character. What role do you think the media plays in demonizing these victims after they have been murdered?
MLH: The media, in many ways, shapes and controls the entire story of vulnerability in America. When you say, “mother of three shot,” that’s a very different story than when you say, “welfare recipient shot.” Same person. Same death. But just by how you describe them, it describes their minds and whether their suffering is worth it or not.
That becomes part of the problem. When someone dies, we immediately show their picture. With some people, we show the mug shot. Even if they are the victim. Others will show them in their prom outfit, and that distinction instills who deserves to die and who doesn’t. That is a significant, significant part of the conversation. We have to control the narrative differently and we have to have different conversations about state violence and death.
It’s also about what gets covered. It’s hard to imagine the shootings in Chicago and Baltimore not being front page news if these are all white people dying. It’s hard to imagine the lead poisoning that happened in Flint, not being the most urgent issue on the front page of every newspaper if we are talking about Grosse Pointe, Michigan … Lower Marion, PA. as opposed to a town where the people are already economically and politically vulnerable. We have to change the conversation so we can change the outcome.
KPK: You write in detail about the tragic situation that is currently unfolding in Flint, Michigan. Let us assume that the residents of Flint were wealthy Caucasian suburbanites and the water supply had been contaminated with lead. My belief is that, if this was true, the Governor and several other officials would have already been prosecuted. Do you think because there are two socioeconomic classes in the state, we are not seeing justice administered fairly?
MLH: Yes. One of the things that I talk about in the book, not just with regard to Flint, but with regard to all of these cases of state violence is that race is certainly a factor.
If Mike Brown gets killed — If Mike Brown is white he probably does not die. If Freddie Grey is white he probably does not die. If Sandra Bland is white, or maybe even just a man, she does not die. If the town of Flint were all white, they probably would not have had lead in the water for over a year.
I think that is absolutely true, but not the only factor. I begin the book and I preface by talking about this idea of intersectionality and about how its multiple jeopardies that converge in one place. The town of Flint certainly experiences its tragedy because these people are black, but also they are politically disempowered. If they had a voting bloc that was significant enough to vote out the Governor Rick Snyder, they likely don’t get lead in the water for a year. If they were middle class people, they likely don’t get lead in the water for a year.
Being black is certainly the big signifier of vulnerability, but there are also other factors that also matter. We do not want to reduce the problem of one of race, although race is central. There is an economic system and economic logic that makes us think that everything needs to be done efficiently, and efficiently often means that we don’t account for human beings and their own well-being. Everything that is efficient isn’t good.
The most efficient way in Baltimore to handle dependents is to get one lawyer to cover everybody. Give them one flat fee. It saves money, it moves time, it is good for everybody except the defendant. Efficiency isn’t always the best thing. Having an Emergency Manager in Flint is economically efficient. Finding the cheapest water supply in Flint is economically efficient, but it doesn’t lead to the kind of outcomes that you want. It leads to people dying.
It’s an economic condition. It’s economic logic that says that the individual is better than the collective, that the private is better than the public, that also makes us who we are, what we are as a nation. If we are going to repair this problem, we need to transform a nation that renders so many of its citizens as “nobody,” then we have to white supremacy, but we also have to address unfettered capitalism. We have to address patriarchy, we have to address sexism, we have to address homophobia, we have to address all of these issues if we really want to get where we want to be.
KPK: Let’s shift to the current news cycle. What was your reaction to the resignation of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton?
MLH: I was happy to see a change. In the book, I actually talk about William Bratton. He was somebody, ever since he worked for the New York Transit Authority has been an architect and engineer of a very particular model of policing. As we begin to talk about changing the model of policing, as we begin to have conversations about how communities and police can engage one another, as we begin to rethink the role of policing in our communities, we will probably not just need to change our method and not just change our direction, but sometimes you also have to change the driver.
To have William Bratton leave is a huge symbolic shift for, not just the city, but the country. Symbolism is not enough. As we move into a new leadership model, we also need to change the policies of policing. We need to change the laws and we need to change our assumptions about what police do in our communities and what role communities can play in policing themselves. If we can change all of that, in the end, we can get somewhere.
KPK: As your book was being released, the Black Lives Matter movement released a list of policy proposals on their website. One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about the movement from critics is that they do not offer policy proposals. Well, here it is. Have you had an opportunity to read the policy proposals and if you have what do you think of them?
MLH: I am very excited about the Movement for Black lives and the proposals that they have put forward. I think they have always been putting forward policy proposals. One of the critiques against them is that they haven’t and at end of the book, in my “Somebody” chapter, I push back against that idea. They’ve usually advocated community policing, citizen review boards, body cameras, etc. But, to now see that fleshed out is so important and powerful.
We don’t need reform. We need radical change and they are offering us a model for that.
KPK: Do you think that the fact that we have had a Black Lives Matter movement form under President Obama shows us he has failed to address issues of race and class as president?
MLH: I think there is certainly some room to critique President Obama and how he has handled these issues. We need to place as much pressure on President Obama and any sitting U.S. President. We need to push them on these issues.
But the Black Lives Matter movement emerges because of state violence against black bodies and state violence against black bodies is something that has occurred since the moment black people landed on the shores of America in 1619. Even before there was an official state, there were forms of state violence against black bodies …
I don’t want to place the blame on President Obama as if he is the reason, or his negligence has caused crisis. What I will say is that President Obama has continued the very long American tradition of not addressing the root causes of state violence, not addressing the root causes of gross inequality and I am looking forward to the moment where we can do that in ways that are more responsible and more transformative.
KPK: It would be rude of me not to give you an opportunity to plug your new VH1 program. Tell us a little bit about it.
MLH: Oh, man. VH1 Live is a great opportunity to see me in a different light. It’s still smart. It’s still fun. It’s engaging, but it is pop culture driven. It’s on Sunday nights at ten o’clock and we really cover the gambit. If you love pop culture, if you love celebrity stuff, if you love reality TV, if you love what’s trending in the news, we cover all of it.
Last week we covered everything from Basketball wives to Melania Trump. And we did it in a way that was funny, fun, and exciting. VH1 has really given me an opportunity to flex all of the muscles into doing other things and I am having a ball doing it. The numbers are great, people are excited about it and we just want to keep it going.
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