This interview is archived at my book website, The New American Populists.
Here's my interview with Black Agenda Report's Glen Ford, who has been active in progressive politics for decades:
Before I get into my questions, can you tell me a bit about your background, what got you interested in politics, and how you ended up being the director of BlackAgendaReport.com:
"My father was a very successful disk jockey, and became the first Black to have his own television show in the Deep South (Rudy Rutherford, “Rockin’ with The Deuce,” 1958, Columbus, GA). I was reading (and editing) UPI wire copy on the air long before my voice changed. (“Deuce, you’re daughter sure can read that news!”) In my teens, I did “record hops” in clubs and juke-joints all over southwest Georgia and eastern Alabama, and occasionally did a weekend radio show.
When I emerged from a three year stint in the Army in January, 1970 (Sgt., 82nd Airborne Division), I got a job as newsman at James Brown’s Augusta, Georgia radio station, WEDOW-AM. Discovering that the “list” of all the “important” Black folks in town – people who were to be contacted for comment on local political developments – was comprised almost entirely of Reverends of Bishops, I immediately tore the list down and created my own. Informally, I called it my Committee of Ten: grassroots folk who were actually active in issues of housing, education, social welfare, criminal justice, business development, voting rights, etc. As a result of my putting these people “on the air” every day in hourly newscast – and my exclusion of most of the old clerical crowd – a new Black “leadership” arose in Augusta, within the space of weeks. After all, they were “on the radio.” They must be leaders!
This experience was a kind of revelation for me. Just after turning 20, I had discovered in practice the dramatic effect that media could have on “leadership” structures and perceptions – a fantastic arena for political activism. Despite the horribly low wages, I was hooked.
I applied the same formula for leadership-creation at local stations in Columbus, Georgia, Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC (where I created my first six-station syndication, “Black World Report” in 1972), the Mutual Black Network (86 stations, as Capitol Hill, State Department and White House correspondent, and Washington Bureau Chief, 1974 – 77).
In January, 1977, I co-founded and hosted “America’s Black Forum,” the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. We were the first Black entity to consistently generate news, picked up by UPI, AP, Reuters, Agence France Press, Tass (!) nearly every week. No other Black news organization has even come close, since my four-year stewardship of ABF.
(Soon after selling my stock in ABF, I founded a short-lived magazine called “The Black Commentator” – but could not sustain the costs of print.)
In 1979, while still operating ABF, I founded “Black Agenda Reports,” five daily short-form programs on Black Women, Sports, Business, Entertainment and History (66 stations). Our features programming output exceeded both then-existing Black radio networks, combined.
After the Reagan administration gutted the budget of our major sponsor, AMTRAK (1981), I traveled and freelanced and engaged in more grassroots activities (by then I lived on the Upper West Side, Manhattan) and wrote a book, “The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion” (1985, International Organization of Journalists).
During the “America’s Black Forum” and “Black Agenda Report” period, I was also the National Columnist for Encore, the African American news and political analysis magazine.
In the summer of 1987, I created and hosted the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music program, “Rap It Up” (65 stations). The show lasted until January 1994, brought down by the advent of Gangsta’ Rap.
With my contacts in the recording and advertising industry, I then earned a modest living doing radio commercials and TV voice-overs, and continued freelancing. (Also did a one-year bit editing a small northern New Jersey Black weekly newspaper.)
The Internet was nearing maturity, and in April, 2002, I hooked up with my old partner in “America’s Black Forum,” Peter Gamble, to found BlackCommentator.com. Our objective was to fill the gaping whole in Black political analysis and commentary. In our first two weeks of operations, we made the front page of the New York Times. We also take credit for Cory Booker’s defeat in his first run for mayor of Newark, as the only media to expose his intimate associations with the Bradley Foundation, Manhattan Institute, and other Hard Right outfits. By the last weeks of the campaign, incumbent Sharpe James’ street workers were handing out copies of BC article – their only effective offensive campaign literature – and visitors to the Mayor’s website had to first click to BC’s site, before they even saw a picture of the Mayor!
More than twenty years after Augusta, I was still doing “leadership creation-removal.”
In October of this year, the entire crew of BC regulars (Bruce Dixon, Margaret Kimberley, Leutisha Stills, of the Congressional Black Caucus Monitor) and I left to found BlackAgendaReport.com. BAR’s mission is to expand upon what was begun at BC, only bigger and better, and to introduce new platforms for social change, on and off the Internet.
A lot out has been left out of this chronicle, but I think you have enough."
When I first came across your work, you were over at BlackCommentator - the first piece of yours I read was about the importance of organized labor to the economic status of black folks and the importance of black trade unionists to the Labor Movement as a whole. As I remember, this was just before the breakup of the AFL-CIO and Andy Stern of the SEIU was calling for consolidation that would have made it harder for black trade unionists to have fair representation. Can you talk about the relationship between African Americans and organized labor, and where you think the labor movement should be going?
"The problem with Blacks and labor has always been white racism. It is the central contradiction in the American labor “movement” – the overarching source of U.S. labor’s historical weakness and, therefore, the pygmyfication of the American Left, which is also saturated with Eurocentricism (another way to say racism). White workers cut off their own noses to spite Black faces. The historical failure to effectively organize in the South was almost entirely rooted in white labor leaders’ racial attitudes – a betrayal that later came back to haunt them, although too late for significant correction.
Yet African Americans have long been known by white employers as “joiners” – meaning, they are the first to attempt to form and join unions. Numerous studies have consistently shown that group enthusiasm for unions is as follows, in descending order:
The SEIU, AFSCME, the UFCW and a few other unions have in recent years attempted to revive the labor movement by “organizing the unorganized” – and we give them their due. And despite racism at the top and on the shop floor, Blacks are – or at least were – over-represented in the manufacturing industries of the Northeast and Midwest. However, deindustrialization has devastated this sector, and especially Black workers. In 2004, 55% of the union manufacturing jobs lost were Black jobs!
Yet during this same period of cruel attrition, the SEIU’s leadership along with others made their move to split the labor movement, and to gut the race-gender inclusion reforms that had been instituted at the AFL-CIO only a few years earlier – symptomatic of the abiding racism in white labor and what passes for the white Left. The racial aspect of “reform” was hardly discussed, even in left- and labor-oriented publications.
The idiot deed has been done. But we are pleased to report that Black labor, whether their unions are affiliated with the shrunken AFL-CIO or SEIU chief Andy Stern’s new outfit, is united. Cadre from both federations work together without friction through the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists – the best example of labor solidarity in the US of A."
Bush's policies and conservative policies in general leading back to Ronald Reagan have had a major impact on manufacturing in this country. How has that affected Black America?
"It must be noted that the disinvestment in the northern cities and factories began long before wholesale exportation of jobs beyond the nation’s borders. The Seventies and Eighties rush to the Sunbelt – where the imposition of right-to-work laws was historically inseparable from racial subjugation – should have been a last minute warning for white-led labor. But racism is a mental illness, and they could not read the proverbial handwriting. As usual, Black workers suffered disproportionately in the relocation of jobs to the South and, later, overseas."
How do you define the term "progressive"? What does it mean to be a progressive in today's political environment?
"Good question, since the Right has usurped the English language, destroying the meaning of terms like “reform.” The corporatist Democratic Leadership Council has the gall to front a think tank called the Progressive Policy Institute. And we all know that Democracy = laissez fair Capitalism.
“Progressive” has always been linked to anti-corporate, anti-rule-of-the-rich politics – although not necessarily to anti-racist politics. Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressives led the charge against the Trusts, the corporate cartels – but Teddy and most of the rest were racists. The “progressive” income tax had a double meaning: the rich would pay progressively more of their income in taxes, plus it was designed to keep the rich from replicating themselves on the backs of the rest of us, and was therefore “progressive” in the political sense. The Communist Party USA deployed the term in the Thirties as a kind of code word to designate those non-communist organizations and tendencies that were, nevertheless, on the “correct” side of most issues, and could be worked with.
Since the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties, no organization or tendency that is not actively anti-racist can be deemed “progressive,” no matter how hard they fight against massed capital. We at BAR use the term much as the CPUSA did, to identify those who are on the correct side of most issues. We are much more careful than many other African Americans to differentiate between “progressive” Black organizations and tendencies, and those that are eager to collaborate with the Powers-That-Are.
It’s not a science, much less rocket science, and the term must always be understood in a political and historical context."
You've written a lot lately about the failure of the CBC under the leadership of chairman Mel Watt. What do you think should be the highest priorities of the CBC, and what factors do you see as keeping those priorities from being achieved?
"During most of the CBC’s existence since 1969, it operated on the basis of consensus. That was easy, since virtually all members voted generally along the lines of the (still) existing Black Political Consensus on social and economic justice, peace, racial equality, and fairness in the marketplace. The Caucus could take a stand as a body based on these consensus positions and, therefore, could credibly claim to be “the conscience of the Congress.”
Beginning in the mid-Nineties, however, the Corporate Right finally realized that Black Republicanism was a dead end (no Black Republican has served in House from a majority Black district since 1935). The post-Sixties strategy of subsidizing rightwing Black educators as spokespersons for “Black conservatism” had made no impact on the Black polity. Beginning with initiatives by the Bradley Foundation, the Right began to woo Black Democrats in earnest; for the first time, they sought to directly subvert Black leadership structures, including the CBC.
New York Rep. Floyd Flake was their first big catch; he now is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Harold Ford, Jr. (TN) made his move to the right in his 1998-2000 terms, abandoning his own and his father’s progressive voting record. The DLC jumped into the task of CBC subversion with both feet, capturing Ford, Reps. Gregory Meeks (NY), Al Wynn (MD) and Sanford Bishop (GA). Later, the DLC’s corporate money and corporate media succeeded in electing Denise Majette (GA) and Artur Davis (AL) at the expense of progressives Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard, respectively.
The CBC consensus was broken. Four Caucus members voted for Bush’s war in 2002. By 2005, ten would vote for the Republicans’ infamous Bankruptcy Act. This year, two-thirds of the CBC caved in to the Telecom’s hideous Cable and Internet legislation. As a body, the CBC can no longer be called progressive. The CBC has no priorities other than the standard civil-rights fare that many Republicans will also support, such as extension of the Voting Rights Act. Nothing will save it but a purge of members, district by district – a monumental undertaking that will require a wholesale reevaluation of Black politics."
You have a lot of negative things to say about the Chairman. What has he done to undermine the situation for African Americans, and what would you do if you were in his position to turn that situation around?
"Mel Watt votes progressive almost all of the time, yet shudders at the thought of confronting the critical mass of corporate-bought members of the CBC – which shows him to be a true wimp. He has punked out repeatedly under the slightest pressure from House Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose pre-2004 mid-term elections project was to smother the Left, especially the Caucus, so as to upset as few white voters as possible. There is no reason to believe that she won’t do the same in the run-up to 2008, although thankfully Mel Watt will no longer be her Black Whip as CBC chairman. Watts bullying and isolation of Rep. Cynthia McKinney was despicable (and sexist) in the extreme.
Regarding the second part of your query: I don’t answer questions that place me in positions I don’t covet, since such questions presume I would be willing to do all the things that those who hold those positions have done to get there. Black elected officials, like other elected officials, only do the right thing when the people forcefully make their wishes known, and when the immediate political environment favors it. Our job is to change the environment in Black America.
While there is still time, progressives in the Caucus must act on their own to endorse progressive positions. Despite the disastrous, money-fueled Telecom vote, I believe there still exists a clear progressive majority in the Caucus, probably amounting to more than two-thirds of members. In the absence of a consensus, progressives must push for majority (or two-thirds) Sense of the Caucus resolutions on critical issues, so that the 6 to 8 bought-off members become isolated and exposed, no longer able to paralyze the workings of the CBC as a whole."
For me, Hurricane Katrina was a huge wake-up call to White America - an event that showed clearly the inherent racism built into our society. And yet, now that the event is over a year behind us, it seems that American politics have shifted away from trying to solve the problems Katrina showed us. Why do you think the plight of African Americans specifically is given so little attention by the corporate media? Is there anything African Americans can do to change that?
"The corporate media follow the corporate line: race is no longer a major factor in American life. Even dramatic visual proof to the contrary, as with Katrina, does not alter the line for long. How can that be changed? I’ll give you the same answer that is applicable to most questions of that kind: we must rebuild, reinvent, a mass movement of Blacks and whatever allies are worthy to stand with us. There is no other solution. In the process, African Americans must dislodge the opportunists who shut down the mass movement three-and-a-half decades ago, in order to pursue their own interests while still clinging to the mantle of leadership. New leadership emerges from struggle, and there is no struggle without youth. The issues of mass incarceration, gentrification and jobs (not petty entrepreneurship – jobs) are what motivates Black youth.
Katrina was a fast-forward of capitalist intentions for urban America: gentrification and Black expulsion from the cities, the destruction of Black political power centers, and total corporate control of “development.” The response of Black “leadership” has been totally inadequate, as should have been expected, since they have not tackled the same, slower-moving processes that are underway in their own cities."
You operate an organization that publishes information for citizens online. And yet, a small group of African Americans relative to the population have access to high-speed internet. Indeed, many families of color don't even have computers. How relevant can BAR be without a change in this situation? What can be done to increase internet access to people that don't now have it?
"BAR, like its predecessor Black Commentator, targets Black leadership, in the broadest sense of the term. It is not designed for the street corner, but to influence those who help shape the opinions of others. (The term “influencers” is well known in the media trades.) Most of these influencers are wired. They are politicians and their staffs, political activists from the grassroots to the suites of the Urban League, opinionated academics and conscientious public school teachers, labor cadre, journalists, the most aggressive and effective leaders of tenant and block associations – the broadest swath of Black opinion molders, and those non-Black activists whose work is important to African Americans.
If I were to give an example of a publication with a similar targeting strategy – and this will surprise you – it would be the troglodyte Weekly Standard. This rightwing rag’s circulation is probably one-third that of The Nation, but when it speaks, the entire rightwing power structure listens. The White House takes heed.
This is not a numbers game, although one must reach a critical mass of one’s target audience. The time is long past when Black publications can be all things to all African Americans. Blacks are a distinct polity (what we used to call a “nation”) within the United States. We need both mass organs (which should be the mission of Black-oriented radio, but that’s another subject) and organs that influence the influencers – just like everybody else in the larger USA."
If you could change one thing in government, and it could not be overturned, what would it be, and why?
"Whatever laws and precedents that make corporations the equal of citizens. THAT would be the greatest sea change I can imagine within the parameters of bourgeois democracy."
Are there any things ordinary citizens can do to help African Americans achieve equality in America? What are you doing that you think other people should be doing more of, and what should we be doing less of as a society to get there?
"Once we get a movement going that is worthy of popular participation, people should join, shape, and lead it. Simple, huh? More immediately, folks must organize on the ground in their own neighborhoods, affinity groups and workplaces. Popular power is not a commodity, which can be bought. It must be wrestled from the few who hold power and use it against the rest of us. There is great satisfaction and dignity in resistance – in the act of taking responsibility for the destiny of others, and your own."
Glen, thank so much for taking the time to chat with me. I guess we have time for one last question, regarding corporate personhood:
If corporations are to be considered as persons, shouldn't they have to pay the same percentage of their income we'd have to pay if we make over fifty thousand bucks a year?
"For just one small example of what stripping corporations of "personhood" would mean: Corportions would no longer have their own "free speech" rights. That's at the heart of the struggle to control campaign spending, or better put, to roll back corporate domination of the entire electoral process, which has nullified "democracy" in even the weak "American" sense of the term.
Regarding the white Left: It is they who have no real solidarity with the other groups, primarily Blacks, who make up the majority of what is "left" in the United States. I told the board and staff of The Nation as much, when I spoke before them in early 2005. Solidarity means, at the very least, sharing resources. Because of historical white privilege, even the white Left has vastly more resources than African Americans, whose politics are the most consistently progressive of any group in the nation. That's why the white Left have The Nation, In These Times, Mother Jones, The Progressive, and lots of other political publications, and Blacks have...none. This extreme dispartiy weakens the "left" as a whole, creating vast imbalances. We, Blacks, vote "left" in concentrated numbers that equal or surpass the white Left's scattered electoral presence. Yet the white Left actually believes that they are at the center of the action. What Eurocentric madness!!
More than a decade ago, The Nation did a cover story purporting to show a political "map" of the U.S. Left. There were all kinds of "alternative" white tendencies, from organic food boosters to open-source computer tinkerers to gender groups of all kinds...the whole counterculture. But no Blacks. I knew then that whoever commissioned the cover story was out of his/her mind, hopelessly caught up in alternative Whiteness, and not a progressive at all."