WHY WE NEED TO DREAM – Award-Winning Author Gary Younge on MLK, Inequality and Race
A remarkable conversation with a great thinker and giant of journalism who has covered the great stories of our time. We ask what can be learnt from MLK about the fight against inequality? What holds back change and what is the role of journalism? How can America heal under Biden? We talk about the place of idealism in politics and how we can bring together struggles – and win.
Nadia and Nabil speak to the brilliant award-winning journalist, prolific author and now professor of sociology Gary Younge, for a special episode of the EQUALS podcast timed with the Davos Meeting of the World Economic Forum. Gary was formerly editor-at-large for The Guardian, the author of five books including “Another Day in the Death of America”, and as a journalist covered major historical moments around the world.
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This is the latest episode of the EQUALS podcast this season – and if you’re joining us for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, to thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, Darrick Hamilton on racism in the economy, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.
The following is a truncated “transcript” but you can listen to the full episode below or on your preferred podcast platform!
Realizing MLK’s Vision
Nabil kicks off the interview asking Gary how close we are to realizing MLK’s vision.
Gary answers, “(Honestly,) not very. True, an awful lot has changed since 1963 … it’s true that in 1963, a significant section of the globe was under either segregation of colonialism; couldn’t vote; didn’t have the basic rights of citizenship. We’ve moved ahead but … having the right to eat in the restaurant, but if you do not have the money to actually afford what’s on the menu: it’s really an abstract right. … A bit of the speech that’s often quoted says, ‘It’s their character, not the colour of their skin, that people should be judged by’. A bit less quoted is where he says, ‘America issued us a promissory note and it came back with insufficient funds and we’re here to cash that cheque.’”
He continues, “If you look at the state of African Americans now: the degree (of their) the wealth disparity, the income disparity, the unemployment disparity; America has a huge amount of work to do. One of these was interesting about Black Lives Matter was how it pollinated all over the world and that in various parts of the world, it found a home for people who are dispossessed discriminated against, which speaks to the degree to which this is not purely an American problem.”
Gary adds, “… King was incredibly militant against war … but he also talked about economic and wealth redistribution in his speech, Where do we go from here? He says, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America? When you begin to ask that question, you’re raising question about the economic system; about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And then he goes, ‘When you deal with this you begin to ask a question who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, why is it that people have to pay water bills in the world that’s two-thirds water.?’ And so, he understands anti-racism as being only possible with the fundamental transformation of society, which is not the same as children singing kumbaya.”
Nadia echoes that the issues we face are not siloed. It’s not just about wealth inequality. It’s about race and gender As billionaires gather at Davos (virtually this year), Nadia asks Gary, “How should we be thinking about bringing these issues together today? And what have you seen that helps you bring these issues together?”
Gary answers, “… It’s not possible to understand racism and race in the West, independently of class and it’s not possible to understand class independently of race and the same is true … for gender, sexuality. … The moments at which working class people had the most significant gains is when they’ve been united and the moments when black people have had their my significant gains, is when … they have been part of a broader coalition. If you look at who is poor, and why they’re poor, and where they’re poor, then you can see a kind of historical lineage to this poverty. … You can’t understand where Africa is in relation to Western Europe or American without understanding colonialism. You can’t understand where black people are in America without understanding slavery and imperialism. Those things don’t just stop because we get bored. They don’t just stop because they were a long time ago. They remain issues until they are addressed.
He continues, “… We saw this with COVID. The disproportionate numbers of black people … and other minorities… It’s not that the virus prefers black people. It’s not that the virus discriminates. It’s that society has discriminated in ways that means they are more likely to live in cramped surroundings, more likely to work on buses and tubes where it’s public place. More likely to be nurses. They’re not suffering because they’re black. They’re suffering because they’re poor and black people are more likely to be poor. So, any demand that black people make around COVID for better-testing, tracing, better shielding, better PPE; will benefit all poor people and that will benefit everyone. One of the things that this virus (and period) has shown us, is that you can try and silo yourself off in terms of class or race or nation, but we’re all inter-connected. If the developing (and underdeveloped) world don’t get these vaccines, then we will still have the virus in the world. It will still come and get us.”
He concludes, “… If we open our eyes, ears, hearts and minds, (we will get) a realization about the degree to which it is possible, plausible feasible, or even desirable to understand ourselves separately.”
What are we doing wrong?
Nabil then wonders what could be stopping us from bringing all these issues together.
Gary explains, “There can be a lack of imagination, that likes to understand people as just one thing. … Then I think that there is an issue of formation, capacity or framing that we’ve lost … about what the problem is. (For) example, my last book was about all of the kids that were shot dead in one day in America. It’s called Another Day in the Death of America. When I asked the parents of the children who died the open-ended question, ‘What do you think this is about?’, none of them mentioned guns, because what are you going to do about guns? They’re kind of everywhere. When I said, what do you think of guns, then they had opinions. Then I conclude that it’s a bit like traffic. If your kid was run over, and you’re asked, ‘what do you think?’ You’ll say, ‘Maybe there should be stop lights. Might there should be a stop sign. Maybe we should change the speed limit. No one is going to say ‘Let’s get rid of traffic’ because you can’t imagine a world without traffic. (The parents couldn’t) imagine a world without guns, or racism or poverty (which also never came up). So, instead they would talk about other parents and how they don’t love their kids enough, because that was something that you could do something about. Even when they were themselves being condemned in the press…”
Gary concludes saying, “… I feel that we can be a bit like that when it comes to poverty and inequality. That in the absence of a framing about how inequality happens; who’s getting the profits; who’s doing the work; who needs the rights; … and in the absence of major movements pushing against that, people are more likely to turn on themselves or each other or talk about the asylum-seeker, the Roma, the Gypsy, the Black, the Jew … and to say well, it’s them! They’ve got my biscuit. The fact that somebody else has got 29 biscuits escapes you. I see … that emerging politically around the world. There is a renewed conversation about capitalism: what it does; what it doesn’t do; what it’s worth; what alternatives there might be even in American. That’s what gives me hope but I feel that absent that framing, there is a sense that, well there are these billionaires in Davos. I can’t do anything about them, but there are asylum-seekers “who are taking our jobs…”. I’m going to talk about them instead.”
Media Coverage v. “Higher Influence”
Nadia notes the media’s crucial role in highlighting injustice but also points to the media’s reluctance to do so in certain instances. She then asks Gary, “How real are the strings of wealth of media ownership? How much are those really constraining the ability of journalists to cover these difficult issues?”
Gary explains, “… You don’t need an owner to tell you what to write or what not to write. You just need a culture, that says, that’s what not going to get in. … then people work within the parameters of that culture. … The argument would be that this is boring and we know this already. … If you don’t feel that you are affected by the poverty, the racism, the inequality, poor housing; if it’s not in your world, then it’s boring. … If you had more diverse people in newsrooms, then people would be saying, well it’s not boring for me. It’s actually my life. … Secondly, if you were interested, it just takes a more imaginative way of looking at these things and saying yes, poverty is not new, but the fact that it’s still with us should be new. Then we have to find ways to maintain a vivid sense of what it means and what it does.”
Bernie’s Mittens and All That: What to Expect from the Biden Administration
Nabil asks Gary how he’s feeling and what his thoughts are following the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.
Gary answers, “I share the relief and joy that Trump is gone. My trouble is when people say now we can get back to normal, because normal was what got us there and that what Trump actually exposed clearer than anything else, … was how deep-rooted the challenges are in terms of transforming society, the State and people’s minds. … We need to have some sense of a bigger possibility and that demands … a concrete offer that goes beyond kumbaya, let’s all get together. … I hope against (Biden’s) actual record to date, … which is not transformative and has been actually quite reactionary, that he ends up like LBJ, who showed very little promise, I would say, … who emerged in a completely unlikely fashion with the assassination of JFK and brought us the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare. …
Coming to the end of the interview Nadia states, “… As progressives we find ourselves forever berated for being unrealistic and thinking that this other world is possible and maybe even hearing the word ‘utopian’”. She asks, “What is the place of idealism in politics?
According to Gary, “… I think idealism is central. You have to imagine, Martin Luther King on August 28th, 1963 reaches the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and doesn’t have a dream but says, ‘I have a 10-point plan that will get us from here and will get us this legislation through Congress’; but he didn’t. He had a dream. He looked above and beyond what he saw in that moment, … and said look, we need a better world. It’s essential to have a vision of the world that we want. Of course, we know that it’s not going to come tomorrow. You’ve got to wake up and actually go do the hard work. … In the absence of imagining our own utopia, … dystopias will intervene. The other people and they’re dreaming of terrible things. They’re dreams are our nightmares.”
He adds, “There’s a range of things that we see now that were not dreamt of even 20 years ago. Gay marriage. Who knew?”
Gary powerfully concludes, “So, it is absolutely fundamental and absolutely crucial that we, alongside our hard-headed, pragmatic day-to-day work, that we dream about the direction in which we’re going.”
Thank you for listening, visiting the blog and leaving us reviews on Apple Podcasts! See you next time, with music artist, activist-extraordinaire Pilato.
To read this year’s Oxfam Davos report, The Inequality Virus, visit here.