“The struggle of ordinary people…”
Leading organizer and scholar on Black politics and racial inequality Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor delivered the keynote at Hampshire’s Commencement May 20, as nominated by Hampshire’s 2017 graduates. Taylor teaches African American studies at Princeton University and was one of the organizers of the International Women’s Strike 2017. She is author of the critically acclaimed From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books).
EXCERPT: “I wasn’t going to say this but it’s too hilarious. I applied to Hampshire College in high school and didn’t get in so, that was many years ago. It’s good to finally be here. I want to just begin by thanking all who have made this day possible including faculty and staff, President Jonathan Lash, Board of Trustees and most importantly the students of Hampshire who invited me to come here. I’m a professor in African American Studies and I teach at an elite Ivy League university but I don’t consider myself an academic. I have always been an organizer who tries to communicate the urgency of our political moment through the lens of history and the concerns of ordinary people.
I’m not here to tell you what to do with your lives, but I will tell you what I think is necessary to be in this world we live in right now. Today is recognition of the sacrifices that you and your family have made to finish college, but you are graduating into a world of uncertainty and one that is increasingly dangerous.
These dangers manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most extreme illustration now resides in the White House. The president of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, is a racist sexist megalomaniac. It is not a benign observation but has meant tragic consequences for many people in our country.
From the terror-inducing raids in the communities of undocumented immigrants; to his disparaging of refugees in search of freedom and respite; he has empowered an attorney general who embraces and promulgates policies that have already been proven to have had a devastating impact on Black families and communities; he thinks that climate science is “fake” and his eagerness to take the country into war can only be interpreted as a callous disregard for its steep price in both money and human life. This list could continue but suffice to say that Donald Trump has fulfilled the promises of a campaign organized and built upon racism, corporatism, and militarism.
But we would be remiss to think that the new president has appeared from nowhere, inexplicably into our otherwise fine democracy. Indeed, it is impossible to understand how we got into this predicament without understanding the deep wells of bitterness, resentment, and anger that have been bubbling beneath the surface of our society for some time. This is not just about partisan battles over whether “race or class” decided the presidential election, rather, it is recognizing, simply, that the political and economic status quo have failed, over and over again, to deliver a better way for the vast majority of people in this country.
For too long, civility and good manners in electoral politics have passed as effective governance, hiding the mundane, daily struggles of ordinary people. For too long, the quietude of the status quo has been misinterpreted as indifference to inequality and injustice that pervades our nation. For millions of people, the status quo that is increasingly intolerable. It gnaws away at the tiny threads that millions of people are hanging onto in their daily struggles to make the ends meet. We live in a celebrity culture that glorifies the rich and the famous while ignoring the daily struggles of ordinary people. Imagine if we had a press, a popular culture or political class that was curious about the lives of regular people. What would they find about the status quo?
They would find the deepening crisis of opioid addiction. The status quo is found in the suffocating racism and poverty in Chicago that has created the conditions for the debilitating gun violence in the city streets that has taken hundreds of Black and Brown lives. It is found in the shocking reality that life expectancy has declined for working class white women, while 55 percent of Black workers—mostly Black women—in this country live on less than $15 an hour in meaningless jobs. The status quo is found in the fact that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants have been deported in raids. It’s found when the US military drops the mother of all bombs, the largest non-nuclear weapon, that we have media more interested in the size of the bomb than the human lives destroyed by it.
But when our political system—not this or that party—but this system is led by a billionaire president and a Congress composed mostly of white men who are millionaires, is it any wonder that most people have been left behind?”