Big Think Interview with Glen Ford

A Conversation with the The Executive Editor of
  • Transcript


Question: Describe today’s crisis in African-American politics.

Glen Ford: The crisis stems for the contradictions between the two main currents in black politics. One sometimes is called the assimilations current, and that is that the struggle is about equality and nothing else; citizenship, rights, and nothing else—to become Americans and that's it. Once we have achieved this American-ness, then the movement is over. The other current is, I call, the self-determinationist current, which recognizes African Americans as a distinct people having become a distinct people here in this country, who have the right to chose their own political path, to try to build a word as they see it based upon a world of view that they are entitled to because of their peoplehood which they achieved in this country. Often, in fact, certainly all the way through the '60s, these two currents ran parallel to each other in the same direction.

However, once we achieved legal status as full Americans, the contradictions between the two currents—the one that we just like to assimilate, and measured its progress by how American-like we were, and the other which wanted to express our view of the world, to shape the world as we thought it should be shaped. That, of course, is done politically. There was a divergence there. These contradictions have come to the inevitable head with the election of Barack Obama.

Question: What change does Barack Obama represent to the African-American community?

Glen Ford: Well, it certainly is a profound change in terms of that current that seeks to be totally integrated into this American project. It does not challenge that American project, a project that began with genocide and enslavement and continues as imperialism. So, for those who simply wanted to integrate into this American project, as Martin Luther King once said to Harry Belafonte, "Run into a burning house," this is the epiphany. This is the end of things. This is the reason to call a halt to the movement.

But for those of us whose project is not a continuation of this American project from genocide and slavery, and not to imperialism—certainly, that was no signal for us to end our struggle.

Question: Are Obama's compromises part of a larger progressive plan?

Glen Ford: Obama is a Corporate Democrat. He's a corporatist. He's exactly what he seems to be. Within the black community, there is this notion, almost generally shared, that Obama is winking at us, that he's playing a game until he secures his position of authority to the extent that he can become his own man. This is when the “brother” Obama will emerge, and we should just wink and be supportive of him, not do anything that might weaken him. At some point, this blacker Obama, this more progressive Obama, this independent Obama, this anti-corporate Obama, will make himself known. We at Black Agenda Report have no such illusions. He is a Corporate Democrat who ideologically and practically is no different than Bill Clinton or his wife.

I think in fact that Obama is pretty much the perfect corporate guy. I could see him in a very large multi-national corporation with big holdings in the United States—something like a Ford or a General Motors or the old Ford and the old General Motors. Obama would be the kind of executive who would try to reconcile the various profit centers within Ford, let's say, and, more importantly, reconcile the different imperatives in that corporation. There would be some parts of the corporation who's job it is to kill the competition, to trim workers remuneration at every point of production. These are the mean guys.

Then there are other parts of the corporation who's job it is to present that the whole institution as benign. This is the part that says, “Ford is good for Michigan, Ford is a native son, Ford cares about you, Ford contributes to your charities,” you see. That's the benign section of the corporation. All of them have a job to do and sometimes they're antithetical but they are all necessary for the machine to run.

Barack Obama would be great at that. So if we are talking about the United States as a corporation, he does that perfectly. He tries—or attempts to do it—he tries to reconcile the irreconcilable. He's going to reconcile labor and management. He's going to reconcile blacks and whites and browns by inviting representatives of each to have a beer on the White House lawn. This is what a corporate guy would do. He seems to come from that mold.

Question: What do you make of Barack Obama’s race speech?

Glen Ford:  Barack Obama is speaking from basically the same position as Bill Cosby. It is also a position that is quite fine, jives very well with what corporate power, the way corporate power would like you to think. Let’s go back again, however, to black politics and I mean that in a broad sense. Usually the conversation revolves around questions of self-help, and people like Crosby and the words that Barack Obama is mouthing will always go back to self-help, we need to help ourselves. This line of argument basically rules out political organization of the people, putting masses of people in motion as a kind of self-help, when in fact, it is the most important self-help that we can possibly engage in. We did put ourselves in motion in the late ‘50’s and the ‘60’s and into the early ‘70’s and during that very brief period of time, we made greater strides than we had ever made in the United States of America. And it wasn’t because we pooled our money and formed black businesses and bought shares in a black star line, it was because we organized at every level that we were represented and demanded change. That is self-help.

So when we hear these “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” clichés, what we’re hearing is folks saying, “You don’t need to be organizing and making all that noise. Just clean yourself up and put on a tie and apply for a job and if you don’t get it, come back again and try to get yourself some education, but don’t you dare, don’t you dare organize against the powers that be.” When, in fact, that is the ultimate self-help. And you’re helping everybody else as well.

Question: Can an activist politician succeed in modern American government?

Glen Ford: Probably not. This is still a thoroughly racist country. If the goal is to elect a black president and declare the struggle over, I suppose then you would say that Barack Obama is fighting the black fight. You see there are two currents, that's what I began talking about. If you simply want to reconcile the black presence in America with the larger society, that is with white rule, and I mean rule not from the White House but rule in all the important power centers of the country. Then we have achieved our victory. If that is not what your goal is, if your goal is to reshape the world we live in then Obama is now in the opposition.

Question: Is the failure one of the electoral process itself?

Glen Ford: Now, there is a role, a place, for electoral politics. There’s especially a place in electoral politics for black people who have not fulfilled all of the possibilities of electoral politics. There’s a lot more work to be done, and gaining the White House is really not part of it. So I’m not speaking about the futility of electoral politics.

When you have unfinished business—that is, black folks still not having achieved everything that could be achieved within the context of what we used to call, or should call, “bourgeois democracy,” in the years since the passages of all those civil rights acts. Then certainly, it is legitimate and the thing to do.

That it’s the only way you change society is absolutely foolish, because the menu has been prepared—it doesn’t matter whether Barack Obama was the best choice on the menu that was put in front of us. If we are to accept any of those choices as being enough, then we are nothing but consumers of their crap. We shouldn’t even be talking about going to another restaurant. We should be reexamining the whole system of delivery of the meal.

Question: What advice would you give someone who wants to create real change?

Glen Ford: The thing that is most important to know, for people who want to engage in struggle on behalf of their fellow human beings, is that, objectively speaking, this system is on its last legs—that we are actually privileged to be able to witness the demise of a system that has destroyed so many millions of people. We are watching it self-destruct, because it always had within it the seeds of its own destruction. We’re watching it self-destruct right in front of our eyes. And though struggle is always painful, and you’ve never won until you actually have won and it is possible to become demoralized at every juncture, and it looks like the man is still in as much control as he was yesterday, objectively he’s not. And once you understand that, then it’s easily understandable, if you study what is actually happening with the world economy and the relationship of forces. Once you understand that you’re on the winning side, well, hey, that’s a hell of an adrenalin [rush] and you can make it through to the next stage.

Question: Can you give a specific example of a success story?

Glen Ford: Well, life is large and there’s almost an infinite number of doorways to helping other people, that’s what struggle is all about, and helping yourself, that one could enter. I was fascinated by the story of a group in Baltimore, a group of young people. They banded together to create tutoring classes—these were all high school graduates going to college, but they decided that they could best help their community by tutoring high schoolers who were in danger of dropping out. And so that’s a good bootstrap, you know, help the community, self-help kind of stuff.

But they demanded that the city and county and state fund and expand their efforts and when there was no positive response, they launched direct action. That is, demonstrations, and all kinds of direct actions to demand state financing for the vital work that they were doing. So they combined that kind of bootstrap, help your own community, cast down your bucket approach, with direct action. Give us our money, because it’s all our money, so that we can efficiently help our own people. I thought that was just a fantastic approach for people who are 19, 20, 20 years old, to take.

But with just a little imagination, there are other promising doors that people can walk through, that’s just one. I thought it was very interesting.

Question: What is the historical importance of black radio to African Americans?

Glen Ford: My father was a big disc jockey so he coerced me into reading the news on the air during his radio shifts before my voice even changed. When I got out of the military in 1970, I actually had no experience in doing anything worthwhile or that could get one paid except jumping out of airplanes and talking on the radio. So that's when I entered radio in 1970. It was a wonderful period. The black radio format had exploded all across the country. By that time, there were now hundreds of black radio stations, but because we had just experienced the '60s and that wonderful period of people in motion, people demanded of those radio stations that they be accountable to that newly awakened community. So every radio station, virtually every black oriented radio station in the country was compelled to hire full-time at least one newscaster.

This was a whole new core of news people that didn't even exist five years before. All of the sudden there are hundreds of radio news people at stations that didn't even exist five years before who were trying to figure out how do we serve the community. What occurred was a beautiful synergy between a movement which still was vital and energetic and a bunch of young broadcasters whose self-assigned job was to report on the movement. In that process, new leadership, which comes up all the time in the community, found themselves with a voice on the air through a medium that was speaking directly to their people, not a general format medium that is speaking to everybody, but black radio that was speaking to your community. That became a megaphone for our black conversation that had never existed before. It unleashed, or empowered, a whole new layer generation of leadership to take on projects that they might have not taken on before without the presence of newscasters on the medium that their friends and family and neighbors were listening to, paying attention to them and treating them as black leaders.

Black radio then became an incubator for emerging black leadership. It was a wonderful and very vibrant time, but as radio consolidated, as things always do under capitalism, black radio also consolidated and began shedding its newsrooms. In 1973, in Washington D.C., three black oriented radio stations fielded 21 reporters. That's a black radio press core of its own in that city. Much the same was happening in big and small cities all across the country. In Washington D.C., today, there are six black oriented radio stations. Together they field only four reports. The black radio is no longer an incubator for black leadership and I believe that these decades of deterioration and now near extinction of black radio news has contributed to the leadership crisis that we have in black America.

Who is the leader? Who is choosing the leaders? You see what I am saying? The incubator is gone and now the discourse is entirely in the hands of a corporate media which is also white, even if it employs other black folks it's still a white corporate medium.

Question: Does new media provide a balance to corporate-controlled news?

Glen Ford: My take on this is also rather different than my colleagues. I don't see this new media as being in any way a real counterbalance to the [control] of the corporate media. Black Agenda Report, for example, reaches 25,000 readers per issue. They are very smart people. We chose them and they chose us and they are movers and shakers. We think we do as good a job as we can of influencing their thought processes. However, there is no way that that can, in any way, compete with the nature of broadcasters who also control most of what we can new media. So the decline of broadcast television does not mean that the corporate voice is in decline, it means the corporate voice is more -- has infiltrated many other areas of media, establishing its homogenizing standards including new media.

Question: How has corporate control of media affected the black community?

Glen Ford: If I can use an example, which I think is a telling one; it certainly opened my eyes from hip-hop. In 1987, I co-founded the first rap music syndication on commercial radio called Rap It Up. Eventually, we had 66 stations. This was another wonderful period in black culture. All of these young people who had found a vehicle for their own cultural and political expression doing their own thing through about five or six independent labels, almost all of them in New York. It took off like wild fire. The big labels looked at it, as corporations do, to see how they could get in. It took them a couple of years, but by about 1990 they began buying up the original independent hip-hop labels and preparing to make their big move. They were going to own hip-hop, but they were rather confused as corporate types are with new phenomenon. These were new numbers and they didn't understand them.

Then in 1991, one of the big labels did a study. What they found was something kind of amazing. They found that the most active consumers of hip-hop were 11 and 12 year olds. That's called tweens in the business. These are not yet even teenagers. They saw that that was a fantastic figure. No other genre of music had gone a core listenership that was that young. Even R&B was 15, 16, 17 years old, but here they had 12 and 13 year olds. It was as if they were struck by lightening; they said, "We will take over this medium and tailor the product for what we now know because of our study is the most active consuming group." From that moment on, they made rap product pre-juvenile.

Now what did juveniles like? What do 12 and 13 year olds like? Boys as well as girls. They like to curse. Remember when you were that age. It's those curse words rolling off your tongue, it's almost -- it's a very sensual feeling. So their product was full of gratuitous profanity. In fact, they began bringing in very young groups that were foul of mouth because that's what the study told them these 12 and 13 year olds would like. There is another characteristic of the 12 and 13 year old, especially the boys but also the girls. Especially the boys, however. That's misogyny. Eleven and 12 year old boys don't know how to deal with girls. So they act like they hate them. There is a kind of juvenile misogyny that is part of that period of human development. The corporations understood that too and so they saturated their product with misogynist lyrics.

So here we have profanity and misogyny that is industrially fed into the music. I can't tell you how many times these young people would be sitting at my kitchen table after interviews that we would do with them, almost in tears because the labels that they were working with were pressuring them to get street. One young female artist, she was about 16 years old, actually broke down in tears and said, "They are trying to make me into a whore. They are trying to make me into a whore." And they were.

Question: What can the government or Americans do to combat this dynamic?

Glen Ford: Well, we have to break the back of corporate power. That's the project for all of humanity. We can't solve any of the world’s problems except through human collaboration and the big obstacle in our way is corporate power. Corporate power, of course, runs the United States. Corporate power and imperial power are the same things here. So, in that kind of light, then the difficulty is posed to our culture by profane and misogynist rap lyrics kind of pales in comparison, doesn't it? But it's all about breaking corporate power.

Question: What is your opinion of Obama’s handling of the Gates affair?

Glen Ford: Well, the Gates affair was probably as innocuous an example of racial profiling as it really exists in this country as one could find. Now, there are those who say that we should be grateful to Barack Obama for at least calling attention to racial profiling in any form, that he has given us this teachable moment. And, you know, we could still be having that discussion, except for the actual place, that teachable moment went. That within days, the teachable moment was playing itself out on the White House lawn with a couple of guys drinking a beer and resolving what was finally depicted as a misunderstanding among people.

Racial profiling in the United States is not about misunderstandings among individuals. Racial profiling in the United States—racial profiling in New York City sees half a million stopped and frisked every year on the streets of New York. 90 percent of them are black and Latino. Now, we know this, because the ACLU sued the City of New York and forced them to come up with the figures broken down, not just by incident, but by race. And that’s the only reason we can quantify what all black folks new was happening. Many of us, of course, were astounded that it was at that kind of scale. Half a million, more than half a million last year, if the stops and frisks continue a pace, this year they will exceed 600,000. That’s 600,000 people finding themselves in the jaws of the law, 10,000 a week, because of public policy. That has nothing to do with misunderstandings among individuals.

If we took the Obama model, I suppose the City of New York would have to invite several hundred thousand black and Latino men to Central Park to have a beer with 35,000 cops. The problem is, that the next year, the process would start all over again.

So the net result of the Gates affair was to trivialize racial profiling as it actually exists. It’s not a question of can’t we all get all along, in the famous words of, well, you remember those famous words. It’s about confronting a state policy that puts black and Latino men at risk of arbitrary action by the criminal justice system.

Question: How should Obama be handling Sudan and Darfur?

Glen Ford: Well a meaningful approach would be to stop being an imperialistic power, which tries to subject every other nation to your will. That's what imperialism is about. Within that context, humanitarian military intervention is just another excuse for military intervention. I certainly wouldn't want to be put on the other side of the line from being a humanitarian, but certainly the United States is not the power that decides what regime is humane and what is not, what is good government and what is not for other people. Since we know that the United States, just like any other imperial power, is making decisions and bringing its power to bare in order to help itself, or at least the dominant forces in the United States.

Question: Which of Obama’s actions as President have you admired?

Glen Ford: I think that Obama did do the world a service and many people on the left disagree with me, but I'll say it. I think he did the world a service with his speech in Cairo. There was nothing of substance in that speech but he did go a long way, I believe, towards reversing George Bush's rhetoric to the world, which was actually American racist’s domestic approach written globally in attempt to create false enemies of the American project in racial terms. In the Muslim world, of course, [there were racial] cues. The cues were meant for the American people in order to rally the Americans around this geo-political military crusade, but the way that George Bush went about it was to in fact incite racist emotions in the American public. The Muslim world caught that and realized that it was in fact being targeted as some kind of sub-human group on the planet.

It was necessary for -- just for the tone of discussion on planet Earth, that Obama start speaking to people as if they are human beings. That's not much to ask but in a world that has been poisoned by the rhetoric of Bush, it actually was something quite necessary. I commend him for talking to people like human beings for a change. That's not something we're used to from an American president.

Question: Who are your heroes?

Glen Ford: Domestically, I have great admiration for Cynthia McKinney. She’s the former congresswoman from Atlanta, Georgia. She was just in the news recently for participating in two humanitarian interventions or attempts at interventions in Gaza. I don’t like the word heroes or heroines, but I have great admiration for her and I think her story is worth telling, because here is a black woman who grows with every encounter, with the power structure, who explores every area of potential progress. And even when beaten down, as she was with her arrest on Capitol Hill, after being, I believe, set up by Capitol Hill police, made to look like a crazy woman, and then her subsequent defeat, decided that, “Well, just because electoral politics has turned out to be a dead end here, just because I couldn’t even get solidarity with the rest of the Congressional black caucus, doesn’t mean I give up struggle.” And so now, she’s re-making herself as a non-elected politics activist at something like 50 years of age. And I think that’s admirable. Not everybody gives up. Some of us just keep on stepping and Cynthia McKinney has my deepest admiration for doing that.

Question: Internationally, whom do you admire?

Glen Ford: Oh, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a real light to the Southern Hemisphere. He’s performed what ten years ago we would’ve considered a miracle, a real left is coalescing in Latin America and much of the credit is due to him. He never lets up. He never allows the imperialist to walk around without his name tag, imperialist. He calls George Bush a devil when he acts devilishly and Latin Americans love it. He has become a focus for the folks who the United States has treated like trash for centuries. And if you’re talking about individuals who deserve admiration, yeah, Hugo Chavez.

Question: Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve faced.

Glen Ford: Yes. And it involves Barack Obama. It’s not a long story. In June of 2003, my team was working at Every week, I would study the list of the Democratic Leadership Council, that’s the right wing corporate mechanism of the Democratic Party. I’d go to their membership list to see what black politician they had recruited that week.

In the first week of June of 2003, I went through my usual routine, and discovered that Barack Obama was listed as a member of the DLC, the right wing of the Democratic Party. I was very excited and I called my managing editor in Atlanta, Bruce Dixon, to tell him about it, but before I could blurt out that Barack Obama was a member of the DLC, he said, “Glen, before you tell me that, let me tell you, I just went to Barack Obama’s website, and he’s taken down from his website his anti-war speech, it’s not there any more.” So we both made a discovery the same day about Barack Obama and we decided that since Bruce knew Barack Obama from Chicago and since then Obama was then ranked fourth in the Democratic senatorial primary race and wanted to talk to everybody, that we would confront him on this. We spent a month going back and forth, it’s all on the record on the archives on the net, going back and forth with Barack Obama about his being listed as a member of the DLC, why did he take his anti-war speech off of his campaign website, what was his position now on healthcare, on NAFTA, and on withdrawal from Iraq. We put him through the ringer.

And finally in the end, we gave him what we called a “bright line test.” If he could answer these three questions on these three issue areas correctly, we would declare that whether or not he was in the DLC or not, he denied that he was, he should be or he should not be.

Those questions were: If you are elected to the senate, will you introduce legislation to withdraw from NAFTA? If you are elected to the senate, will you introduce legislation for single payer healthcare? If you are elected to the senate, will you introduce legislation to withdraw immediately from Iraq? He then proceeded over a period of a week to fashion answers to that question. In the end, they were a fuzzy mish-mash of non-answers and Bruce Dixon and I had a decision to make—were we going to pass him or fail him? We, at that time, did not want to be seen as the proverbial crabs in a barrel, people who are anxious, when a brother’s trying to climb up, to pull him back down.

And so even though we agreed that he had flunked the bright lines test, that he was not a progressive, we declared that he had passed the test. That was a dilemma and we failed our own test. I’ve never regretted a political decision as much as having passed Barack Obama when he should have failed the test and we never made that mistake again.

Recorded on: August 6, 2009