On, April 24th, I interviewed Margaret Kimberley by phone, for my podcast, “Voices for Nature & Peace.” Kimberley is an Editor and Senior Columnist at the Black Agenda Report, author of the book, “Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents,” a contributor to the anthology, “In Defense of Julian Assange,” and serves on the coordinating committee of the Black Alliance for Peace.
We discussed “Prejudential,” US foreign policy, the 2020 elections (including Bernie Sanders), Russiagate, how the COVID-19 virus is disproportionally affecting Black Americans, and the historic opportunity for fundamental change that is presenting itself during the current crisis.
What follows here are lightly edited excerpts. You can listen to the full interview here.
Kimberley: Americans don’t like to think of themselves as being propagandized but we are. Most definitely propagandized from childhood on, about the nature of this nation, which was founded as a settler-colonial state, which means that the original inhabitants—the indigenous population—were immediately the victims of genocide. And that continued with chattel slavery. So we have two great crimes which impacted this nation, its founding, and its history to this very day.
We can see these terrible crimes committed at various points in our history from the very beginning. From George Washington on to Donald Trump. There’s a chapter for every president [in her book “Prejudential: Black Americans & the Presidency”] and we see how in their interactions with or treatment of black people, they have all defended the system. When the system in the early days was supporting chattel slavery, which was a major major economic generator for the country, ten of the first twelve presidents were slaveholders and that tells you how important that was—the so-called “peculiar institution”—how important it was to the American economy.
There was a war. The only way to end slavery was through the Civil War. But Lincoln is problematic. He was not the “Great Emancipator” we are taught. He wanted a white nation, and wanted black people to leave the country and talked about making that happen as late as a week before he was assassinated. The all-too-brief Reconstruction, the decades of Jim Crow, the presidents—some of which were openly racist and made clear they had no intention of upholding legal or human rights for black people, and those who talked a good game and marketed themselves well but still didn’t do it.
So these are the facts of the story… I think it’s important to start speaking in this way: to tell people that Lincoln isn’t who we thought. That the Kennedy brothers had to be dragged to support civil rights, even in the small ways they did. That Woodrow Wilson was an open racist. That even those presidents who were not slave holders dare not oppose the forces known as the slave power—the slave-ocracy.
So all of these things are true. The evidence is there. And it’s important for Americans to become accustomed to knowing these facts so that we don’t succumb to this siren song of the “great and wonderful nation.”
Sonnenblume: “The shining city upon the hill.”
Kimberley: Yes. It’s always something positive and those who raise any of the inconvenient truths are often shouted down or smeared in some way…
Shortly after Trump was elected, there was the—I’m going to call it a “riot”—in Charlottesville, Virginia of open white supremacists and Trump at the time said (and this all began with an effort to remove Confederate monuments) and Trump said, well, what are you going to do? Are you going to remove Jefferson and Washington’s monuments? Because they owned slaves?
And the New York Times took a poll of their readers and only 4% wanted to remove Jefferson and Washington’s monuments. Times readers are generally not Trump supporters, but it shows you just how deeply ingrained this thinking is in our country, that people, in their desire to be positive, want to say that really evil deeds are of no consequence or explain them away, or say, he was a character of his times, and at this time in history, some terrible thing was acceptable. And try to end the conversation.
Sonnenblume: What is the best response for that particular one: “Well, he was just a product of his times”?
Kimberley: Even in those times there were people who spoke up, people who said slavery was wrong. An example: One of Jefferson’s contemporaries, a Polish nobleman who fought in the Revolutionary War— Tadeusz Kosciuszko—he was a slaveholder himself but he ended up freeing people. He left Jefferson money in his will because Jefferson would always claim he couldn’t afford to free anybody. So Kosciuszko said, Ok, I’m going to leave you money and use it to free people when I’m dead. He died before Jefferson and Jefferson didn’t free anybody.
So there were people who thought about it then… There was John Brown. I tell people if they want to admire a white man in the 1800s, then you should pick John Brown, who, when he attempted the attack on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, his goal was to start a slave insurrection. So he was an uncompromising foe of slavery at that moment in history.
So it is not true that these people were uniformly supported. There were always people who fought back… There were always people who said no. We need to make them heroes. We need to find out about the people who resisted.
Sonnenblume: Because all through history, there’s been the mainstream of events that have been going on and the “big names” that people hear about, but at the same time there’s been a sidestream of resistance and critique that has existed uninterrupted.
Kimberley: Yes. Yes, there has been.
Sonnenblume: …To switch gears to the present moment, and to the crisis that we’re facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve been writing extensively on this at the Black Agenda Report. One thing you’ve talked about is how medical care is completely different for black people… Quote: “When black people try to get medical care, they’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.“
Kimberley: Black people have always been treated worse, even when we seek medical care. There’s a terrible history. There’s a great book called, “Medical Apartheid” about it. All of us are the victims of a society with a for-profit healthcare system which means it’s not meant to meet people’s needs, which means they get rid of hospital beds.
Everyone outside of New York is so impressed with Governor Cuomo. (Basically, Trump has lowered the bar so much, that if you’re not an idiot, people are impressed.) But he got rid of many hospital beds in New York state.
So we have this combination of a for-profit health system which doesn’t meet people’s needs, where insurance is tied to employment, and even those insurance policies don’t pay for things that people need. Plus the racism that black people face when we seek medical care. I’m seeing really disturbing stories of people in places like Detroit where there’s a big problem withe COVID, in a majority black city. People go to the hospital numerous times and don’t get it.
Now partly that’s because they don’t have enough tests. They don’t know what they’re doing to treat this disease. But if there’s any triage-ing, if there’s anyone way to choose who gets treated well and who doesn’t, we are the ones who are left out.
We’re seeing how bad our society is. This is a failed state, as I said in one of my columns. Trump famously said how do we prevent people from immigrating from shit-hole countries? Well we are the shit-hole country, where there weren’t enough tests, where they failed the first time, where we don’t have a health care system that can respond quickly. All this blaming China…
All of us are in a very bad situation, plus black people are less likely to be able to work from home. Only 20% of black people can work from home. Instead, they work in retail, or home health aides, or transit workers. All kinds of jobs that you can only do by going to work. And thus are more likely to be victims.
So this is a very very serious problem and now we see people unemployed. 20 million new unemployment applications. Thanks to neoliberal austerity, and starving governments of money , states have like 50 year old computer systems and people can’t even access the unemployment that they’ve earned. It’s really quite horrific.
Sonnenblume: We have protests happening now, [and] you described the participants as being white supremacists.
Kimberley: Yes. Absolutely. It’s sad. It’s very sad to see people actually protest against their own health. Or the fact that they don’t believe. Trump and Fox News initially said it’s a hoax and it’s only used to embarrass Trump. There was a very sad story in the Times last week. A man who owned a bar in Brooklyn passed away from COVID and his daughter said, if Sean Hannity had told him to wear a mask, he would’ve worn one.
But there are millions of people who are skeptical. I think it’s good to be a skeptic, but their skeptic is based on anger, based on fear, based on racism, and they are very short-sighted. They don’t deal in reality. If you want a state to reopen, why do you need to bring an assault weapon? There are apparently millions of people in this country who are looking for an excuse to shoot people. Out they come with their Trump signs and their American flags and it’s quite frightening. Medical workers and nurses trying to block them from blocking ambulances and the route to a hospital. It’s quite horrible to see, but that’s the foundation of the country. I think Trump’s election gave those people license to come forward, but they were always there.
Trump is such a polarizing figure, because I think their very existence was a shock to so many people.
Sonnenblume: This is what I think is partly behind what some people have called, “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” in which people are so upset about Trump that they seem to see nothing else… I was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, which was a very segregated city, and a very racist place. I commonly heard racist jokes growing up, just as a matter of course. Not from my own parents–they were better than that, but… So to me, the existence of Trump is not shocking. When he got elected, I watched his acceptance speech and I was like, “Oh, I see why the people in Nebraska like him.”
Kimberley: Oh sure, and there are people in New York who like him. They’re in the minority. But he is them. Trump’s only political skill is that he knows his people, and knows how to get them wound up. He can tweet “Liberate Wisconsin” or “Liberate Pennsylvania” and they come running out with their trucks and their assault weapons. Yes, they do exist…
Sonnenblume: This crisis with the pandemic that’s disrupting business-as-usual to such a degree is obviously causing a lot of harm and suffering for a lot of people. Yet at the same time, this could also be an opportunity to remake things after this.
Kimberley: Yes, it is. There’s some normal we shouldn’t want to go back to.
We have to face that fact that we’re now in this economic crisis because first of all, the economy wasn’t doing well. Before we heard about COVID-19, whenever we heard about jobs growth, whether it was Trump or Obama, it was phony. It was low wage jobs. People are in a desperate situation. Half the population is low income. The minimum wage hasn’t gone up in ten years. But you don’t hear the Democratic Party—the supposed opposition—talking about it…
We have to up-end so many things. We have to get rid of this idea once and for all that the Democratic Party can be the party to bring about the changes that we need. We have to talk about how we’re going to move on, and move away from them. Because they are the problem. They are a bigger problem because people look to them and they fail. They fail intentionally. This is an opportunity for us to question many different things. And not to act as though the pre-COVID days were all wonderful. Because they were not.
Listen to the audio of the full interview here.