Interview with Angela Davis

The Guardian has published a wonderful, wide-ranging interview with all-around extraordinary person Angela Davis. In the interview, she shares her thoughts on structural racism, including mass incarceration:

Surely the lives of African-Americans in 2014 are better than during the days of slavery? Yet Davis isn’t the only black American intellectual to be less than sanguine. Professor Cornel West recently said that the US still has in effect a “Jim Crow criminal justice system” that “does not deliver justice for black and brown people”. Davis agrees. “You have this huge population of people who come up against the same restrictions that the Jim Crow south created,” she says. The segregation laws that existed until 1965 in the American south, where she grew up, might have gone but, as Davis points out, racist oppression remains.

One key feature of that racist oppression, Davis says, is what she and other leftist intellectuals call the “prison industrial complex”, the tawdry if tacit alliance between capitalism and a structurally racist state.

“The massive over-incarceration of people of colour in general in the US leads to lack of access to democratic practices and liberties. Because prisoners are not able to vote, former prisoners in so many states are not able to vote, people are barred from jobs if they have a history of prison.”

. . .

In Davis’s philosophy, this should come as no surprise; for her, the prison industrial complex is not just a racist American money-making machine, but a means to criminalise, demonise and profit from the world’s most powerless people.

The interview – which is really worth reading in full – covers lots of other topics, including the marginalization of women in discussions of prison, the expectations on and failures of the Obama administration, and. . .Beyonce. (Yes, a major international newspaper gets to interview one of the most influential, interesting women in the world, and one of the things they just had to make sure they got her perspective on was Beyonce. Hard-hitting journalism.)

19 thoughts on “Interview with Angela Davis

  1. Doesn’t it matter what question you ask about Beyoncé? E.g. Whether you ask about Beyoncé and general celebrity gossip, or, as here, about bell hooks’ claims regarding Beyoncé, sexuality, and being a ‘bad feminist’? Or, the main thing Davis talks about, when we should use the word ‘terrorist’?

  2. Oh yeah, I think it definitely matters! And there would be worse ways to ask her about Beyonce for sure! But the whole bell hooks/Beyonce controversy was so bizarrely overhyped. It just seemed really unfortunate that it was among the things the reporter wanted to ask about. Why not ask her about any of the so many more interesting things bell hooks has been saying lately? I guess it just seemed strange to have a short amount of time to interview this amazing woman, and devote part of that time to discussing a fairly marginal issue. As you point out, though, Davis’ answer manages to be really interesting – she can make anything interesting!

  3. “Surely the lives of African-Americans in 2014 are better than during the days of slavery? Yet Davis isn’t the only black American intellectual to be less than sanguine.”

    This seems to be a fairly absurd bit of hyperbole on the part of the Guardian’s interviewer. I can see how you could make a coherent case that the current state of affairs is no improvement on Jim Crow (though even that might be in danger of forgetting how bad Jim Crow was) – but slavery? To be really crude about it, and putting aside any other differences, 2.5%-3% of a population imprisoned – however shocking – doesn’t compare with 90%. (Davis herself says nothing in the interview to support the statement; this is just about the interviewer.)

    I think Davis is wrong, incidentally, to claim in the interview that “the proportion of black people in prison in Britain is larger than the proportion of black people in prison in the United States” – at least, the Guardian itself thinks so. ( I was suspicious of the statistic just because the sheer number of people jailed of whatever nationality is so much higher in the US than in the UK. (What is true is that the UK prison population is more disproportionately black than the US prison population – but the overall population is so much smaller as to swamp that factor.)

  4. David, it’s extremely common in discussions about race in the US context for white people to frame things in terms of “Well, but look at all the *progress*! Isn’t this so much better than [some past atrocity]?” And the net effect of this is often to downplay, undermine, and silence the awful experiences endured by black people today – which white people often tend to be pretty ignorant or dismissive of. I take it that the reporter was acknowledging and resisting this trope, not attempting to say that the current condition of black people in America is as bad as the conditions under slavery.

    As for Davis’ claim about proportionality, I’m really not sure it’s fair to attribute any false claims to her. Given the context in which she made the comment, I took her as making precisely the claim which is true – namely that the UK prison population has a higher proportion of black people *relative to non-black* people than does the US. I expect Davis to be a person who knows her facts on this issue, and not someone prone to making casual mistakes.

  5. magicalersatz:

    1) I think I want to stand by the natural interpretation of the reporter’s statement. I can more or less see that it can be read your way but I don’t think it’s the natural reading. (I actually think the reporter may be conflating Jim Crow and slavery.) I repeat that I’m (at most) objecting to a careless phrasing by the reporter: this isn’t direct or indirect speech from Davis.

    2) The quote in the article is “the proportion of black people in prison in Britain is larger than the proportion of black people in prison in the United States”. I think that’s unambiguous, and unambiguously false.

    Your proposed reading is also not quite correct: the proportion of the UK prison population that is black is 15%, the proportion of the US prison population that is black is 40%-45%, so the UK prison population has a much *lower* proportion of black people relative to non-black people than the US prison population – about 1:5 as against about 1:1. (I’m quoting from the Guardian though I’ve sanity-checked those numbers against other sources.) I suspect what you mean, and what Davis plausibly meant, is that the proportion of the UK prison population that is black is a larger multiple of the proportion of the UK overall population that is black than the equivalent multiple for the US. To be fair, that’s not a simple observation to say in words, so I’m not surprised that the Guardian originally misstated it in 2010 and I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis or the reporter misstated it in this interview.

  6. ‘Angela Davis is less than sanguine.’ Such a statement does not imply she thinks there is no improvement. In fact, it is irritating to have people say to one things like, ‘but surely things are much better for women now.’ Among the many irritating things is that there are probably NOgrounds for the implied self congratulation.

  7. David, I’d encourage you to re-examine why you think the issue you’re identifying is an important enough issue to merit extensive discussion. Or, for that matter, why it’s one of the top 5 or 10 or so issues raised by an article like this one. I think the mods of the site have already indulged you quite a bit on this and other threads (too much in my view, but it’s not my call to make). I think it’s time for you to reflect on why and how you participate in these conversations.

  8. Let me first note that, while I normally just use my first name on blog comments (but make it possible for people to find out who I am), I will use my full name here because I think it’s important in a comment like this. I want to disagree as strongly as possible with Matt Drabek’s comment above, and to say that I think it’s both ridiculous and offensive.

    I think it is ridiculous because, in a world full of glib and half-baked blog comments and posts, I have consistently found David Wallace’s to be intelligent, sane, reasonable, on-point, and, frankly, adult. Even when I disagree with them, I always learn from them, and find them useful. That makes them much better than average. More importantly, they are always focused on getting things right. I think that the comment is offensive insofar as it suggests that getting things right is not inherently valuable, or that this should be subordinated to solidarity or some other such value. I suspect, and hope, that this is a minority view here. But, I see nothing in any of David Wallace’s comments, here or elsewhere, that suggests he’s interested in anything but getting these issues right. If that’s so, then Matt Drabek’s suggestion that David Wallace should shut up is both wrong, and obviously so, and offensive. It’s certainly not a view that feminists should be supporting. I very much hope that David Wallace will continue commenting on this blog and others as well.

    (I will add that while this comment is, in some sense, “not nice”, it is certainly no more not nice than Matt Drabek’s which is full of innuendo and slander. In such a case I think it’s important to speak frankly.)

  9. To deviate a bit from Matt Lister’s suggestion, another issue here is not just the facts of the matter but, I’m guessing, David Wallace may be operating out of something like my own reaction on reading this statistic: alarm and wonderment that the UK could be worse than the US for imprisoning people of color. I.e., the motivation to check on this may derive from being reasonably startled by the suggested comparison since the US is truly so awful on this score. The passage in the interview itself evokes this a bit, discussing how it might be easy for non-US folk to get complacent (since, after all, they can’t be doing as badly as the US). I, at least, found the comparison disorienting and unexpected so I expect David Wallace did too.

  10. It is probably also relevant to David Wallace’s point that the UK has a much lower incarceration rate overall than the US even though it has one of the highest rates in Western Europe.

  11. (I’m a little nervous of derailing this discussion but I suppose if criticism of me is deemed on-topic so is a response to that criticism!)

    @Matt Drabek: I honestly have no idea where the point I was making stands in the “5-10 or so issues raised” by the OP. That’s not a calculus I normally apply when commenting on blogs. Almost by definition it’s going to be at the top of points that I have to make, or I’d be making a different point. But if I comment on a blog it’s to make a substantive contribution to the discussion, not to simply signal agreement (or undefended disagreement), so it doesn’t follow that a point I was making is anywhere near the top of the important points in the OP – just that I have something to say on it that I think is salient.

    If those “salient points” are mostly factual, it’s because I assume that when someone in our community makes a factual point they are doing so because the fact is relevant to their argument; if so, it matters when that point is incorrect or misleadingly phrased. There are conversations in which facts are thrown out as (Frankfurt-style) bullshit, and there there’s no point in correcting or discussing them, but conversations I’m interested in participating on – like those on FP – don’t function this way.

    As it happens I think the particular point I picked up on has substantive policy implications. (I’m talking about the statistical point; my other observation was more throwaway and given that both magicalersatz and annejjacobson read it differently from me I’m more inclined than previously to think there’s an ambiguity in the natural reading.) The “carceral state” narrative about the US, which is key to the Davis interview, relies both on (a) the disproportionate representation of black people in the US prison population and (b) the absolute size of the prison population. The UK has (a) but not (b) (our prison population is too large, in my view, but it’s very small compared to the US’s; our treatment of prisoners is flawed but much better than the US norm) so I don’t think the narrative applies to the UK. (Prof. Manners correctly diagnoses the source of my surprise.)

    Let me finally say that so far as I can see I’m not being “indulged” by FP mods; rather, they’re implementing their general policy of encouraging contributions – even critical ones –provided they’re on-topic, adhere to “be nice”, and are not egregiously ill-informed where background information is assumed. (I wouldn’t participate on this blog if it was carrying out the sort of content-based moderation that I think Matt Drabek is advocating in the suggestion that I’m being too much indulged.) To quote from the “About” page on FP, “Feminist philosophy, more than most areas of philosophy, needs to be informed by real-world information and examples. One of our goals is to help feminist philosophers keep up with philosophically relevant facts and examples.” I might add that feminism, as a movement, in broad terms had and has both the facts and the arguments on its side, and doesn’t need to fear either.

    @Matt Lister: thanks for the vote of support, much appreciated.

  12. David, I just wanted to say that I value your contributions here. And while we do sometimes disagree – e.g., I think it makes good sense to call out statements like Emily Yoffe’s “If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate” rape apologism, and you think that’s extreme – I always find your perspective interesting, and you are never less than respectful, honest, and forthright – which is valuable not the least for its rarity when it comes to blog comments.

    That being said, maybe part of the frustration expressed by Matt Drabek – whose perspective I also value – is that philosophers (and I definitely include myself in this) can have a tendency to treat every discussion like a seminar, and try to find the nearest counterexample. And I did find it a little disheartening that instead of discussing all the incredibly interesting points about structural racism that Davis was making, we ended up focused on minor points on which the article might be objected to. It’s not at all that those points don’t matter – it’s just that it’s maybe a shame that the discussion ended up that way.

    Anyway, David, I hope you stick around.

  13. First of all, let’s step back a bit. My comments are being systematically misrepresented, so let me spell out a few points:

    First, I’m not advocating content moderation (as David puts it), and I didn’t tell David to “shut up” (as Matt Listed puts it). I’m pretty straightforward and transparent with my comments. When I’m advocating content moderation, you’ll know it, because the words “I support content moderation” will appear. And when I’m telling someone to shut up, you’ll know it, because you’ll hear or see the words “shut” and “up” in close proximity to one another.

    Second, my comment was as it says. It’s an invitation to David to consider his level of expertise and competence on these issues, the impact of his remarks, and why and how he contributes to these discussions. David, your comments on the UVA rape thread below have generated a lot of grumbling on social media, and a lot of people came away with the impression that you were engaged in rape apology. I think it’s worth thinking about why your comments came off that way to people. And my comment was nothing more. I’m not advocating moderation, and I don’t think you should “shut up.”

    Third, to Matt Lister: Really? I mean, seriously? I’d suggest you look up the meaning of “slander,” but you seem to be an academic in a legal studies department. So I can only assume you knowingly falsely accused me of slander. Is that really the road you want to go down? Philosophers in general need to chill with the frivolous use of legal terms.

  14. I’m being liberal here about what I’m approving, but can I please remind everyone to consider our comments policy?

  15. I’m sure magicalersatz is right that it would have been better had there been more discussion here of the other philosophical points made in the Davis interview. Presumably some people notice a particular point they know something about and decide to contribute on that point — not because it’s the most important, just because they have something to say. So it’s a shame some other philosophers, who know more about the other issues raised in the interview, didn’t post their thoughts.

    I think the way magicalersatz has been moderating this entry has worked out pretty well, and in particular I was really surprised by the idea that the engagement with David Wallace’s intelligent comments is some kind of indulgence. Would that more blog postings had the luxury of such indulgences.

  16. @magicalersatz: I agree it’s irritating when threads get derailed into minutiae. Having said which, I didn’t myself have a lot to say on the broader structural issues (not least because I don’t live in the US) and I tend to feel that philosophy-blog discussion threads are not so long that they can’t incorporate multiple minor digressions. (The extensive discussion of why and how I comment is not a “minor digression” but it wasn’t my idea!)

    As it happens, though, on reflection I think the issue of UK/US comparisons, while it’s not the main focus of the Davis interview, has interesting indirect relevance to the set of issues in play. Why does the UK have so few black people in prison compared to the US even though the prison population is more disproportionately black than in the US? Because we imprison many fewer people. So it’s not that the UK is less racist, it’s that the general public policy framework is more humane. (I also don’t think this is an isolated case; as I mentioned at NewAPPS a few weeks ago, police shootings of black people are a tiny issue here not because our police are necessarily less racist but because they don’t carry guns, which in turn is because we have a very strict set of gun-control laws. Matt Yglesias at Vox is good on this-

    I do think this somewhat problematizes the causal link between US racism and the size of the overall prison population (the prison data, at least at first glance, suggests the UK is even more racist in its criminal justice process than the US, but that hasn’t led to a US-level growth in the prison system) but now I’m beyond the limits of my expertise.

    @Matt Drabek: On reflection I won’t engage with most of this as I don’t really feel I need to mount public defences of my blog commenting! (And because I don’t want to use this thread to reopen a discussion in a closed thread, and because I don’t use Facebook and have no idea what’s being said about me behind my back, and would probably rather not know.)

  17. Not to derail the thread but . . . I’m with Matt Lister and Jamie Dreier. Even when I don’t agree with him, I find David Wallace’s comments consistently clear, careful, interesting, and thoughtful.

  18. In the U.S. almost two and a half million people are incarcerated in over 7000 prisons, and as we see above, in rather different racial proportions than the general population. I think these are accurate figures based on a couple of sources but if I’m wrong, please correct. According to Department of Justice figures from 2012, the rate of prison inmates sexually assaulted in the past twelve months is somewhere between 3 and 4%, though I would estimate that incidents are under-reported. I am not sure what should or could be done to address this situation but I find it morally intolerable.

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