Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Melina Abdullah: The Only Way White Supremacy Is Defeated

The professor and activist dissects the dangers of Donald Trump's presidency, the legacy of the Black Power Movement and more.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah. (Photo courtesy of Melina Abdullah)

Editor’s Note: We’re reposting this episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” which originally aired on April 5, 2019, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the nation.

The election of Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists across the country. Hate crimes have been on the rise for several years now and racism, ingrained in U.S. institutions since the nation’s founding, has become glaringly apparent even to those who had believed the election of a black president had made it a thing of the past.

“Trump’s election has allowed [white supremacists] to completely go buck wild,” scholar and Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.”

Abdullah takes the fight for social justice everywhere, from our streets to our courtrooms and classrooms. Not only is she a professor of black studies, an academic discipline that is turning half a century old, but she is also an impassioned activist who is often openly critical of the Los Angeles Police Department and was arrested during a May 2018 protest.

Today’s struggles could cause some to despair at the idea that the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement have been erased. However, one place in which the legacy of the black and brown movements of the 1960s and ’70s lives on is higher education, according to Abdullah. She attended Howard University, a historically black college, obtained her doctorate at the University of Southern California and is now the head of the Pan-African studies program at Cal State Los Angeles.

“I still think black studies is probably the most enduring victory of the Black Power Movement, right?” says Abdullah. “It’s a part of an institution that never wanted it. And so it means that the struggle is constant, because the institution is always trying to shut us down and kick us out. But it also is kind of a way of taking resources back. An education system that was intended for, you know, the sons and daughters of the wealthy—that scandal that’s plagued the country.”

The intersectionality of Americans’ troubles is not lost on the activist who identifies “gentrification, homelessness, poverty, miseducation” as “interlocking systems” that combine to oppress the most vulnerable members of our society. And despite the fact that so many conditions in communities of color have gotten worse over the past few decades, Abdullah has hope and a recipe for resistance.

As long as we push back “through whatever forms we have—through media, through personal interactions, through our writings … they’re gonna lose,” Abdullah concludes. “Let me say that real clear. The white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalists are going to lose. Because they always lose. The only way they win is when we refuse to fight.”

Listen to the full discussion about the plight of people of color in Trump’s America as well as the damage that was inflicted on black and brown communities by both Democrats and Republicans throughout the recent administrations. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits. 


Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer

Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, it’s Melina Abdullah, who is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s here in Los Angeles, became a national movement, but L.A. deserves some credit. And she is the chair of Pan-African studies at Cal State L.A. And this is the 50th year anniversary of the origin of black studies, so that would be a good point to start the discussion. How much progress have we made? You haven’t been around this long, but how much really has all the consciousness about the black movement, black studies, black power, really done to affect things?

Melina Abdullah: I think it’s really important that we recognize that black studies, and all ethnic studies–we’re the only academic discipline that comes out of struggle, right? So it wasn’t that the university decided that they were going to give us black studies; it was the students, the faculty, the community, in really kind of the trenches of the Black Power Movement, demanding educational justice. So you had Black Panthers, you had community members, you had regular students shutting down San Francisco State University for four and a half months, demanding a black studies department.

RS: Strong Latino movement, too. You had the Brown Berets.

MA: Right. You had the Brown Berets, and you had a Third World movement that developed out of it. But the first was black studies, and it opened the way for all of the other ethnic studies departments and programs. And San Francisco State still, to this day, is the only college of ethnic studies in the country. One of the beautiful things, though, is absolutely the Third World solidarity, but also the way in which we understand that when we fight, we win. So when black students are willing to put themselves on the line, when they recognize that their student identity is only a piece, and a temporary piece, of who they are—that really who they are is black community members, and the struggles in black communities shouldn’t be separate from what we engage in on campus—they’re able to win tremendous victories. I still think black studies is probably the most enduring victory of the Black Power Movement, right? It’s a part of an institution that never wanted it. And so it means that the struggle is constant, because the institution is always trying to shut us down and kick us out. But it also is kind of a way of taking resources back. An education system that was intended for, you know, the sons and daughters of the wealthy—that scandal that’s plagued the country. Like it’s groundbreaking, it’s something new, right? We always knew it existed. But it’s taking back kind of education and saying, education is—really should be, at its best—about the liberation of people. So black studies does three things. It seeks to fill in subject area, right? So we know that the system of higher education, just like every institution in this country, is meant for the benefit of white, wealthy, seemingly straight men. And what it says is, we’re not going to tell lies that benefit that system, that benefit white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism. Instead, we’re going to introduce a model of education that tells the truth. That, you know, Columbus didn’t discover America and Lincoln didn’t free the slaves. And so it’s going to fill in that subject material.

RS: Yeah, let me just cut in there. Because there’s people, they don’t have much of a sense of history. And Benjamin Madley at UCLA wrote an incredible book on California genocide; I’ve had him on this podcast. And you read Madley’s book, incredibly well documented, based on all local newspaper sources of the time, right up through the 19th century. You know, the war on Native Americans, I mean, starting obviously before the creation of the country. Throwing Indian, Native American babies into the fire. I mean, killing children. It was like My Lai in Vietnam, but in this country. And so this task of gaining control of history, to some it seems that oh, they’re just arguing about names or politically correct or what have you—we’re really talking about scholarship. We’re talking about education. And one reason I wanted to have you on here is because you are the chair of Pan-African studies; you’ve been a major force in the community. And I want to talk about an issue related to that, and that question of access to education. And in terms of your own background, you went to Howard University, which played—the black legacy colleges played an incredibly important role in education. Then you got your doctorate here at USC, which is as you allude to, now—we’re broadcasting from USC. We are part of a scandal that affects Yale and Stanford and Georgetown and a number of other schools, where we learned another story about affirmative action, which maybe is just business as usual, where people use their wealth and privilege to game the system. And in this case, probably committed crimes, but again, that’s not particularly new. And now you’re teaching at Cal State, which again, deprived of funds, the state public system, not able to compete on a certain level. So, like, take us through that educational journey.

MA: Well, I’d love to actually go back before that. So I was born in Oakland in the 1970s; that still makes me 29, so don’t let the math fool you, right? But I went to the only high school in the country that had a black studies department; I went to Berkeley High. At Berkeley High, I was really saved. So my neighborhood, like many neighborhoods in the late ’80s, early ’90s, was ravaged by crack cocaine. I’m from East Oakland, and there was a lot happening in our neighborhood, but black studies provided a space where I could kind of contextualize my experiences. And you know, I talked about subject matter and truth-telling, but it also did something else. It also allowed us to bring our experiences into the classroom and see them as valid sources of knowledge, right? And so all of that was seeds that were planted for me, and I always thank my black studies teacher, Mr. Navies, who passed just shortly after I graduated. But even though he planted those seeds, I actually dropped out of high school. So in the 11th grade, I dropped out of high school; I went to independent studies; I was studying for my GED. I only went back to regular high school because I wanted to have a prom. So I didn’t think I was going to get into college. I thought I was going to go to the institute of cosmetology and do hair. And my mom, who was a graduate of Spelman College, also a historically black college, said well, you have to at least apply. So I applied to Howard and thought I wouldn’t get in because I dropped out. But they didn’t know what independent studies was, and so they let me in. And I went from being this person who really struggled, to really being invested in. So I always tell my children—I’m the mother of three children—that they can go to any college they want when they get there. You know, my kids are young still. However, I will pay for them to go to a black college. And the reason I say that is because if they go to a black college, I know that somebody there is going to see my child and love them as their child, and make sure they get through, just like I make sure my students get through. And so Howard was really transformational for me. I went from dropping out of high school to graduating magna cum laude—I’m still mad at my P.E. teacher for not giving me that A that would have made me summa cum laude—and Phi Beta Kappa. And then being groomed by a professor, a couple of professors, to get a PhD. So I applied to grad schools, and actually the reason I came to USC is because they gave me the best fellowship package. There were lots of different universities making me offers for my mind, right? And so I’m grateful that I came to USC. I was mentored by a tremendous man whose legacy is still here; Michael Preston was my mentor, and he brought me here and helped me to get through. But it was a very different experience, one that was rooted in kind of a black tradition of—ah, Michael Dawson writes about this when he talks about linked fate, but also home space: recognizing that African tradition of everyone who is the age of your mother or your father is your mother or father. Alison Rentel talks about that when she talks about cultural relativism. That we have something that’s important, and I think Howard really entrenched it; Berkeley High really entrenched it. But even people at places like USC, which is not rooted in blackness—there are people here who carry that with them so that they can get students like me through.

RS: Yeah, and let me say something in defense of USC. And I can criticize any institution; it’s what I’ve done all my life. But I love our location. Now, some people can say we’re gentrifiers, we expand. But the decision not to engage in kind of the white flight that some others have engaged in—Pepperdine being one of them, and ran away to Malibu or someplace—’SC has to face the reality of a community. The immigration issue is all around us, as is your school in L.A., Cal State L.A. These contradictions force a certain awareness. We know we have to relate to the community in some way. And the real problem that I think we have in this society is we have an idea of fortressed communities, gated communities, out of sight out of mind. We do it with the prison population, 2.3 million people—oh, forget them, throw away the key. And we do that with poor people, put them away. And even with the homeless population, which is something–you can’t live in L.A. and not think about it–most people go through their lives not thinking about it. They just think these are hunks of humanity that happen to be on the street.

MA: And all those things are interlocking, right? Gentrification, homelessness, poverty, miseducation—all of those things are interlocking systems.

RS: So let me ask you, though. I have a feeling we’re regressing on issues of racial equality, opportunity, and what have you. And it has a lot to do with the changes in the employment situation. It has a lot to do with attacks on public education; it costs a lot more money to go to these schools now. And I—I don’t know, maybe just because I am out and about as a reporter a lot, I’m despairing about the deep class and racial divides in America now, and attacks on things like affirmative action. Attacks on any effort to equal the playing field, to be more inclusive, to change the curriculum, to acknowledge reality. The conventional wisdom now is kind of—we did enough, we did too much, and let’s cut it out.

MA: Right. Well, I think it’s also, you know, this idea that movements and people fade from headlines, right? So you have a system of mass media that wants to take groups of people and treat them as news cycles. So the reported story is no longer Black Lives Matter, but we know that black people are still being killed by police. We know that in this county alone, 460 people have been killed by law enforcement units in the last six years, and only one officer has even been charged with a crime. And so it’s important that we refuse to allow that to happen, that we look at those contrasts. If we think about Grechario Mack, who was killed on April 10 of 2018 inside Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, a black man who had been recently released from Men’s Central Jail. He was accused of holding a steak knife. He wasn’t accused of attacking anybody, threatening anybody. Accused of holding a steak knife and talking to himself. LAPD came in with, quote unquote, every gun blazing. They shot Grechario seven times. Didn’t even bother to evacuate the crowded mall before they did that. Shot out the windows of the T.J. Maxx, shot out the windows of the barrier that keeps people from falling from the second floor. Then after they shot him, they stood over him and shot him again. We know this because we got an independent autopsy. If we contrast that to this weekend, there was an active shooter at Century City mall. What the same police force did is come in and evacuate that mall, and make sure that they treated that person with respect. And we see that time and time again, white mass shooters being treated as if, you know, they’re human beings. And I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be treated as human beings. I’m saying that black people are not. And so to treat black people as a news cycle, as something that’s faded from the headlines, is hugely problematic, and it’s something that we need to challenge. We’re not seeing mass media challenge it, but we need to recognize that the movement hasn’t faded; the coverage of the movement has faded. And so we continue to fight for our freedom, and we continue to fight for equity and equality.

RS: And of course the issues have not been solved.

MA: Absolutely not.

RS: [omission for station break] I want to pick up on what we were just talking about: policing. You’ve gained some attention here; you’ve confronted the local police commission, you’ve actually had charges and things that you’ve dealt with. You’re out there. Now, we live in a center of what is supposed to be liberal enlightenment. [Laughter] We’re in a deep blue state; we have elected officials right across the board who consider themselves progressives, democrats and so forth. And we have a police department that presumably has been racially made more, had more people of color, different colors, different backgrounds. And yet you’re there before this police commission; you just brought up a case of police brutality. So how does this happen?

MA: So let me just kind of address a couple of the things that you said. I think it’s really important that rather than just kind of painting this people of color umbrella, right—using this “people of color” terminology—that we act in solidarity but also get to the specificity of each group. Lani Guinier writes about how black people are the miner’s canary. If we think about what happened—and not that I’m an advocate of diversity in policing; I think, I’m an abolitionist, I think they all need to go.

RS: Well, we should be clear about that, because you have said that. And what you mean, though, is we have to have different forms—

MA: Of public safety.

RS: Yes, of public safety, yeah.

MA: Absolutely. And I think it’s unhealthy for a city like Los Angeles, and every major city does it, to spend 53% of its general fund on LAPD. When we think about the case of Grechario Mack, if he was having a mental health crisis, there should have been a mental health team that responded, right? When we think about questions like houselessness, they have metro division responding to houseless folks when they should provide houseless folks with housing. Right? When you talk about providing youth services, I want trained youth workers working with my kids, not some armed police officer in a park playing basketball with them. And so when I say I’m an abolitionist, I believe in investing our dollars in the things that actually make communities safe, not spending on police who harass, surveil, brutalize, and kill my people.

RS: Let’s go a little further with that. There is a conceit now that somehow—and this is a liberal conceit—we’ve done a lot for people. And taking like the schools, the services and so forth, if you read, Colin Powell wrote an autobiography. And he made a very interesting point; he was still a Republican then. No—a lot more was done for us back in that post-World War II Bronx than are done for kids now. For all the civil rights movement, and all the things, and not just—I mean, I shouldn’t say “not just.” Yes, people of color—but poor people. Whoever happens to be trapped in the cycle of poverty, for whatever reason. And it’s true. We had great after-school programs, we had terrific public schools, we had a college system where you didn’t even have to pay for textbooks through its early period. And there was certainly no idea of tuition. When I went to City College, if someone had said you have to start paying tuition, there would have been riots continuously. So we actually, while many people walk around with the illusion that we have somehow done a lot for people of color, people who are poor—it’s nonsense. We have actually abandoned them. And the thing that used to provide a bridge–and you grew up in Oakland. Well, Oakland, because of the war, wartime production, shipping, the need for longshoremen to actually carry things off rather than cranes, emptying boats and so forth—there was a black middle class—

MA: Absolutely.

RS: ––in Oakland, here in L.A., San Pedro and so forth, with good jobs, very often union jobs, and so forth. We now have a population that is basically abandoned. Abandoned.

MA: Right. Absolutely. And it’s intentional abandonment, right? It’s intentional targeting, it’s an intentional kind of super-exploited class. And the reason that I keep coupling everything with not just class but also race is that it’s important that we understand that, yes, it’s both a classist system that’s built to benefit those who own the means of production, but it’s also a racist system. And we can’t pretend like it’s not. So I think Manning Marable in “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America,” he talks about how these institutions—the policing system, the educational system, the health care system—were intentionally designed to produce these outcomes. And so as those systems take firmer hold, and as people are really kind of pushed out of organizing–when you said we would have been up in riots if they talked about charging us tuition. Well, I teach at Cal State. Cal State L.A. charges, I think it’s $7,000 a year. That’s not nothing! That’s a whole lot of money that drives black people out, and poor people too, but especially black people. If we look at the Cal State system, which is supposed to be the most accessible four-year college system, we are down to 4% black. Cal State L.A., which serves a county that’s 9% black, now has a black student population of 3%. And so it’s an intentional outcome, and these students have a very difficult time rising up, because one, they’re burdened with having to work in order to pay their tuition and in order to buy their textbooks. But also, this is what I meant when I said all these systems are interlocking, is that there’s a price to pay for rising up. It used to be that you could have a protest—you might even get arrested for a protest; we often talk about how Dr. King was arrested 40 times. Well, how long was he imprisoned for? When you think about what we do now, that people are being arrested for minor things like, you know, blocking an intersection, and they’re doing time. We have, one of our organizers is, you know, we’ve been protesting Jackie Lacey, who’s a district attorney here, who refuses to prosecute police. We have a protest at her campaign, re-election campaign kickoff. And one of the protesters got into this public restaurant, and all he was doing was holding up a sign. And he was arrested and is now facing charges as a result. We have another protester who is being charged with a felony for writing with chalk outside her office. And so there’s repercussions.

RS: Yeah. I want to pick up on that point. Because you can’t maintain this charade for long without brutality. Because the fact is, if you ignore the housing issue, then these homeless people become an inconvenience to your development, your life, and so forth, you know. If you ignore what happens to young kids of any color, and you don’t care about the schools, and the schools are overcrowded, and the teachers are underpaid—which is the norm in Oakland and Los Angeles; it’s why we’ve had these teacher strikes and so forth—then you’re going to have the consequence of kids that act up. Well, the answer then becomes not to pay school teachers more, or provide more housing, or better services—no. We destroyed welfare under, by the way, a liberal president, Bill Clinton. But you know, the response then becomes incarceration. It becomes brutality, you know. And people should understand that. And when I say I’m a bit pessimistic, you know, I just look at this situation and I say, you know, it makes me nostalgic for when I was growing up—that’s not progress. You know, I was the child of garment workers. You’re the children of garment workers here in L.A. now, their parents are probably undocumented and afraid of the government right now. You got no rights to organize a union or fight for anything. And that, I want to ask you, because you—you’re supposed to sell out, frankly. You know, they used to say when I was a kid, you know, free, white, and 21, you got it made; you know, they should have added “male.” That was the racist prescription. Well, now you could say, OK, yeah, if you’re black you’re going to be stopped by the police because they—you know, color. But the fact is, you get a doctorate—

MA: You move out the neighborhood, and—yeah.

RS: Yeah, and you can, you know, find your place, and so forth. You haven’t done that.

MA: No.

RS: You’re teaching in probably the place where you’re finding more kids from the community. Tell me why you haven’t sold out.

MA: I’m my mother’s daughter. You know, my mother was one of those community othermothers in the seventies who, she was a public school teacher, single mom. When her car hit the block, all the kids in the neighborhood would run and sit on our porch and yell “time for school!” and she would teach them to read. So I can’t be raised by my mom and sell out. For what? If you sell out, only you benefit, right? And you don’t really benefit. If you can’t bring the whole community with you, it’s a fake success. You said you’re pessimistic; I’ll say this, I’m an organizer, and I can’t be an organizer without being hopeful. That I see two warring factions. I see crazed folks like your Trumps, but also your liberal white supremacists thinking that they have a right to hoard all the resources. But I also see people in my neighborhood, off of Crenshaw, saying you know what? We’re going to take our power back. And they don’t get to kill somebody in a mall. They don’t get to kill a mother of two who’s running away from police. They don’t get to undereducate and miseducate our children. I love what UTLA did, because that strike, that teacher’s strike that we won in Los Angeles, wasn’t just about their salaries and benefits. And they have a right to livable wages, right?

RS: Yeah. For people who don’t know, you’re talking about the teacher’s union.

MA: The teacher’s union, absolutely. What they stayed on strike for, and the reason I was out there, and my children were out there with them—and it felt like all of L.A. was on their side except for the rich ones, right? The Eli Broads and the, you know, the like. We were all out there with them because what they were striking for is quality public education for my kids. For black kids, for brown kids, for poor kids and working-class kids, who deserve to have nurses in schools and librarians and counselors, who deserve to not be packed into a room of 52 students. And so it was beautiful. And so I’m hopeful because we see uprisings like that, which also impact even some of the ones that we think are liberal white supremacists. I wasn’t a big fan of Gavin Newsom, but right now I’m real happy with him for putting the moratorium on the death penalty. For moving in ways that I think the public has demanded.

RS: The governor of California. I want to end this, though, I think we’ve hit a theme here where we began. The whole question of privilege. And I don’t think that, you know, you can solve the problems by just spending a little more money.

MA: Right.

RS: I think, you know, you have to recognize the main test of any civilization is how do you treat the other. And that’s where America has failed, and dramatically so, for the last 40 years of growing income inequality and racial divide and everything else, you know. And what I find crazy-making is this arrogance to think, hey, we did a lot—“we” being people of power and privilege—we did a lot. No, you didn’t! No, you didn’t, you actually made the schools worse. And the proof of it is, if it’s your own child, you’re going to go very far to help them get into a school that’s safe, where they can get an education, and what have you. You’re going to find a magnet school, and you’re going to do all that. And you don’t care about those other kids. It’s as simple a human rights issue as you can find. So here is a society that has this illusion of inclusion, welcoming, and so forth, right? And in fact, if you look at the–and I pick out the last 40 years; we’re not talking ancient history here. And I think the main thing we teach at these universities now is selling out. It’s the opposite of the message that informed that San Francisco—I’m mentioning again, we began by talking about 50 years ago at San Francisco State there was this great protest to make the schools more accountable to the needs of ordinary people and oppressed people in the community. That was basically it.

MA: The founding of black studies and ethnic studies, yes.

RS: Yeah. OK. Now you come 50 years forward, and the job market sucks, the gig economy is there. And I want to ask you, you know, you’re there on the front line of teaching, I guess, a lot of kids from the lower middle class, working class, and so forth. You know, they forget where they came from. So tell me, what is it about you that I can bottle and then distribute?

MA: I mean, I think we just have to stay connected to our communities. We have to—every time the lie, and I would say that when you talked about the people in power as not caring, you know, the rich folks not caring about everybody else—I would say it’s even more than that. A lot of them have disdain and hatred for everybody else, right? They have disdain for black people, for poor people, for brown folks, for immigrants. And we saw that in terms of the mass murderer in New Zealand—it’s, white supremacy is back with a vengeance. Trump’s election has allowed them to completely go buck wild. To blatantly engage in racism, and they call it Islamophobia but I think we need a new word; it’s much bigger than that. When you talk about the targeting of Muslims, most of whom are people of color and in this country the plurality of whom are black, we’re talking about also a racist ideology. I think that it’s not–white supremacy undergirds it. It’s not just a fear of a religion. I think it’s more than not caring; I think it’s hatred. Hatred and the idea that they have a right, when—I think you used the word “entitlement”—they have a right to exploit and benefit, and then step on the necks of our folks. So here’s what I think we can do different. What they do is not just engage in that exploitation and brutality; what they also do is do a number on us to make us think that we should want to be like them. That’s what Trump is all about. Trying to get folks to think he’s OK, because if we could just be like him, then we’d be OK. So I think that what we have to do is tell a counter-narrative. Your show is really important in doing that. That there is no such thing as an individual path to success. That we only move forward as a collective. And then we tell them the truth of history, that that’s always been how we moved forward. So you might think that you’re going to shake yourself free from the oppression that exists, but even if you do, that’s only temporary, and it’s not substantial; it’s not real. Harriet Tubman talks about in her narratives how when she took her own freedom, how the sun felt different once she crossed the line. But she immediately felt a sense of sadness, because she realized all of her people were still enslaved. And so that’s the age-old question for black people, but for everybody else: How can I be free if my people are enslaved? And so I think that what I’m committed to doing is saying my happiness, my joy, my fulfillment in my life is tied to everybody else’s, so I have to engage in that struggle. And so that’s why real education through black studies and ethnic studies is important, but it’s also important that we make sure that we say that constantly, through whatever forms we have, through media, through personal interactions, through our writings, so that we can push back against—they’re gonna lose. Let me say that real clear. The white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalists are going to lose. Because they always lose. The only way they win is when we refuse to fight.

RS: All right. Well—

MA: Yes. Thank you.

RS: —That’s a good point on which to end. I’ve been talking to professor Dr. Abdullah, chair of the Pan-African Studies program at Cal State L.A. and a great leader, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter in the country as well as here in L.A. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Isabel Carreon. And here at USC, Sebastian Grubaugh at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has once again held this show together. Thank you and see you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”

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