Lucid Interview: Cornell William Brooks
I am pleased to bring you this interview with Cornell William Brooks, who is Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also Director of The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the School’s Center for Public Leadership, and a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. Brooks, a civil rights attorney, served as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 2014 to 2017. He is a fourth-generation ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Our conversation took place on July 8 and was edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Between the legal victories you obtained against voter suppression when you were NAACP President, and your history of organizing, you have a wealth of experience in democracy advocacy and protection. I want to ask you about mass nonviolent protest, which can have a great impact at the right time. Should we be in the streets now? Should we be at GOP politicians' offices?
Cornell William Brooks (CWB): We are in a perilous moment in our democracy and as such people are charged with the moral responsibility to respond and we can appreciate the role of mass mobilization. We cannot outsource protecting our democracy to civic sophisticates, to those who are vocationally charged with that responsibility.
17 year-olds may not be inclined to have a sit-down with Chuck Schumer, but they may be inclined to take to social media to organize a demonstration. If the George Floyd protests of 26 million people tell us anything, it's that there's this incredible appetite in the country to engage. We need to have people on the streets, people in the suites, people in state legislatures. We have multi-lingual needs. We need to be speaking the language of law. My language was policy. We need to be speaking the language of hip hop, the language of Gen X and Gen Y.
RBG: Those engaged in democracy advocacy and protection have done a good job of reaching different constituencies, but there is room for improvement, especially as regards more unified messaging.
CWB: When I started as president and CEO of the NAACP, I also served on the board of Common Cause, and I noticed the good government people over here and the civil rights people over there; people writing policy weren't talking to people in the streets. Everybody was unintelligible to everybody else, talking in their own language and operating in these hermetically sealed bubbles.
In the wake of 2016 and 2020 elections, you've seen groups come together and begin to use a common language. You have civil rights groups talking about taking on the filibuster and Senate rules. There is broader and more thoughtful engagement now, and more intergenerational collaboration.
That being said, I think we have to find a way to embrace a constructive radicalism: we've got to be more radical, but in ways that speak to the whole of the country. We've got to find a way to speak to people's ideals. It's not about convincing people how terrible things are. We've got to convince them how good things can be.
RBG: I've thought about that a lot. You need inform people and get them prepared, but without demoralizing them or scaring them so much that they just shut down. You have to hit that sweet spot between educating for collective awareness and giving people hope and inspiring them to mobilize.
CWB: That's right. Calling out the wrong, but also inspiring. One of the things that I teach in my classes is the importance of developing what I call a hermeneutics of resilience and telling stories in ways that resonate with people. For example, how did the National Urban League get started? As a way of helping Blacks flee the racial terrorism of the South.
And what were these Black Southerners who came to New York and Chicago and Detroit? They were refugees; they were fleeing terrorism. And so Black folk are the descendants of these refugees, as well as of enslaved people. There are so many ways in which these stories are buried in inaccurate and irrelevant metaphors. Getting the right language, the right framing, helps people to look at their history and the present differently.
RBG: You are also an ordained minister. What role do you think faith can have in this broad-based pro-democracy movement?
CWB: Faith Is central. I know that when you say you're a Christian or a person of faith, you become suspect. My belief is that faith is essential. It is, for many of our movements, the foundation upon which people stand. And the reason I say that is because in our democracy, faith is the lingua franca of public discourse. People don't argue in terms of best interests, but in terms of right and wrong, And so if you're going to build movements on arguments of morality, faith is essential. Many of us have asserted Black Lives Matter as a moral claim.
I would say in that this democracy movement we run the risk of not merely alienating religious people, but also alienating people who claim not to be religious but who are inspired by religious language and imagery and symbols, and also courage. Like the best churches, the best movements have no requirements for membership, and we welcome affiliation. We have to make room for all kinds of people.
As I tell my students, well, some of these conservative Christians, they come from churches and places you're not comfortable with, but let's assume they're well-intentioned. Let's make room for some people who make us uncomfortable, but who are apparently comfortable enough to want to be with us. It's like having a language of inclusion and respect. It's the way we build coalitions. And it's also making sure that we communicate that we as religious people are open to change.