Politics is the negotiation of power between different stakeholders and different stakes. A space of power is therefore a space of politics.
A Nourishing Conversation with Allen Louis Linton II
I met Allen Louis Linton II in 2012 at the University of Chicago where he was, and still is, pursuing a PhD degree in Political Science while I was beginning my work at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. We had many interesting conversations about politics and policy leading up to the U.S. Presidential Election in November 2012.
In December 2017, I sat down with Allen to check in on the progress of his dissertation, hear his life story, and have a nourishing conversation on politics, race, culture, and beyond.
S: I am so happy to see you moving along in your PhD program. Tell me about your research.
A: I am studying three big areas: 1) youth engagement in politics, 2) the use of social media in political spaces, and 3) local politics.
My dissertation research brings all three together, but I care about them independently as well as together. My dissertation asks the question of how is social media changing the way young people engage with local politics, particularly marginalized youths of color. One reason I am excited about this topic is that many things have changed in terms of how we think about young people. When I was in college,
S: …which is not even that long ago!
A: No, not at all, it was 2007-2011. But even just then, the dominant idea was that young people were apathetic. They didn’t care; they didn’t vote; they weren’t interested in politics. The 2008 election with Obama pushed against this idea. Then it happened again in 2012. We shifted from “young people are apathetic” to “they seem to care a little bit.”
In this short amount of time, we have also had great shifts in how we think about internet-based technology and communication technology, including Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, which has come and gone, etc. The prevalence of these tools, in many ways, have created different areas in the public space where information is shared, where ideas, moods, and opinions are shared.
“The prevalence of [internet-based communications technology]…have created different areas in the public space where information, ideas, moods, and opinions are shared.”
And we have been thinking and talking a lot about this at a national level. But for me, growing up in Chicago, a lot of politics happen at the local level. While I appreciate all that was happening at the national level, I was excited to think about these spaces and tools at the local level, where the academy previously hadn’t paid attention to.
S: “The academy?” [laughs]
A: Yea, the Ivory Tower, academia.
S: You describe the recent changes in youth in politics and in online spaces, but what made you interested in these topics in the first place?
A: When I was younger, my mom always told me that I needed to pay attention to this stuff. When I was in high school, which was during the Bush administration, during the war in Iraq, I remember being very frustrated. When I was in college, I started reading political science texts that either didn’t talk about young people or said young people were apathetic. Being a young person who cared, I was even more frustrated. The assumption was that when we think about people in politics, we think about middle-aged people and old people. But when you are in your 20’s or 30’s, you don’t care about politics, or you are caricatured as the hyper-liberal left, the chain-yourself-to-trees idealistic type.
But I was thinking, I do care about politics, and I recognized that when you get on a topic that really matters to young people, they really care too. These conversations can often happen outside of traditional political spaces, which includes Congress, the Presidency, DC, etc. There are issues that maybe don’t get as much mainstream attention but are just as real, such as criminal justice, education, jobs, police brutality, food deserts, the availability of transportation, etc. When you talk about these issues, you will find that a lot of young people care a lot about these issues, and many of them don’t even look at them as political issues. That conversation was missing from the readings I was doing in political science classes. So that sparked curiosity in me.
S: How did you come to learn about the issues that young people cared about?
A: More than anything else, my own lived experiences. I went to high school with people from a lot of different parts of the South Side.
S: Did you go to CPS? [Chicago Public Schools]
A: Yes. I actually did not technically live in the city of Chicago, but I used my grandparents’ address in the city in order to go to CPS. If you know the reputation of CPS, you might be wondering why would anybody pose as a Chicago resident to attend CPS. But it is actually a really good education, especially for the South Side of Chicago.
S: Did you live just outside of the city limits?
A: Yes, we lived in the South Suburbs, not too away, maybe just 10 minutes outside of the technical city limits. There were other students in my class who did not technically live in Chicago.
I often went to school with a copy of the Sun-Times. My mom would be done reading it, so I would take it and thumb through it.
S: During your commute to school?
A: Yea, and sometimes at school.
S: Look at you, little politician!
A: Yea, well, I don’t know if all my high school teachers appreciated my…mixed interests. But I remember reading this stuff, and Mr. Mullooly, my AP U.S. History teacher whom I still keep up with, gave me a space on the board to put up blurbs about what was happening in the news.
And most of my classmates did not care. At all.
But every now and then, I would put up something, whether local or national, and a student would say, “I heard about that, tell me more,” or “that sounds really messed up, how could that happen?”
So those were the formal news stories, but I would also talk to my peers about their lives. They would tell me how hard it was to get to this tennis match or basketball game because traffic was so bad and they didn’t have a car, so they had to hop on the bus, take a train, and then take another bus to get somewhere. People asked, “why does the bus cost so much?” “Why does the red line stop at 95th street when I live on 127th and the city limit extends to around 130th?” “Why is this thing happening to Black people and why does it seem different from what is happening to white people?”
We didn’t think we were having political conversations. We just talked about what we saw. It was simply the lived experiences of 16-, 17-, 18-year-old’s and our families.
When I was in college, I noticed the way people thought about and talked about politics in political science classes. They talked about these big governments and massive topics. But there were a whole bunch of spaces where people were having political conversations that my class was not paying attention to. Politics extend far beyond “do you know how many Supreme Court justices are there” and “do you know who your Congress person is.” If you ask people about broad issues, such as the minimum wage, I find that people care a lot about it, but it is a different type of political discourse.
“We didn’t think we were having political conversations. We just talked about what we saw. It was simply the lived experiences of 16-, 17-, 18-year-old’s and our families…there were a whole bunch of spaces where people were having political conversations that my class was not paying attention to.”
S: How did you make the connection between the broader topics in political science and the daily lived experiences of people?
A: I am quite fortunate to go to a school, the University of Chicago, and be in a department that takes a very wide lens to think about politics as the negotiation of power – a negotiation of power between different stakeholders and different stakes. That can happen in a lot of places: the City Hall, the governor’s mansion, the Chambers of Congress, or it can happen as you walk down the street and a police officer is following you, or when you walk into a store and people are looking at you differently, or when your family wants to buy a home in a white neighborhood and the white home owners’ association tries to stop you. All these are spaces of power and therefore spaces of politics. From that standpoint, I made greater connections between the two worlds.
The other thing I appreciated more and started to pay attention to more was the role of data. I pay attention to how data informs narratives and arguments for and against different topics, how data inform sdecision-making, and what data can and cannot do.
“Politics [is] the negotiation of power – a negotiation of power between different stakeholders and different stakes.”
But my interest in data didn’t start in the academic world. It started in the world of sports.
As a quick aside, I am a sports nerd. When we were kids and were having arguments about who’s the best player, I realized that I loved stats. I didn’t like math in school. I still kind of don’t like math. But I was really good at statistics, and a lot of that interest came from sports.
Going to college and being exposed to much more complicated layers connected this stats part of my brain, and I realized that data can help us to understand what’s going on, especially if you go beyond the counting stats of who is voting for whom. There is a lot that we can tell and understand about what is happening in this world through stats, and we may even have the ability to make predictions about what is going to happen in the future.
S: Are you a fan of Nate Silver?
A: Yes. I don’t worship at the altar of Nate Silver, but I do like him a lot. I have always enjoyed his work. It’s easy to get swept up in the accurate predictions, and I think for a lot of people, that is what’s captivating. They say, “oh wow, he predicted every state.” And on the flip side, when he got it wrong in 2016, he was a total failure. But I like Nate Silver because he approaches political questions the way a data scientist would by looking at nuance and looking at the assumptions one makes. He thinks it is ok to say we don’t know or that there is a mixed set of results. Nate Silver says that one poll is not enough, so we should instead look at an aggregate of polls, and things like margin of error do matter. I appreciate that he has a probabilistic approach to things. He says something may happen the overwhelming majority of time, but if an unlikely event happens, it is also possible. We are just dealing with probability, and there is very little certainty.
That nuance really bothers a lot of people. We live in an era of punditry and hot takes and you need to be either all the way right or all the way wrong. Nuance in politics is kind of a dying breed.
S: Nuance in anything is kind of a dying breed.
A: Yea. For me, the exciting thing about Nate Silver is that he has created a space of probabilities, and when we change inputs, the probability also changes. I think that is a good way to approach not just politics, but any type of decision-making about the stuff happening around us.
“We live in an era of punditry and hot takes and you need to be either all the way right or all the way wrong. Nuance in politics is kind of a dying breed.”
S: Did you go into college with a good set of ideas of what you wanted to study?
A: Yes. In my junior year in high school, I developed an interest in politics.
Prior to that, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was more interested in the hard sciences. In junior high school, I was in the young scientist program at Illinois Tech. I went to Space Camp over Spring Break, two consecutive years. I was a mission specialist. I was someone who was at the headquarters specialized in designing missions and problem-solving. I didn’t want to be an astronaut. I thought it was cool, and I thought space was cool. But I was more of a problem-solver. I wanted to be the person who thought about how we needed to do a space walk in order to correct this mirror so that we could get a more accurate reading of this thing hundreds of light years away. And it was a blast. No pun intended.
S: I like puns a lot, so I have a soft spot for attempts.
Anyways, so I went to Huntsville, Alabama, twice, for Space Camp. My mom didn’t take me. I went with my best friend at the time and his mom drove us down. It was a long drive. My mom did not go, because she vowed to never go back to Huntsville, Alabama.
S: So she’s been there before?
A: Yes. She worked in the railroad industry for about 30 years, corporate side. They had many business trips all over, and one of them was to Huntsville, Alabama around 1993 or 1994. She went to a burger place, and she was with her white colleagues. The place was not particularly busy, but the server did not come to the table for an extended period of time after they had sat down. So one of the white guys waved at them to get menus. The waiter said, “we will not serve you as long as she is in here.”
This was in the early 1990’s.
So my mom said she would never go back to Huntsville.
This is racial politics as lived experience.
Anyways, I went there twice for Space Camp. My friend and I were the only two Black attendees of the spring break Space Camp. I think there was one Black person and one multi-ethnic person on staff. As a young person, in the state of Alabama, you feel that. It wasn’t a devastating experience or anything, and we made jokes about this racialized experience. But we came from a neighborhood in Chicago that was predominantly Black, a city that was pretty diverse, though segregated, and we were walking around Space Camp in Alabama, which has a reputation of being in the “deep south,” and we were the only two Black kids around. That’s something you don’t forget. That place hosted many groups of people through camps and other events. You walked around and you meet no one that looked like you. That was heavy stuff.
I went back the next year and the same dynamic was there.
S: Did you and your friend talk about this experience?
A: I think at the time, we did. We just acknowledged that the only two Black people walking around was us. But it wasn’t the first time I was in a space where I was the only Black person or in a space that was was majority white.
S: Did you talk to your mom about the experience?
A: Yea, we talked about it. She wasn’t surprised, and I guess nor was I. But it was still startling.
But she would also talk about me being fortunate enough to have the means and the resources to go down there. For her, it was about exposure, and having exposure was consequential for the success of kids. The way she learned about Space Camp was by overhearing her white colleagues talk about sending their kids to Space Camp. It was nowhere on her radar that this was a thing you could do.
“I saw that there were entire spaces, that were fairly consequential in a young person’s life, but that were inaccessible for many people, especially those who didn’t have wealth or economic stability or were people of color.”
This is a type of privilege: having awareness of opportunities, and then, of course, having the means to pay for it.
In some ways, it was a lesson for me of what privilege was. I saw that there were entire spaces, that were fairly consequential in a young person’s life, but that were inaccessible for many people, especially those who didn’t have wealth or economic stability or were people of color.
Anyways, I was interested in the hard sciences, and I still very much care about science. I am still someone who pays for cable, given that our generation is the cord-cutters. I watch a ton of sports, a ton of politics, and a ton of science channels: National Geographic Explorer, Nat Geo Wild, Animal Planet, Discovery, etc. Many of these channels are now lost to us, replaced by reality TV.
S: Have you seen Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos?
A: Yes. I love it. I have seen it multiple times. I even watch reruns of the original Carl Sagan Cosmos. You know, Carl Sagan stayed in the accompanying dorm to where I stayed at UChicago. I lived in Snell and Carl Sagan lived in Hitchcock.
S: You lived in Snell? Did you choose to live there because you…
A: Because I was anti-social? Nerdy? Maximum nerdy?
S: I didn’t say it. You said it.
A: Well, I chose to live there because I wanted a single room and I wanted to be close to campus. I didn’t know it had the reputation where the most UChicago of UChicago people congregated.
In any case, I was also the only Black person in the dorm. It wasn’t the biggest dorm, but it had more than 50 people, and I was the only one. It was kind of odd, although maybe not odd for a campus that only has 5-6% Black students, but it was notable.
S: Is that the percentage of people who identify as “African-Americans” or as “Black,” including international students from Africa and the Caribbean?
A: The latter. It is the percentage of total Black students.
I remember during Orientation Week, we went on a bowling outing at Diversey Bowl. One of the students, Michael, and I were chatting, and out of the blue, he said “hey, I just want to let you know that you are my first Black friend.” Then he added, “I don’t mean it in any kind of way. It’s just that the town where I came from is very white so I never really had encounters with Black people.” I looked at him and said, “Oh really? Well, you are not my first white friend or the first white person I have been exposed to.” And we laughed about it. Sometimes in these situations, there is the expectation that you may be representing a larger group because for some people, this is their first or only exposure. It was a feeling that pissed me off a lot.
In many ways, I found a lot of commonalities with the people in my dorm. We liked video games and sports and having ridiculously nerdy conversations at 3am.
I remember it was a big deal for me when we got a new Resident Head [now named Resident Dean], Régine, who works for the College Programming Office, who is a Black woman, and graduated from the University of Chicago. That meant something. Overall, I had a really good experience in Snell and I stayed there all four years.
S: Cool. Tell me about the other parts of your undergraduate experiences.
A: Overall, I had a very good experience. I say that because it is true. But I also recognize that for many Black students, that was simply not the case at all.
I did the Collegiate Scholars program so I had taken University-type classes as a high schooler for three years. I also knew UChicago was stressful and hard, and I decided very early on that I was going to have a balanced time at UChicago. I wasn’t going to chase the 4.0 GPA and I wanted to do stuff outside of the classroom. It helped to minimize a lot of the stressors that other UChicago students had. I also recognize that coming from the Chicago Public Schools, I had clear gaps in exposure and skills. But what I had and still have is a very powerful work ethic. I was very diligent and managed my time well.
I was involved in stuff on campus. I did Model UN in college, and I had a blast. Not a lot of Black students were in Model UN, but I really enjoyed it. Community service was also important to me. Starting day one on campus, I worked at the University Community Service Center and continued for my entire undergrad time and even part of my grad time. I also got a campus radio show and did some student government stuff. All those things mattered. Fortunately, I didn’t have any experiences that were too negative. But some of my peers did, especially with institutions like the campus police and some faculty members. I do genuinely mean that I was fortunate, because many of my peer did have bad experiences.
S: Do you think you just got lucky?
A: In many ways, yea, I think I was just fortunate.
I think the one thing that was tough for me was finding my own space within the Black community on campus. I went to an Organization of Black Students meeting, but I did not like it at all. I had a negative experience so I was never a member of it. I cared about OBS and what they did, but I never joined it.
A: I thought it was a very insular group. The first meeting I went to was when they were thinking about speakers to invite to an annual lecture. I suggested Magic Johnson, for a couple of reasons: 1) because he is a well-known figure in the world, so he would attract a lot of people both Black and non-Black; 2) he owns and operates many Starbucks and he has tried to bring Starbucks to Black communities and help to start franchises of Black ownership, and 3) he had done some work with the School of Social Administration at some point, so in my mind, there was an existing relationship that we could capitalize on. I remember very distinctly one of the leader quickly dismissed this idea, saying something to the effect of “no one wants to hear from a Black basketball player with AIDS.” The other members seemed to accept that answer. The narrowness with which they viewed the person suggested to me that this group, under that leadership at least, didn’t have the same values that I had. But still, I cared about OBS and attended and supported their events. I just never became an official member.
I didn’t become more connected to the broader Black community until the second half of my time on campus through meeting different people and going to different events. I also met people in classes, because when there were only two Black people in a class, there was a natural tendency to sit together. I met some of my best friends through these spaces. One of the things I talked to my friends about later on was that at first, Black students on campus didn’t know what was up with me. Here I was, living in this all white dorm, walking around with Nascar hats and jackets, and people were like, this Black dude likes Nascar; that is a little questionable.
Nascar is in a predominantly white sports culture, and it raised questions when this Black person seemed to be into racing when it wasn’t exactly a thing in the Black community. They judged me and questioned if I was someone they wanted to hang out with, especially given that there was only like 100 of us on campus.
Later on, I became friends with these folks, and we found out that we had all these things in common. But it didn’t happen until the second half of college, but I am really glad I found that community. These were also some of the people that had negative experience on campus. In some of the spaces where I felt comfortable, they didn’t. And they had reasons why. Nobody ever asked for my ID when I walked into buildings. But many of my friends had that happen to them. The UCPD[UChicago Police Department] would follow them down the street. That never happened to me. Was it because I wore a UChicago hoodie? That may have helped. But some of my friends also had UChicago gear on and that didn’t stop them. I know that was the reality.
In some ways, I was just fortunate.
During my undergrad, I also studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I was also the only Black person on the trip.
S: But not the only Black person in the country.
A: Nope. There were many of us. It created a weird dynamic when I was there. Many people there were viewing me and asking what is this Black guy doing in this group of 15 white folks? Oh, maybe he is a guide; he must be a South African who is helping out.
We did a homestay there, and people in the village would walk up to me and speak to me in their native language, Xhosa, and I didn’t know how to respond, and they didn’t know why I couldn’t respond. There was a little intrigue about me: I didn’t fit into this one space with the UChicago students, but I also didn’t fit in with what I looked like.
We would go out on Long Street as a group, which was where the nightlife scene was in Cape Town, and with the students speaking with an American accent, people assumed that we were from the U.S. But they wouldn’t assume that I was, until I opened my mouth.
There in Cape Town was also where I experienced the most direct racism. We were in Stellenbosch in the wine country. A white guy walked up to our table and said to me, “You should stop smiling. You look like a monkey and you belong in trees.” I was sitting at a table with my white peers, and he just walked up to us and said it. He said it not with vitriol, but just as a statement.
S: How did you respond? Or did you have a chance to respond?
A: I did. I responded very graciously. I politely disagreed with his interpretation and tried to ignore the language. I mean, I was at a table with people whose mouths were hanging open. This is the stuff you read about in the old times. You assume this doesn’t happen anymore. Eventually, one of the trip guides came over and tried to escort the person out. So, that was a really awful experience, and it wasn’t anything I had ever experienced in such blatant terms. My peers just didn’t know what to say or what to do.
We often think about “what I would do if,” “if I were in this situation,” “if I saw this,” “If I heard this,” etc. – people say they don’t understand how people in these situations don’t respond. Now we were in this situation, and people didn’t respond. You don’t expect it. This wasn’t an argument. This was someone just walking over and volunteering his thoughts.
S: Yea. I often struggle with how to respond in these situations. Like you said, you know it could happen, but you often don’t expect it in the moment.
“It was totally a different experience to be a Black person on this trip.”
A: Yea. It was pretty ridiculous. I will say that John and Jean Comaroff, who were at UChicago and are now at Harvard, and David Bunn, who also led the trip, were incredibly supportive. They created a space for me to talk about my experience on this study abroad trip and how that might be different from the experience of my peers. Frankly, it was totally a different experience to be a Black person on this trip. I felt very comfortable being able to talk to them about what I had seen and experienced. We worked through, from an intellectual standpoint, how to frame and talk about it, and we also talked about it from a human standpoint. I really appreciated it.
So, all in all, I would do UChicago again.
I originally actually wanted to go to Wisconsin for my PhD, because they had a very robust communications school. But when I was applying, it was one of the many opportunities in my life where I learned about the difference between public and private funding. I went to visit Wisconsin and had a great time. But it was the same time that Scott Walker was engaged in budget cuts, and people from the Political Science department were testifying in Madison on the importance of their research. I loved the department at Wisconsin. But these types of budgetary concerns were not found at UChicago. So I decided to stay and do round two.
S: How did you make the decision in the first place to stay in academia and get a PhD?
A: I decided around the end of my third year in college. I was part of the Mellon Mays program, which aims to get more people of color into and through PhD programs across under-represented majors. So I worked on some research, and I liked the space. I also realized that the questions I had regarding young people rallying around technology in the political space were still active questions that remained unanswered in the political science field. The technology part was just new and not a lot was written about it. And the young people piece was dismissed.
“I realized that the questions I had regarding young people rallying around technology in the political space were still active questions that remained unanswered in the political science field.”
I applied to graduate school because the curiosity was there for me. I wanted to answer these questions.
I want to more accurately represent what is happening with young people and the communities they care about. I want to talk about how young people are a major stakeholder and player in politics not in the future, but right now. We see a lot of the old way of politics, the traditional politics. But there are extra-systematic parts of politics: the protests, the boycotting, and I want to focus on that. We lament the decline of newspapers and the rise of cable news, but we don’t pay attention to other spaces where information is being shared and people are being mobilizing. Those are exciting spaces, and I want to be one of the voices that can be at the forefront of moving and sometimes dragging political science into this reality of now, into this space of participation and mobilization.
S: That’s so great.
A: I have to say that I have been very fortunate throughout my life to have really great teachers and professors, all the way from elementary school to now. There is something incredibly appealing to me about the act of teaching. A lot of people get excited about research and they think they are too cool to teach undergraduates, but if you ask me what’s the part I care about the most, it is the teaching.
“I think there is something powerfully moving about a good teacher.”
I think there is something powerfully moving about a good teacher. A good teacher is someone who can take a wide lens of the material, teach skills to the class, and also give the class the chance to take the topics and the life experiences of the people and put it in conversation with the academy and with other people in the room to potentially open up new opportunities for questions, understandings, and even career paths. That is exciting.
When I spoke at graduation – I still don’t know why I was chosen to speak at graduation but it remains the greatest honor of my life to have done so – I talked about how as graduates of the University of Chicago, as formally educated people (not well-educated, formally educated), we have a responsibility not to just hold onto these nuggets of information and knowledge for our specialization. That seems selfish. I think we have a responsibility to do something with it that helps to solve problems that engage everyone.
I do believe that teaching is a way to do that. Whether it is teaching in the Collegiate Scholars program or teaching UChicago students, we can be creative about it, and that is really important to me.
S: What do you hope to accomplish through your research, beyond having “nuggets of information,” as you say?
A: From the academic side, I hope we continue to move beyond a narrow understanding of what politics is so that future research can take seriously young people and take seriously the power of internet-based technology to really shift and reorganize not just how we elect politicians but who’s participating and whose agenda is being heard.
The Trayvon Martin murder and subsequent decision not to charge George Zimmerman was a national story. But that story started on blogs – primarily blogs by Black people who wrote about something that happened. Something that was not good, not right. Mainstream media picked up on it later, but it started with community organizers and Black bloggers talking about it.
“I hope we continue to move beyond a narrow understanding of what politics is so that future research can take seriously young people and take seriously the power of internet-based technology to really shift and reorganize not just how we elect politicians but who’s participating and whose agenda is being heard.”
People were resistant to talking about police brutality, but now we have the ability to take cell phone videos and share them. It is no longer a thing where we need to wait for a reporter. We can Periscope and post on Facebook live what happened to Philando Castile. We have new spaces that have been opened up to talk about things that impact our communities. What I want to do is to expand this space and talk about it in the academy.
I also think this research can really help young people to think about how they organize themselves. It is my goal that the research is accessible enough to help people understand what works, when it works, and why it works. For example, why was the #ByeAnita campaign successful? What is possible when we think about the electoral space and the non-electoral space in terms of navigating re-constitutions of power? What is possible when we think about voice, accountability, and transparency? Where are organizers successful in local politics? What are the avenues that are ripe for taking? And what are the avenues that are more entrenched and why are they more entrenched? In many ways, I hope my research will be used by people outside of the academy to inform what they do. I hope empowered people can use this and people who don’t feel as empowered can find and identify ways they can leverage their power.
“In many ways, I hope my research will be used by people outside of the academy to inform what they do.”
I have also been really happy to have the chance to go to schools and be in Black and Brown communities to think about how we do civic education and to be part of the efforts to build curriculum that focuses on the issues that matter to the students and their communities. It’s important to have teachers teach the lessons of civics, but it is also important to empower young people to use what they do have access to in order to have influence. They probably don’t have the money to set up a PAC or a Super PAC, or they may not even be able to vote, but they do have these platforms where they can apply their civic lessons in real time. You are 17? You can make a case to a city council person on why we should pay more attention to an issue or why we should have participatory budgeting, etc. That’s what I hope to do with my research.
“What is possible when we think about the electoral space and the non-electoral space in terms of navigating re-constitutions of power?”
S: What are some of the most surprising things you have learned along the way? If we can get a sneak preview into your dissertation…
A: There were a lot of conversations on the digital divide, on how the elites can access the Internet while others couldn’t. But a lot of that divide is actually fading. It was surprising to find that young people of color are the largest users of social media. That is incredible.
S: Black Twitter?
A: Yes! There is a space like Black Twitter where people of color are the dominant group. That’s something amazing.
Another interesting thing is the relative enthusiasm of young people, including young people of color, in more localized politics. Professor Cathy Cohen leads the Gen Forward study which is a monthly survey of young people. The survey has found that young people of color look at local politics as an avenue to address things like systematic racial inequality, before they would even touch federal-level politics. There is enthusiasm. There is a sense that local politics is closer to us, and this is an area where we can make some major headway.
“Young people of color look at local politics as an avenue to address things like systematic racial inequality.”
And I just never cease to be amazed by the creativity and the power of people. When you have the attention of a group of people, a lot is possible. I think the Anita Alvarez campaign [#ByeAnita] is a testament to this, and it is one of the case studies I am using. The Alvarez campaign took on the State’s Attorney office in the primary, a low-turnout and low-profile position, and talked about the Laquan MacDonald shooting. They used the video to frame the narrative that something was not right here, and ultimately organized for electoral change. It really got people’s attention, and it got people to believe that this kind of thing can happen, and that is promising.
There is a whole body of literature, with articles by Hajnal and Trounstine, that talks about local politics. They wrote a paper that showed what would happen to city politics if you get communities of color to vote relative to their level of population in the cities. They looked at big cities, like Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, etc. and found that city councils and mayoral races would look totally different. It’s those types of spaces that are exciting. If you can inspire, mobilize, and excite people, make the stakes relative and understandable, even with all the money in politics and special interest groups and disenfranchisement, you can still get some quiet consequential stuff changed, and that is exciting.
“I never cease to be amazed by the creativity and the power of people.”
S: How do we make that happen? How do we inspire, mobilize, and excite people?
A: I think we have to do a lot of things that are a combination of short- and long-term solutions. I think we need to take civic education seriously, and it needs to be universally built into a broad education curriculum. Apart of social studies, we need to teach the importance of civics in schools.
I think we also need to make the stakes relatable. I think we do a bad job, be it reporting in the news or politicians speaking, of laying out what is at stake. I think we can do a better job of understanding that electoral decisions have ramifications that extend very much to day-to-day lives. Some people don’t vote, because they feel politicians didn’t care about them before and won’t care about them now. Ok, but know the consequences of this elected official confirming the Attorney General position for the Department of Justice, who can then instruct how people should prosecute different kinds of crimes, or define what is and what is not a crime. This person has the ability to control immigration policy and instruct searches and seizures and targeting. Tax policy is this amorphous, confusing thing, but here are the implications if we are changing the Child Income Tax Credit and what that means for your family. There are implications that do impact your life on the ground. This decision far and away may have ripple effects on whether you will get a red line expansion funding grant. I think we have to do a better job to inform.
Part of my research looks at interest-driven and friendship-driven networks, which are concepts that came out of the Youth and Participatory Politics research project. Interest-driven networks are things like the Harry Potter Alliance, which is a group of people that are Harry Potter fans. They came together because of their love for Harry Potter, but they have since started to advocate for issues that they see as related to issues in Harry Potter. I think there was a character in the Harry Potter world that some folks thought was gay, and that was the same time that same-sex marriage was up for debate. And the group came together and decided to advocate for these values. What brought them together was not advocacy, but rather their love of Harry Potter. So how do we leverage interest-driven groups? For example, I like sports. A lot of people like sports. What I don’t like is public financing of stadium using taxpayer dollars at the expense of funding elsewhere. I also don’t like Olympic funding. So how can I build my connection to people who like sports to raise awareness of and push back against cities paying billionaires to build stadiums when study after study says the job and economic growth are not where they say they are?
“If you can inspire, mobilize, and excite people, make the stakes relative and understandable, even with all the money in politics and special interest groups and disenfranchisement, you can still get some quiet consequential stuff changed, and that is exciting.”
There are also friendship-driven networks, comprised of friends and family. You may care about some issues, but it is because your friend said they were important. At the foundation, there is trust. There are people who say, “I don’t pay attention to politics because I have a lot on my plate.” They are working multiple jobs and taking care of their families and can’t keep up with everything. But we can create spaces where I follow politics so I can tell my friends what is going on in this race or why do they see this topic pop up on their newsfeed. This way, people are not relying on the news networks that they don’t trust but rather relying on the friends they do trust to inform and educate them. I think that can happen in multiple ways. When my friends ask what is in the Senate Tax Bill, I explain the components. I then tell them about the House Tax Bill and how it is different, what are the stakes, and how it can impact you and your community.
The other important piece is accountability. Elections are not one and done things. We know that re-election rates are high. We know aldermen and mayors, especially in Chicago with no term limits, are around for a while. Congress people can be around for decades. We have to do a better job of holding people accountable, not tuning out after the ballot box, but rather checking in to see what they have done for us lately. What are you doing for me now? What are you advocating for? Who are you advocating for? I am a big believer in getting educated more on the issues and the stakes and stay involved in a way that is reasonable.
“We have to do a better job of holding people accountable, not tuning out after the ballot box, but rather checking in to see what they have done for us lately.”
S: Great. What are you reading these days in order to educate others and to educate yourself?
A: It’s interesting that you ask me what I am reading and not what I am consuming.
S: Let’s expanding to consuming.
A: So, I do read the local paper Chicago Sun-Times, which I think does a particularly good job of talking about local news. Nationally I read the Washington Post. I am a big fan of the Post. I am a paid subscriber of the Post. For me, this past election reinforced that we have to support good content and good work not just with your eyeballs, but also with your dollars. Reporters and journalists need to be paid. I can’t in one moment say, “we need to have more good reporting and facts” and also say, “but I am not paying for that.”
S: ‘Cuz we all gotta eat!
A: Yea. That’s how it works. I gotta put my money where my mouth is.
“For me, this past election reinforced that we have to support good content and good work not just with your eyeballs, but also with your dollars. Reporters and journalists need to be paid.”
I also read articles from other outlets: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and the Atlantic. I said the thing about consuming because I also watch CNN and MSNBC. I also check in with Fox to see what they are saying about the latest on the Clinton investigation or whatever. I think it is important to keep up with cable news.
There is a thing I am always concerned about, in politics and in life, which is that I don’t want to be a disconnected elite.
S: Do you think people in the academy are?
A: More often than not, absolutely.
S: Is that why you are actively avoiding it?
A: Yes, partly. But not just the academy. Politicians are political elites in a disconnected space from the concerns of other people.
Most types of expertise require that you narrow in on a particular world and therefore, a worldview. I think the consequence of that is that you don’t have the time and space to be attentive to other experiences and knowledge spaces.
I recognize that for a lot of people, cable news is where they go to figure out what is going on. As much as I don’t like Fox News, it is a large space that provides people with information. So, I have to understand how they are talking about the issues. Why is it that people on the left can say that Obama was a centrist president who didn’t do enough for the people while people on the right can claim that Obama recreated a Sweden, socialist empire here? How does that happen?
I watch cable news and sometimes it’s entertaining and sometimes I learn something. But ultimately, I really do trust newspapers and I trust formal reporting. I think it matters. I think it is tough. I don’t want to put newspapers on a pedestal but I do think that if we are really trying to get a sense of what is going on, they are the entity that does the best job to bring it forward.
S: What are you learning now? What are you digging into these days?
A: How to finish my dissertation.
What am I learning? Well, education is such a big space. I am trying to learn as much as I can about education policy and different ways to think about solutions for our current education system. I am learning about where we have creative ideas and solutions.
I would also like more space to learn about international politics. It is hard to be knowledgeable about everything so we have to make choices. But I could definitely be more knowledgeable about international politics so I try to dedicate more time to international stuff because I don’t think I am as informed as I can be. I like to be more generally informed.
In international politics, I believe in international institutions. The naïve part of me, the big “L” liberal part of me likes the idea that we have international institutions uniting us so we are not just little silos floating around the planet.
S: What do you think about our current international institutions and their lack of enforcement powers?
A: I am not ok with that. But I think in order for them to have power, someone else needs to give up power. One of the biggest lessons I learned from reading history is that entities do not like to give up power when they have it. Groups that are out of power want power, and groups that have power don’t want to give up power. So for everyone to say, “let’s have collective power,” takes a lot of maturity and forward-thinking, and we are not there yet. We may never get there. But that doesn’t mean I think we should stop trying the experiment of a United something. It doesn’t have to be militaristic in its creation, but actually can be about the betterment of people, a commitment to values, a recognition of collective success and failures. I believe in these institutions.
“Groups that are out of power want power, and groups that have power don’t want to give up power. So for everyone to say, “let’s have collective power,” takes a lot of maturity and forward-thinking, and we are not there yet.”
S: But the founding of the United Nations was militaristic.
A: Yes, it was based on military conflicts and fear. It was started because we had to keep Germany and Japan in order. The UN has since sprawled into all these other things they now manage, like currency, or stopping genocide – or at least looking and shaking our fingers at genocides.
You build these institutions on a problematic history so you have the seed sown with problems. I am very open and willing to say, “we don’t live in those times anymore, so let’s start anew.” Let’s take what worked and start over. I think trying to balance and navigate around a set of antiquated rules, like the rules governing the Security Council in the UN, is why we can’t get anything done.
Same thing with the U.S. Constitution: it is seen as this hallowed documented, but we don’t live in that time anymore. It was never built for a country of 320 million people. It was never built for Black people and women to have equal rights. We were worried about acreage and the colonies when we put that document together. We need to stop. Spoiler alert: the Constitution said enslaved me would count as 3/5 of a person, but I am actually 5/5 of a person.
“[The U.S. Constitution] was never built for a country of 320 million people. It was never built for Black people and women to have equal rights.”
I think we have to get over the sacred nature we hold for our tradition and history if we want to be serious about solving problems. It means that entities in power have to make sacrifices. You have to give something up. Until that happens, there will always be skepticism, justified skepticism, from the millions of people who aren’t in power, towards people who are in power claiming to work on behalf of the people. You can’t get around that, because your institutions were built on the history of power imbalance, so you have to actively change it.
“We have to get over the sacred nature we hold for our tradition and history if we want to be serious about solving problems. It means that entities in power have to make sacrifices…because your institutions were built on the history of power imbalance, so you have to actively change it.”
Allen and I spoke again in January 2018 when we got together to do a photo shoot for this story. I learned about a speaker invitation extended to Steve Bannon by Professor Luigi Zingales who teaches at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. There have been numerous responses by faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the broader community. Allen and I spoke about this:
A: We always have this notion that we need to have conversations. We think if only we can just sit down and have a conversation, we would understand. We say we need to give Steve Bannon a platform at the University of Chicago; we need to understand him because this is an intellectual thing in order for us to get a sense of why Jewish people and Black people are secondary in his worldview, because we need to get to the bottom of it, so that we can argue against it. So that we can say things like “no, we are equal,” For him to say, “no, we are not.” Ok, great talk.
S: For you, where is the line between we need to seek understanding and not be entrenched in our perspectives vs. this example you just gave of Bannon?
A: I think there shouldn’t be a sense that just because we disagree, we need to keep talking. I think disagreement is fine.
There is a caricature of people who don’t want to hear from people like Bannon – a caricature that they are “snowflakes.” But the reason I don’t want to hear from Bannon is that he has given hundreds and even thousands of speeches and has written hundreds of pieces on his worldview. We’ve got it. We are clear. Having but another conversation where he says, “I didn’t mean that” even though he wrote it is not helpful.
When he was the head of Breitbart News, there was a tag for articles about “Black crime,” but no other tags for “White crime” or “Latino crime” or “Asian crime.” So, you know, I ask “why do you have a Black crime section?” And he says, “We just want to catalog things appropriately.” If you are not going to be genuine in the conversation, then why do I need to have more conversations with you where you are going to continue to do the same?
If I say, “hey, why do you hate Jewish people so much, Steve Bannon?” He would say, “well, I don’t hate them.” But he has said these things, written these things, and now he is saying that he is not anti-Semitic? He tweets out Nazi symbols and that is not anti-Semitic?
I think we need to be genuine in our discussions. Frankly, if you are not, I don’t know how great it is to have them. That is my frustration. The line for me is, are all parties coming into the conversation honestly? Are all parties going to be receptive? If so, let’s have a dialog. And if we do that and we happen to disagree, then that is fine. But if the answer is no, and we keep having these spaces where there is not an honest approach, then the idea of having more conversation because we need to just have more conversations is frankly insulting to the communities.
S: On the basis that you think they are not going to be genuine coming into the conversation?
A: Yes. And on the basis that they have been really clear about why they feel this way. So what am I going to learn?
S: That makes sense. But I also think that we can say this about almost any speaker, right? Many speakers that universities tend to invite have written clearly about their positions. So why should we invite anybody to speak?
A: I think it is different when it goes beyond “here is a series of intellectual arguments” and gets into a set of beliefs about entire groups of people that are potentially dangerous. The question is different for me when the person is a hate monger. Genuine conversing is good, but ad nauseam conversing that is not genuine does nothing but serve one’s ego.
I don’t think Professor Zingales shouldn’t have a right to invite Bannon to speak, but I am also not clinging to the idea of Freedom of Speech, which I think is misused in this case. Freedom of Speech is about protection from government suppression. If someone is talking to you, you can say, no, I don’t want you to speak to me here. That is not a violation for a private entity, and the University of Chicago is a private institution.
Some say “these protesters just don’t want to hear from anyone who has a different opinion.” But then I see these same people who don’t want to sit down, when someone lodges a complaint against them, to converse with an individual who thinks they are racists. I think that is irritating.
“Genuine conversing is good, but ad nauseam conversing that is not genuine does nothing but serve one’s ego.”
Ultimately, it is difficult to engage in a dialog where people have to justify their existence. This isn’t a dialog about a policy or a bill; this is me talking to someone who thinks I should not enjoy the fundamental rights that this country holds so dear, who thinks I am not a full person.
S: Perhaps 3/5 of a person?
A: Perhaps. Or maybe 4/5 by now, since we have made some head way, you know? Perhaps 4/5 is where the market now puts us.
S: Thanks for your humor and for your reflections on the Bannon event. And thanks for bringing us a sense of hope through your research on the political mobilization of young people.
Editor’s Note: At the time of the publication of this story, the invitation to Bannon continues to draw a number of responses, including protests, counter-protests, and media attention. On Monday February 5, 2018, The Chicago Maroon published an article stating that Professor Luigi Zingales, who invited Bannon, asked Professor Cathy Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, to participate in a debate with Bannon. Professor Cohen turned town the invitation, saying “I would never consider legitimizing such an event with my participation.”
To follow the ongoing developments of the Bannon event, check out the Chicago Maroon and other Chicago and national news sources.