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Harvard’s Black Scholars on The State of Black America

Editor’s Note: article by Harvard Magazine.

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment.

by Lydialyle Gibson

During  A searching discussion Thursday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on the “State of Black America,” historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad opened with a trenchant warning: “We are facing uncharted waters.”

Surveying the rise of Trumpism and the past several years of proliferating book bans, rollbacks of voting rights, attacks on diversity, and laws curtailing our prohibiting the teaching of black history, he added, “It looks like we have the underpinnings of textbook fascism—not make-believe, not excessive rhetoric. If these things were happening in other countries, particularly in liberal democracies, or let alone in the Global South, the U.S. State Department would be issuing warnings about the status of those societies.”

Muhammad, the Ford Foundation professor of history, race, and public policy, was joined on stage by three HKS colleagues, including co-panelists Cornell Brooks, the Hauser professor of the practice of nonprofit organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice; and Sandra Susan Smith, the Guggenheim professor of criminal justice. The evening was moderated by Setti Warren, director of the Institute of Politics and adjunct lecturer in public policy.

The event came a little more than two months after U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx (R, North Carolina) targeted Muhammad and one of his courses by name on the House floor. During the now-infamous Congressional hearing into campus antisemitism where lawmakers interrogated former President Claudine Gay and two other college presidents, Foxx decried Muhammad’s class, “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power,” as a “prime example” of the “race-based ideology” that made Harvard “ground zero for antisemitism.”

Muhammad’s course, required for first-year MPP students, explores how race and racism have influenced American public policy and contributed to the nation’s rise to global dominance. Last fall, 207 students were enrolled. On Thursday evening, Muhammad sought to put Foxx’s accusation in the broader context of recent and longstanding political attacks on education, and he argued that those attacks endanger American democracy. “These people have no idea what happens in [my] class,” he said. “Zero evidence. So, I find it incredibly important for you, the audience and the listeners, to take seriously what that means, to take seriously that we have political leaders in this country who can pick out of thin air classes being taught anywhere in this country and accuse the people who teach those classes of being responsible for antisemitism.” The goal, he added, is to silence voters, activists, and educators. “Self-censorship and fear are the oxygen that allow this illiberal movement to win,” he said.

Muhammad also had criticism for Harvard. In response to an audience question from a College student about feeling uneasy as a black person on campus in the current political climate, Muhammad said he felt uneasy too: “I’m still waiting on this University to say something about protecting its faculty against such attacks,” like the one he experienced, which he described as “unwarranted, unjustified, and a flat-out lie.” He also called on Harvard’s leadership to “dispel the myths” articulated by conservative activists and politicians who accuse the University’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies of generating antisemitism. “Faculty can’t be their full selves for students if they themselves feel unsupported or unprotected,” Muhammad said.

In a statement about Muhammad’s course, emailed to Harvard Magazine by the University’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications, HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf said: “Requiring this course for Master in Public Policy students at the Kennedy School recognizes the important role that race has played in public policy over time. This course makes a vital contribution to the learning of our students who will become policymakers and public leaders.”

THE REST OF the evening’s discussion was by turns sorrowful, frustrated, and defiant. Warren noted the long history of African American leadership in the pro-democracy movements to expand rights in the United States and wondered about its meaning in the context of the current moment. In response to a question comparing today’s political anger and polarization to the backlash against Reconstruction in the 1870s, Brooks offered the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine. “When we talk about the state of black America,” he said, “we’re really talking about the state of America, and the state of this democracy. Which is to say, when black people’s lives are in peril, when black people’s access to the ballot box is in peril, so is the country’s.” The same laws that make it harder for black people to vote also make it harder for other groups of citizens: young people, the disabled, the elderly. He continued, “And we see in our democracy all the time, over and over again, that the harms perpetuated against black people are not just illustrative—they are predictive.”

Smith spoke of the difficulty of achieving, and sustaining, concrete gains for racial equality amid the reflexive undertow of American culture. Too often, she said, activists try to effect change with ambitious policies, but “fail to grapple with the cultures that lie underneath.” Americans’ short-sightedness—and short memories when it comes to racism—also make it hard, she said, to give policy reforms the longevity they need to work. “When you’re trying to achieve racial equity, you have to take into consideration a history of race and racism. But we live in a culture of denial. How do you achieve equity, if you’re denying the fact of or erasing a history of poor treatment, and you’re not addressing it?”

At one point, Warren broached the idea that racial progress has been overstated, given the dramatic setbacks in recent years. Smith agreed, arguing that mass incarceration skewed people’s perceptions by removing a huge fraction of the African American population from view. Incarcerated people aren’t counted in statistics on employment, wages, graduation rates, and other categories of societal engagement. As a result, she said, “[W]e like to lift up how much progress we have made…but much of it has been a mirage, because we have essentially warehoused a significant percentage of people on the low end.” Smith and Muhammad both pointed to racial gaps that have persisted, and in some cases widened, during the decades since the civil rights movement: black women die in childbirth at higher rates than prevailed 20 years ago—and at more than double the rate for white women; black Americans’ homeownership rate is 30 percentage points lower than whites’—three percentage points worse than in 1960.

Asked about the “bright spots” they see, Smith pointed to examples of “communities of color taking control of their situation and creating solutions for themselves”: black women opening birthing centers to give each other better maternal care; community bail funds to get people out of jail; court watchers who monitor legal proceedings. Brooks pointed to a 60 percent drop in incarceration rates among juveniles (though racial disparities remain): “What we failed to do with respect to adults”—2 million of whom are behind bars—“we have managed to do in many places for young people.” He also noted the pushback among activists and grassroots organizers against voter suppression. “I think that speaks to our ability to be optimistic,” he said. “It’s not the inevitability of this democracy writ large. We’re confident in ourselves and our ability to affect change, which I think is absolutely necessary to a school that calls itself a school of public policy and leadership. We’ve got to be hopeful with respect to ourselves.”

From left: Setti Warren, Cornell Brooks, Sandra Susan Smith, Khalil Gibran Muhammad | SCREENSHOT BY HARVARD MAGAZINE

January 6 Attack: Trump’s Former Chief of Staff Epiphany and Turnabout

Mick Mulvaney Changes His Mind
You should, too, says President Trump’s former chief of staff.

On the morning of January 6, 2021, Mick Mulvaney met with new members of Congress in the Capitol. Mulvaney had served in the Trump administration since February 2017, first as director of the Office of Management and Budget, then as acting White House chief of staff from January 2019 to March 2020, and finally as special envoy to Northern Ireland. As the President’s rally against the election outcome devolved and whispers of a citywide lockdown spread, he flew home to South Carolina. There, his daughters asked him, “What are you going to do?” That evening, Mulvaney resigned.

“I didn’t quit at the time because I thought the President did anything illegal,” said Mulvaney Tuesday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. “I quit because he failed to meet my expectations as a boss…. That was a time when we needed the President to be the President, and he wasn’t.”

Three years later, Mulvaney says that listening to his former colleagues’ testimonies to the House January 6 committee “makes me change my opinion about the President’s conduct on January 6.” He now wonders “whether or not [Trump] did anything illegal on that particular day,” such as conspiring with paramilitary groups. Before, Mulvaney thought Trump acted legally, but when presented with new information, he questioned his original beliefs. But Mulvaney fears that most Americans are unwilling to reconsider their political positions when faced with contradicting facts.

Following four years in the South Carolina General Assembly, six years in the House of Representatives, and four years in Donald Trump’s administration, Mulvaney has left the public sector. Now, he wants to promote civil discourse—to help people disagree respectfully and forge fact-informed opinions. So far, that mission has failed. He said that Harvard is one of very few American colleges that have invited him to speak, multiple universities turned down his idea to start an institute for civil discourse (with $10 million of pledged donations), and CBS News fired him from his on-air contributor role (there, he “tried to restore integrity” to the media).

Describing his political career, Mulvaney highlighted the times when he convened groups that would debate, disagree, and compromise. During his 15 months as Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mulvaney said he was less focused on political outcomes than on ensuring that the President was well informed. His focus was, “Who is there? And are these sane people?” When someone that Mulvaney considered unreliable, like Peter Navarro (director of trade and manufacturing policy), briefed Trump, Mulvaney “made sure that somebody else was there to balance out what I consider to be his craziness.” Bringing together experts from different perspectives, Mulvaney hoped, helped the President understand the wide range of options and come to a decision.

Mulvaney learned about convening and debating while serving in the House of Representatives. In 2015, he cofounded the House Freedom Caucus. To determine who could enter the caucus, the cofounders devised “a sort of a litmus test”: members had to have voted both with and against the GOP leadership. “I’m interested in dealing with the people who can be swayed,” he said, “You could negotiate with them.” That membership method (initially) excluded far-right House members like Steve King and Louie Gohmert, Mulvaney said.

Now, his feelings toward the caucus have shifted. During the Trump administration, the most ideologically conservative House caucus figured out that “there was a lot of money to be made in outrage,” he said. The caucus, in his opinion, is now “a machine for outrage” and no longer looks like the group he helped found: “I hate to see something that I helped start turn into something it’s not.”

In his introductory remarks, cochair of the IOP Conservative Coalition Michael Oved ’25 said, “The electorate and our politicians seem more divided than ever.” Although many people argue that politicians and their desire to stoke outrage are responsible for the gap, Mulvaney blamed the populace. “Government is always a trailing indicator, not a leading indicator,” he said. “The reason Washington looks like it does is [because] the country looks like it does.” Some factors responsible for the divide, he said, include the separation of rich and poor Americans and the loss of shared culture.

Above all, Mulvaney argued, America is being torn apart because people refuse to consider new perspectives. News networks are now “for entertainment, not for education,” he continued, and Americans “watch news for the purpose of having our own pre-existing beliefs affirmed.”

Such self-sorting into silos is not confined to the airwaves. In a discussion with University of California Los Angeles students, Mulvaney related, one student expressed her surprise that he was friends with ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl. After the Trump administration ended, despite their differing politics, the pair traveled together and spoke to groups. The center-left student asked Mulvaney how he could be friends with Karl if “you disagree with him on a lot of things,” and remarked that she would “never be seen…in public” with a conservative classmate. Mulvaney told the IOP audience, “We are living in a world where it seems like no one wants to change their mind about anything, and that frightens me because we won’t be able to deal with all the other stuff that does keep me up at night: the debt, Social Security, foreign policy.”

Reflecting on his government service, Mulvaney thinks back to January 6, 2021, and wonders how the day would have played out had he still been chief of staff. “After I left, apparently the sane people didn’t get in the room anymore,” he said. If President Trump had heard from a wide range of people, would he have instead condemned the rioters? “I’d like to think that it would have been different if I was in the building,” Mulvaney said. “I was proud to work for the guy, and at the same time, I was proud that I quit on January 6.”

Authored by Max J. Krupnick, Harvard Magazine