The Deciding Decade: Rev. Dr. William Barber II on tackling systematic racism and combating poverty
Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg and this is the Deciding Decade.
Politically, people running for office are often advised to speak only about the middle class, not to use the words “poor” or “poverty.” There’s always a heavy focus on making the country work for the middle class, to grow the middle class — which of course is important and true. But the stark reality is there are 140 million poor and low-income people in this country. And if we don’t figure out how to mobilize around poverty — to name it, expose the truth of it, and fix it — we won’t be able to break it.
My guest today is someone who has been working on this moral cause for a long time and is truly one of the most extraordinary servants to the people that I’ve ever met.
Reverend Dr. William Barber II has spearheaded some of the most influential moral movements in our time. Since he was young, he’s held positions of community leadership, was president of his local NAACP Youth Council at age 15 and is now on their national board of directors. He launched the political fusion organization Repairers of the Breach, created the ascendant, impactful movement called the Poor People’s Campaign in the tradition of Dr. King. He received the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant for his work on furthering the moral movement against inequality.
I have personally found his words and stands inspiring. His integrity and faith have moved him to insist that political systems and political figures — including me — actually listen to the voices of the poor and the dispossessed. He truly lives the call to stand for the least among us. Reverend, thank you for taking time to be with us.
Rev. Barber: Thank you so much, Mayor Pete, and thank you for your campaign, your tenacity. You were among the first on a national debate platform of any party to acknowledge the work with Poor People’s Campaign and to actually say that if we were going to have debates in this country about where we are and where we’re going, we had to put the issue of poverty up front and center.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I think one of the most powerful things that you’ve done is open America’s eyes on just how many people fall into that category of poverty or low wealth, nearly half of the country. And politics are taught to talk always about the middle class and never about the poor, although that line has become thinner and thinner over time. It’s had me thinking of the fact that there’s no scripture that says, “As you’ve done unto the middle class, so you’ve done unto me.”
I wonder, in your experience mobilizing and empowering people to tell their own stories, what you think is giving this movement the ability to reach more people than it has in the past. Why is there more attention to poverty than there had been, and how much further do we have to go before you would be able to say that the system is really able to hear those who are crying out in this way?
Rev. Barber: My co-chair Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis and our team decided that, first of all, you have to believe in the agency of poor and low wealth people, number one. Number two, you have to do your homework. To be quite honest, Mayor Pete, I didn’t realize it was this bad when we started because I’d always heard 39 million. That’s what you hear, 40 million. But what we found out is that people are using a way of calculating that that’s 55 years old and wasn’t sufficient at the time.
When we saw this number 140 million, we all fell back in our seats and said, “What in the world?” And because most of this is invisible, people don’t realize it. 61% of African-Americans are poor and low wealth. That’s 26 million people. 30-some percent are white people are poor and low wealth, but that’s 66 million people. Poverty has a 41% more of an impact on Black people from a percentage piece perspective, but from an actual raw numbers perspective, there are 40 million more poor and low wealth white people than there are Black. The lie that has been used by those who don’t want us to deal with poverty has often been that it was a marginal issue, that it did not cut to the heart and the soul and center of our democracy.
Then we had to say there’s an interlocking-ness between systemic racism and by systemic racism, I mean all forms of racism. Not just toward Black people and not just one form. Voter suppression, police violence, mass incarceration, resegregation of public schools, mistreatment of our Latino brothers and sisters, immigrants, continuing mistreatment of our Indigenous community. But you had to connect that to systemic poverty, and then connect the systemic poverty to the denial of healthcare and ecological devastation. And then that has to be connected to a serious analysis of a war economy, what Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex.
Then you had to connect that to the theology, the false theology. So you asked me what helped us mobilize? Truth. We went to communities. We didn’t start from the top like a bunch of organizations saying, “We’re going to speak on behalf of the poor.” Bringing truth, bringing an analysis, and showing people why they need to be connected. Because of that, Mayor, we’ve had tremendous mobilization.
We had the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington. We were going to be on Pennsylvania Avenue June 20, 2020. That didn’t happen. We were going to say, “Okay, we’ll wait.” It was poor and low wealth people that said, “No, you’re not. No, you’re not going to wait. We’re going to go digital.” Some of them said, “We can’t wait because we might die. 700 people are dying a day from poverty.”
Pete Buttigieg: Let me ask you about that experience because so much of the tradition of these demonstrations is, of course, about gathering people together physically. I wonder, as a veteran of traditional political organizing, or I should say as a veteran of traditional moral organizing, what lessons have you learned or what conclusions have you drawn about what it will be like in the future as we have both digital and physical gatherings continuing, to do this kind of organizing and bear this kind of witness?
Rev. Barber: It’s another tool. It doesn’t mean we don’t do the other. We’re clearly going to do the physical, there’s a place for it. But as Bayard Rustin told Dr. King, “Sometimes in a movement, you have to learn how to do jazz.” You know what jazz is. You’ve got to learn how to-
Pete Buttigieg: You’ve got to improvise.
Rev. Barber: You’ve got to improvise.
Pete Buttigieg: That’s right.
Rev. Barber: That’s exactly right. In the improvision, you learn. You actually create something unique. We thought if we had 150,000 people to tune in on June 20, that would be great. We had 2.7 million people.
Pete Buttigieg: Wow.
Rev. Barber: With 400,000 people to take action that day and send the Moral Platform for the Healing of the Nation, Jubilee Justice Poverty Platform. 400,000 people, senators, governors, and all of the legislators in Congress. We had 40,000 people just take their picture to say, “Look, we’re here.” And it’s still growing.
One of the things we’ve done, we have something called MPOLIS, Moral Political Organizing Leadership Institute and Summit. All over the country, we have trained clergy advocates and poor or low wealth people in the same room. We train them on history, we train them on economics, but what we’ve learned is that we can now use this tool in powerful ways, and it actually worked better for us because we wanted people to actually see and hear the voices of poor and low impacted people.
What was powerful is you’d, say, have a Mayor Pete come on or a Danny Glover. And then Danny Glover would say, “Did you know?” And they would give the statistics. And then they’d say, “But now those are just numbers. Now, let’s hear from the people who make up those numbers.” And people would come on and tell their story, and then a person impacted would say, “This is why we demand,” and would lay out the demands.
Pete Buttigieg: There’s so much power in that. I remember when I came to visit in Goldsboro, one of the speakers at the event that you gathered together had lost her son, and was able to show that her son would probably be alive today if Medicaid had been expanded-
Rev. Barber: Exactly.
Pete Buttigieg: … in her community, to serve her community. I’ve been talking about Medicaid for years, and it was different to be in this conversation with her, bearing this kind of witness and this pain that was caused by a policy that often gets talked about in these dry terms, or in terms of these statistics.
Rev. Barber: Well, you know Mayor, that’s one of the critiques I’ve had with the political world. You can go back years, way past Trump, and we had these debates. Poverty was never at the center. One of the things I’ve pushed politicians on, and we’ve pushed them on, is why do you talk about healthcare and not have people standing around you who need it? Take for instance in the South. All of these southern states denied the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.
Pete Buttigieg: Turned down the Medicaid expansion?
Rev. Barber: Turned down Medicaid expansion. I’ve asked myself time and time again, “Why is it that Democrats in the South have not had press conferences with the people that are affected by that?” In my state, 500,000 people. 346,000 white, 150-some thousand Black, 30,000 people formally connected to the military, why not have a press conference and let them talk? You know, in the midst of COVID, why not have virtual press conferences with impacted people who are suffering, who are dying, who are scared to go to the hospital because if they do they might end up with a bill for $75,000 if they get treated for COVID and they can’t make…
It’s two things, I think. We have to put a face on it, and we have to expose what I call the “death measurement.” What moved us about George Floyd, everybody talked “who did this and who’s doing this and who’s…” Let me tell you, the hero of that was that little girl that held that camera the whole time. She put a face on it and a voice on it. That’s what moved people. So what happened, people got to hear him say, “I can’t breathe,” but then the image of what was being done to him struck a chord because so many people working in places without the protective equipment feel like, “I can’t breathe.” His words became shorthand. We have to take this away from just being numbers, to being about people.
Pete Buttigieg: You came up as a leader in the NAACP, speaking out for justice for Black Americans. Your movement of fusion politics is multi-racial, multi-denominational. But what is the best way to think about this parallel set of facts, that on one hand, poverty is something that unites so many low income, low wealth white people, Black people, and people of other ethnicities and races, and on the other hand being poor and Black is not the same thing as being poor and white. These racial experiences really are different. How can you practice fusion on the one hand, and on the other, not get caught up in the ideology of color blindness, which I think we’ve learned is an illusion that is a mistake.
Rev. Barber: No, you can’t use that. That’s why you have to put people in the room where they’re telling their same stories, and the interaction will come, the intersection will come. First of all, we’ve always had to do that. It was the abolition movement was diverse, and Frederick Douglass could talk about it from the perspective of being a slave.
In the Civil Rights Movement, you had the second reconstruction, if you will. Fusion, Black and white, so Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King could come together. But even Dr. King took the lead as a Black person, talking about how what was happening to Black people was also hurting white people. Right? It’s kind of like the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and you just don’t leave it off the table.
Now, I’m going to say something that’s going to be a little controversial. In some ways, what he said in Montgomery is more powerful than his closing at the March on Washington.
“I Have a Dream” was a closer. He did it at Rocky Mount, Detroit, Washington. In the Black preaching, it’s like a closer. It’s lifting people. “I Have a Dream” was him saying, “We don’t have to stay in this nightmare. There is a way out.” It was a powerful, prophetic anthem of belief in the midst of disbelief and despair.
But at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, when he’s pushing [President] Johnson to do something he doesn’t want to do… Remember, they did not want to take up the Voting Rights Act. The people forced it in a non-election year. Most of the people that had been elected had not gotten elected to pass a Voting Rights Act, but this moral fusion movement of Black and white and brown and gay and straight and young and old and all came together. They made it to Montgomery. Dr. King, on those steps, in his speech, starts talking about the first reconstruction.
He starts talking about what was happening when Black and white people came together in the south to be of a new political base, and how it was torn apart because the wealthy, the aristocracy he calls them, saw the power of Black and white poor people coming together. He says when poor whites can’t eat, the racists give them the psychological burden of racism. He lays out how every time in history there is the possibility of poor Blacks and poor whites coming together to form a political base that could change the country and change it politically. The aristocracy sows division. He says that if division is not just about dislike on color, it’s about power and it’s about economics.
All of this division we’re seeing, and all of this money being spent to divide is not just the ignorance of one person. It is a strategy called the Southern Strategy that was implemented in the ’60s. When Kevin Phillips implemented it and give it to Richard Nixon and everybody following him, Trump is just the latest one to use it. He’s not the first one to use it. He uses it in such overt ways. You’re not supposed to tell everybody what you’re doing. That’s his foolishness. The Southern Strategy was used by Reagan, used by Nixon.
Pete Buttigieg: Didn’t somebody say that Trump said the quiet part out loud?
Rev. Barber: Exactly. When [George] Wallace ran for the presidency, the people on that side of the aisle saw his arguments were powerful, and his arguments could guarantee the south, and that could guarantee you 170 electoral votes out of a race to 270. But he was too loud, too abrasive. So Nixon said, “We have to find a way to do what Wallace is doing, but not sound like him.” So Lee Atwater said, “The way you do that is you talk about economics and school and busing, and so forth and so on.” My point is-
Pete Buttigieg: Code words.
Rev. Barber: Right. Dr. King saw the other side. Dr. King said, “If they’re paying this much money and fighting this hard, we need to look at the demographics.” When Dr. King looked at the demographics, he saw that there was this possibility for poor white people to come together and dealing with race and poverty connected was the linkage.
Pete Buttigieg: Now, another thing about Dr. King is that he was quite impatient with moderate liberals and progressives. Letter From Birmingham Jail is largely about this impatience. How’s your patience right now?
You see a political system with republicans, democrats. You’ve pressed on that system in many ways. What level of patience or impatience do you think is called for in a moment like this?
Rev. Barber: Well, I think anybody, the prophets in the Bible were always impatient. There has to be a certain impatience in your soul and in your mind, and in your body when it comes to how people are just disregarded, especially when you understand that it doesn’t have to be that way. How long are we going to be comfortable with other people’s death?
Pete Buttigieg: You have never hesitated to speak to the policy implications of the moral teachings of faith, as you understand it. One of the things that really surprised me in the course of campaigning for president was how much appetite there was, certainly among progressives, for more of a conversation about faith. I always tried to be very careful to make clear that I believed as a political figure, that everything I did and said had to be for people of every religion and of no religion but that we also shouldn’t be shy to talk about the policy implications of our moral choices, and the moral implications of our policy emergencies. Yet, I think there was an assumption or an expectation among a lot of the people that I talked to, that it was only in the political right that you would see a lot of conversations about how faith and politics intersect. I wonder if you agree with that, first of all, and if so, why would it be that maybe more the left side of the aisle or the spectrum is more reluctant or allergic to talk about the role and interaction of faith in policy than what we’ve seen, especially on the cultural right, throughout my lifetime?
Rev. Barber: I’ll push back a little bit with you because I don’t use that language. I think we have to get away from it because it was language that was deliberately put in our social thesaurus to create false interpretations, that language of left and right. To be quite honest, when you actually look at orthodox theology, there is no language of that in any of our holy books. My grandmother used to say about being a Christian, “It’s like being pregnant. You are, or you aren’t.” She said, “And you don’t get to just choose. You have to follow what Jesus said.” It’s the politics of God. You don’t get to say you are somehow a right Christian, a left Christian. Those terms are not really there.
Secondly, we have to know the history. In order to commit genocide against a people who are already here, the native people, somebody had to come up with a theology to consecrate that. In order to enslave people, somebody had to come up with a theology that would allow that happen. Racism is not just about name calling, it is about power. Systemic racism is about power and policy. It never is just about name calling. The name calling comes to cover up the policies. What happens is, you have a group over here calling names and burning crosses, but there’s a group underneath that’s enforcing policy and changing policy.
Pete Buttigieg: A much bigger group, probably.
Rev. Barber: Right. They can also say, “We’re not with that group, that group over there.” But in order to do this, in order to have this capitalism rooted on slavery, you had to have these four things. Evil economics, and that is when the end justifies the means. If the end is prosperity and wealth, it doesn’t matter how you get it. The second thing we had to have was sick sociology. Sick sociology says that something is wrong with two people being in the same place as equals simply based on color. Then you had to have bad biology. Bad biology is what Cornel West talks about in one of his early books, Prophesy Deliverance!, where a French scientist actually came up with this notion that you could determine brain size by skin color.
Then the last thing you have to have is a heretical ontology. Heretical ontology is that God meant it to be this way. We have to remember that the church split in America before… It was a civil war in the church before there was a civil war in the nation. Almost every major denomination had split in America by 1840 over the issue of slavery. There was an argument at one time, “Well, do you baptize the slave?” “Yes, you baptize them because it makes them better slaves.” Then there was the argument, “No, you can’t baptize them because that’s honoring their humanity.” You can find this stuff, not in some backwoods building, but in the stacks of the libraries of Harvard and Yale and Duke. People really spent time, Mayor Pete, messing us up. There was a whole system behind it.
Pete Buttigieg: And it worked.
Rev. Barber: And it worked.
Pete Buttigieg: There’s something parallel about this junk science and about the theology, right, in that both take an order that was created by human beings, they create this social political … Or they look at this political order, and then they create this immutable excuse for it, whether it’s the will of God, or the laws of science, or both of them taken together as a way to make it sound like these things that were created by people, and that means surely could be torn down by people, but makes it look as though they’re just part of the order of the universe.
Rev. Barber: Exactly. One of the things that happened to me in seminary that has made me so passionate around this issue, I’m so intense about being against any form of codified racism or codified sexism or codified homophobia, because one of our fathers in the ministry, Dr. Bill Turner, he assigned us to preach pro- and anti-slavery sermons, to go into the stacks at Duke and find them. But the Black folk had to preach the pro-slavery sermon. We almost had a mutiny until he explained. He said, “I want you to understand how intentional this was. I want you to understand the argument so you can unpack the arguments. That the foundations of slavery and the rationale still exist in our political arena, and you need to be able to hear it when you don’t hear it.” In other words, you need to be able to hear it when it’s not said as overtly and as outright as it was said 120, 200 years ago, but you need to know it because it has not gone away.
After we got over our initial resistance, we put ourselves into it. I did. I had the sermon and I put myself into it. When I was preaching that sermon, I said, “My God, if I didn’t know better, I’d be convinced.”
Pete Buttigieg: This was really sophisticated work that went into propping up these ideologies.
Rev. Barber: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Then, the other thing that happened is the white kids in the room were all crying.
Pete Buttigieg: Why is that?
Rev. Barber: What they told me afterwards was, “We couldn’t imagine people that looked like us preaching this.” And then they said, “But I’ve heard that.”
Pete Buttigieg: So they recognized in it the DNA of things that are with us right now, right?
Rev. Barber: Exactly, they recognized it in conversations that they’ve heard. But also, many Black folk said, “That’s why some of our people got convinced.” Everybody didn’t fight. Dr. King was put out of his own denomination. People forget that.
Pete Buttigieg: For being too radical.
Rev. Barber: Yeah, they told him to wait. Why is it? Because they too had been affected by this systematic, and intentional, and sophisticated form of presenting racism as the way of God. But also, we need to look. That same kind of thinking, not to the same effect, was done to poor white men who didn’t have land because they were left out. There was theological thinking around keeping women and saying they shouldn’t be voting. The dismissing of native people.
One thing we’ve got to understand is when you see someone like Trump, Trump is just an iconography of a too-often-repeated American reality, as Nell Painter likes to say, from Princeton. But the world is changing, the demographics are changing. A lot of people are going through this traumatic experience, is that they’re having to come to terms with having been lied to all of their life.
Pete Buttigieg: Let’s fast forward a little bit. There are people in office in the legislature, in the Congress, in the White House, who are more friendly to policies that tackle systemic racism, that dismantle some of these patterns of generational poverty, but we know it’s not just going to be as simple as electing the right people and everything gets better, right? Where does the movement, and where does the energy have to go if Trump is part of the history books now, but we still have this glaring need right in front of us that obviously built up over the years, no matter who was in power, and has gone through these reversals, these fits and starts, these improvements and setbacks? What will it take for a third reconstruction to happen where it would actually be different this time?
Rev. Barber: We need to tell the truth. We need to have a major, I believe, presentation to really lay out the state of America and why we can’t continue like this if America’s going to be. And it doesn’t need to be about Democrat, or Republican, or Left, or Right. It needs to be about, how can we say we’re a nation that establishes justice, provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, ensures domestic tranquility and believes in equal protection under the law with probably what will be 50% of our people in poverty because of COVID.
I think we don’t need Republican Light. This is an FDR moment. This is an Abraham Lincoln moment. This is our Edmund Pettus Bridge moment. This is our 1920 Women’s Suffrage moment, and whoever is leading the country needs to see it as that and help the country understand that because we only go forward together, and we have to refuse to take one step back.
Lastly, we have to lift up the American people. This is a moment that I think, an American president and senators need to do what Dr. King did at the March on Washington. I’m not talking about his speech. I’m talking about the picture. Go look at that picture at the March on Washington and notice all the people standing around Dr. King. It’s white people up there, Black people. Even an officer of the law up there. And it sends this picture that this is about all of us. That racism is not just against Black people, it’s against democracy. Poverty hits all of us and destroys the essence of who we are called to be as a democracy, and I think a president would do well to put people around and have a big thing with people who are impacted, and let them say, “We are America, and we’re not going to accept this anymore. If you fight me over healthcare, this is who you’re fighting.”
Pete Buttigieg: The thing I find so beautiful in that image is that it takes very seriously the idea of the president’s relationship to the country. We pack so much into that word “of,” right? The President of the United States. But to really be of, what’s in that preposition that does so much work? If it means that the president is somebody who calls forth the entire country, or elevates the voices from within the country, it could be the most powerful thing.
Rev. Barber: We do it in war. If we do it to kill, why don’t we do it to live? We need to take seriously this most powerful word, “we.” We the people. We need to send a warning to the nation of what happens if we don’t fix these things, but then offer the hope. Now, notice I didn’t say optimism, because optimism, I don’t have a lot of that, but hope.
Theologically, hope goes through despair, not around it, nor does it deny it. You have to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. It does not dismiss the despair. It actually puts it all out there. You have to be honest about the problem. It helps us unhook ourselves from the sense of apathy and what cannot be, and what’s not possible.
We keep talking about compromises, but what about courage? There has to be something that you don’t compromise on. I look at the fact that everything we hold dear today, if you use the language of progressives, 100 years ago somebody said it was impossible. But there always had to be a remnant that wouldn’t accept that.
One of the things, I read it every week, I read my Bible, I listen to jazz music, I listen to some hip-hop sometimes because sometimes the brothers in the street are more prophetic than some other folk. But I also every week read that part of the Declaration of Independence, where it says, “After a long train of abuses… The people have the right to alter the government.” In fact, the Declaration of Independence almost suggests that it’s unpatriotic to have a long train of abuses. Racism qualifies as a long … Systemic policy-driven racism has a long train of abuse. I think poverty has a long train of abuse. I think not paying people a living wage. It took Black folk 400 years to get to $7.25. We can’t wait another 400 to get $15, because we started out at zero. It’s been a long train of abuses.
There are some things we have one chance to shift now. And people are going to be so looking for the shift that they’re not going to accept not addressing them, and if we don’t address it we might lose this country. What I mean by that is, when people protest in a country, that means they still love it enough that they still believe change is possible.
Pete Buttigieg: That’s right.
Rev. Barber: What you don’t want people to do is to give up on protests and just not care, because as my grandmother used to say, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”
Pete Buttigieg: It strikes me that there’s an act of trust that’s embedded in the act of protest. Not necessarily a trust that an institution will do the right thing on its own, but a trust that it’s somehow possible to make a change.
Rev. Barber: Yeah, and the first part of protest is for your own sanity. If somebody steps on your toe and you lose the ability to say, “Ow,” or if you put your hand on a hot stove and you don’t move it and you go to the doctor, they will check your whole nervous system because they say something’s wrong with you.
So my hope is in the midst of all of this pain, it will produce that power that sometimes comes in the midst of pain, and that is the power of a remnant coming together to say, “Not on our watch. It doesn’t have to be like this, and we are not going to die needlessly.”
Maybe the time has come for us to take seriously every breath we have and decide that we no longer have any breath to waste on foolishness, that every breath we have needs to be used for the furtherance of love, and truth, and justice, and humanity.
Pete Buttigieg: There was so much in that conversation that I know I’ll be reflecting on. He spoke frequently about the importance of speaking truth to power, about telling and hearing the truth. Reverend Barber lays out the truth about poverty in this nation, about systemic racism in this nation, about religious and political activism, and politics generally. This kind of moral call is something that I believe will resonate more and more in the decade ahead. And if we can collectively say, “Not on our watch” to those who do not speak the truth, those who are content with morally shocking realities in our country, and if we can say that to ourselves when we’re getting too comfortable then we might live to see this country become a much better place for all.