The War on Black Studies—Plus, Hollywood on Strike

The War on Black Studies—Plus, Hollywood on Strike

On this episode of the Start Making Sense Podcast, Robin Kelley talks about Rick DeSantis, and Josh Gondelman comments on SAG and the WGA

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The War on Black Studies, plus Hollywood on Strike | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Remember how the state of Florida banned the African-American studies curriculum proposed by the College Board on the grounds that it might cause guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress in students? Now, teachers, scholars, and activists have been fighting back. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley explains.

Also: last week the actors joined screenwriters on the picket lines outside film and TV studios in LA and New York – the writers have been out for 75 days. The issues: compensation in the age of streaming, and protection against AI. Josh Gondelman comments—he’s a member of both SAG and the WGA.

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Remember how the state of Florida banned the African American studies curriculum proposed by the College Board on the grounds that it might cause guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress in students? Now, teachers, scholars, and activists have been fighting back. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley is on the podcast to discuss.

Also: Last week, the actors joined screenwriters on the picket lines outside film and TV studios in Los Angeles and New York. The writers have been out for 75 days. The issues: compensation in the age of streaming, and protection against AI. SAG and WGA member Josh Gondelman joins the show to talk about the fight.

 

Jon Wiener, host: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense!  I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: Hollywood on Strike: last week the actors joined the screenwriters on the picket lines outside film and TV studios in LA and New York – the writers have been out for 75 days. Josh Gondelman will comment.  But first: the war on Black Studies.  Robin Kelley will explain – in a minute. 


[BREAK]

JW: Remember how the state of Florida banned the African American studies curriculum proposed by the College Board–on the grounds that it might cause guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress in students? Remember how the College Board bowed to political pressure and abandoned much of that proposed course? Now, teachers, scholars, and activists have been fighting back, and the College Board has announced plans to revise that curriculum yet again.

For that story, we turn to Robin D. G. Kelley. He’s Gary B. Nash Professor of US history at UCLA and the author of many books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, and Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original. He’s written for The New York Times, The Boston Review and The Nation. And his new article, The Long War on Black Studies, appears in The New York Review.  His new book, co-edited by Colin Kaepernick and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies. One more thing, his work has been singled out for attack by the state of Florida. Robin Kelley, welcome back.

Robin Kelley, guest: It’s always great to be with you, Jon.

JW: Let’s start with ‘feeling guilt and anguish’ over the history of slavery. I guess Florida officials want students to feel good about the American past, including slavery. That’s not easy for Black students, but somehow Florida seems more concerned about the feelings of, well, shall we say “other students”?

RK: Exactly. Why would anyone, irrespective of your generation, your race, your ethnicity, actually want to be proud about the legacy of slavery? And obviously these Republicans are running around trying to distance themselves from the history of slavery. Josh Hawley put out that tweet on Juneteenth where he said, “America is a Christian nation. America is where slavery went to die.” And of course, so the fact that they’re making the same argument that says, “We don’t want to discuss racism, slavery, anything that would cause discomfort,” they’re making the same argument that America is the leading nation in terms of abolition. So it’s a whole bunch of contradictions.

And one other thing, you and I, we’ve been teaching so-called white students for 40 years, right? And I have yet to actually have a student in my class saying, “You know what? This stuff about slavery is making me embarrassed and I feel hurt and pain.” In fact, they want to know more because they actually can disassociate themselves from it. They may be recipients of generational wealth, but that’s a different question altogether. In fact, the more they know, like James Baldwin said, “You can’t know your history unless you know mine,” and that’s the truth.

JW: That Florida Law, Ron DeSantis named it the Stop Woke Act, prohibits teachers from teaching that, “Anyone is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive solely by virtue of his or her race or sex”. Does anybody believe that some races are inherently inferior and that one race is superior?

RK: Of course! We call it white supremacy. We call it racism. I mean, that’s the amazing thing. It’s like Freud would have a trip thinking about the way in which this language is written because it’s kind of a confession of everything that racism as an ideology does, projected onto anti-racist scholarship.

JW: And let me include here: does anybody believe that gender differences are based on inherent characteristics?

RK: Oh, well, we all know, based on Christian nationalism, that God made man and woman. I mean, this is exactly the kind of mythology that has caused what I would argue are genocidal policies in terms of the attack on trans youth, denying them gender-affirming care and making this legal, denying people’s right to exist. So unfortunately, this is an old struggle. It’s a very old argument, and it’s quite dangerous. And again, it is a projection of kind of right-wing ideology onto anti-racism.

JW: And then there’s this issue of responsibility.   The Stop Woke Act bans teaching that some people today, “Bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race,” as you already mentioned, that’s a reference to teaching about reparations for slavery. What do you have to say about the issue of responsibility?

RK: People who argue for reparations do not claim that all present day white people are responsible for slavery and Jim Crow, rather the argument is that reparations acknowledges that enslavement, land theft, wage theft, housing discrimination, all these things resulted in extracting wealth from some are directly accruing generational wealth to others. So it is a question of generational wealth. If we dig deeper, we’re going to find, and I’ve made this case 20 years ago, that there are a lot of white people, white working class people who deserve reparations. I mean, you think about how much health and physical damage to coal miners, for example, and the price that they had to pay in their lives. So it’s really a way of understanding both generational wealth but also how capitalism works.

JW: All of this takes the form of a debate about the College Board Advanced Placement curriculum in African American studies. What is the College Board Advanced Placement curriculum? And maybe we should start with what is the College Board?

RK: Well, the College Board has a monopoly on both Advanced Placement courses, on SAT exams. And all these exams, college preparation exams, college entrance exams, they have a monopoly and they make money off of them. So just AP courses alone for Florida, I think they made something like $35 million because each school had to pay for the students to take the AP exam. And so there’s that.

The other thing is that Advanced Placement classes, which I think are kind of problematic, but I understand them, they do a couple of things. One, it allows you to opt out of the course at the university, whether it’s an intro to history course or English. But the other thing is, and the slightly positive thing, although when you look at it in the larger picture it’s not that positive, is that students who may have to pay for credits individually might be able to opt out of those courses and save money. But that’s not how universities work. You don’t pay less tuition because you have an AP, you pay the same amount. And that’s one of the big mythologies, but it’s a moneymaking machine.

JW: And the AP curriculum is recommended to high schools for, I guess it’s seniors who want to do as high school work what is really introductory college work, so this is for the ambitious and the intellectual elite. And one of our complaints here in California is that a lot of high schools do not offer AP courses or some AP courses. And so those students are disadvantaged in their college applications.

RK: Absolutely. In some schools, you have to test into AP courses. You can’t just get in because you want to. But more than that, we’ve had so many students who’ve taken AP courses who are not prepared. These are still high school level courses. I mean, when you break it down, it may be a little bit additional reading, but we’re doing something different at the university and you cannot standardize history teaching because it’s such a dynamic process. So I think the whole thing to me should be just abandoned. But that’s just me.

JW: I just want to emphasize here, this isn’t just part of the DeSantis presidential campaign, more than a dozen other states have followed the example of Florida in criticizing, refusing to give permission to schools to use this curriculum. And it went all the way to the Trump White House. Trump issued an executive order in September, 2020, he said his purpose was to root out ideologies that label entire groups of Americans as inherently racist. And Trump suggested banning the keywords “white privilege,” “systematic racism,” “intersectionality,” and “unconscious bias.”  This applied to corporate training in diversity as well as universities and colleges. When Trump was asked about his executive order during the first presidential debate, he said, “They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, a racist place. They were teaching people to hate our country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen”. Now I see that Trump’s executive order was rescinded on January 20th, 2023. What happened on January 20th, 2023?

RK: You have the Biden administration now in power.

JW: That’s the first day.

RK: All that language though – Trump is not that smart. Let’s admit it. That language came from Chris Rufo. Chris Rufo works for the Manhattan Institute, he’s a national figure on the right, who basically took it upon himself to hijack critical race theory as a new communism. There’s something that he says, which is so outrageous, he goes on Twitter in 2021 and says that his plan is to rebrand CRT to make it toxic. Those are his words, “to turn it toxic.”,  And then as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category, the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have de-codified the term and we’ll codify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans. It was a ploy, he admitted it, and it’s working. And so the language that was written in the 1776 Commission, that’s Chris Rufo’s language.

JW: This is Trump’s 1776 commission?

RK: Exactly, exactly, and that 1776 commission was the project that came out of that executive order.

JW: The Florida attack on African American studies had its new aspects, but the effort to prevent people from learning about the history of slavery and the Black freedom struggle is not, and that’s really the subject of your piece in The New York Review. How far back in American history would you say the effort to prevent people from learning about slavery goes?

RK: Well, let’s go back to the effort to keep enslaved people from learning to read and write. That’s sort of a beginning. The fact that that was a threat suggests that there’s something incendiary about knowledge, knowledge that would challenge the status quo. And in the book called Our History Has Always Been Contraband I talk about David Walker’s appeal, which was published in 1829, it excoriated slavery, it criticized American hypocrisy for being the land of liberty, but still holding slaves. And that pamphlet was banned. And if you were caught printing it, let alone owning it, you can get the death penalty basically, you could be hanged, jailed. And that to me is the highest form of contraband. And it’s not an accident that almost all the anti-literacy statutes that were passed in the South–there was a flood of them between 1829 and 1831 after Nat Turner’s rebellion.

JW: We know that during the Jim Crow era, there was mandatory school segregation in the South. What kind of Black history was taught in Black schools in the Jim Crow era?

RK: Jarvis Givens wrote this great book which talks about that. This was fugitive history, fugitive knowledge, sometimes in one room, schoolhouses, sometimes with principals or superintendents of schools overseeing some of this work, and they’d have to sneak at night. So you’d have teaching kind of indirectly of Black history inside these schools, all Black schools. But you’d also have the tradition of midnight schools, that is to say during Reconstruction and afterward, in fact during slavery, you had schools in the woods, schools in the fields after midnight where they would talk and discuss and learn how to read and write, adults as well as children. So it was a very dangerous thing, just reading and writing. And though we always think about it in terms of the Bible, there’s a lot of other forms of knowledge that people were seeking.

JW: So the underlying question in all of this is, who’s afraid of Black studies?

RK: Yeah, well, I give a long list. Certainly anyone who is afraid of dealing with the crimes that have built the country, and there’s a litany of crimes, crimes of dispossession of native lands, the crime of slavery itself, the fact that there’s never been any kind of repair or reparation for that, let alone the other kinds of threatening crimes. And that is the possibility of multiracial democracy, that’s considered a crime. The fact that labor organizers building solidarity with white, Black, Latinx, Asian workers, they get beat down through state houses and legislatures that pass anti-union laws, right to work laws and this sort of thing. And then of course, when race doesn’t work, they use the C word, communism. So these things are really – I mean, Black history, if we do it right, it’s global, knows no boundaries, and it is a demand for freedom for all.

JW: So where do we stand right now on this latest revision of that College Board curriculum in African American studies?

RK: No one knows because we’re still waiting for the changes. There’s been an announcement that there will be changes to the curriculum. As far as I know, it hasn’t been completed. I do know that the College Board is walking a very fine line between trying to make sure that they keep their constituency in Florida and Texas and Iowa and make sure that they can serve the entire country.

JW: And finally, tell us about your new book, Our History Has Always Been Contraband.

Robin Kelley: So this is a joint effort between Colin Kaepernick’s Publishing Company and Haymarket Books. And it was something that we pulled together, especially Colin was the force behind it. And he brought myself and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to bring this to fruition, to edit this book, which consists of some original essays, some of the banned material from the AP curriculum, as well as some key documents that we think are important for Black studies. It’s not comprehensive, but it is meant to be kind of a primer. And what’s important here, the most important thing is that it’s being given away for free. I mean, thousands of copies that go into Florida just to give to students. You can get a free ebook – we’re just giving them away. So that’s really important as a way to flood and challenge the status quo on this question of Black history.

JW: And what was it like to work with your co-editor, Colin Kaepernick?

RK: The dude is brilliant. I mean, if he never goes back and plays football, he is a young scholar and very deeply committed. And so I really appreciated the work that he did. And by the way, he does his work and we all work together, we all kind of came to consensus. I spent time with him at the book launch in Seattle at Town Hall. We had a wonderful conversation about what this book is going to do and what comes next.

JW: What does come next?

RK: Well, as he put it, there’s a three-step plan: knowledge, number one; strategy, number two; and action. We can’t just talk about it and write about it, we need to fight for control of our schools, fight for control of our state houses, and stop this right wing, Christian nationalist war on truth and knowledge and free thought.

JW: Robin Kelley. His article, The Long War on Black Studies, appears in The New York Review. Robin, thanks for everything you do, and thanks for talking with us today.

RK: Thanks, Jon. Appreciate it.

[BREAK]

JW: Hollywood is on strike. For the first time since 1960, the actors and the screenwriters are striking at the same time – 160,000 actors, 11,500 writers. For comment, we turn again to Josh Gondelman. He’s a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and an Emmy Award-winning TV writer, also a comedian. He recently worked as head writer and an executive producer for Desus & Mero on Showtime, where the guests included Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama. He also contributed to the final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. And before that, he spent five years on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, where he earned four Emmys, two Peabody Awards and three WGA Awards. And he’s a regular on the NPR News Quiz Show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, which has a weekly audience of six million people. We reached him today in New York City. Josh Gondelman, welcome back.

Josh Gondelman, guest: Thank you so much for having me back. Nice to see you. Nice to speak with you.

JW: The Screen Actors Guild went on strike last Thursday. How long have you and the screenwriters been out on the picket lines?

JG: We’ve been out for – this is either day 77 or 78 of the strike – which started on May 2nd. I’m also a Screen Actors Guild member, so I’m now on strike doubly.

JW: Congratulations.

JG: Thank you.

JW: The issues, I understand, are pretty much the same for both actors and writers, both sides of your, what shall we say, personality. Fair pay in the age of streaming and protection against AI replacing actors and writers with digitally created content. I just read at the CNN website about actors’ average pay in 2022, $27.33 cents an hour. And is that a full-time job being an actor?

JG: I think it’s becoming less and less in the same way that writing is, with the advent of streaming. So people who used to be able to make their year acting by booking one or two pretty meaty roles have had much more trouble. You get much less residual compensation for re-airing. You don’t get any extra compensation if something that you’re working on is a big hit. It’s just a much more difficult landscape to make a living as – truly a middle-class living is much more difficult to attain.

JW: Everyone is concerned about AI. I asked ChatGPT to write a joke about striking actors on the picket line, and here’s what AI came up with. “Why did the striking actors on the picket line perform a comedy show? Because they knew the best way to protest was to picket with puntastic punchlines.”

JG: That’s pretty brutal. So a couple of things there. One, I’m not going to offer a punch-up for it because that is one of the things that we are asking for in our negotiations, is to not be brought into rewrite AI generated material. Then second, you see how far off this AI feels. But you can see in places like Geo Media, where they’ve been posting AI generated blog posts and the quality is so bad on many of them, so many inaccuracies, and they haven’t worked with their writing and editorial team. They’ve just been ramming these through. You can see that management really is ready to deploy this technology, which is largely just plagiarizing, even though it’s not ready for prime time. So it’s on two fronts. Right now, we’re fighting because it is lowering the quality of work and devaluing writing work. And then in the future, even if it’s better, the better quality, we’re still fighting not to use that tool to put writers out of work. And again, actors as well.

JW: ChatGPT asked me to rate the joke and I gave it thumbs down, and then they asked for more feedback. And the choices I had were was it harmful? Was it untrue? That’s their criteria. So in the blank space I wrote, “It wasn’t funny,” and they didn’t know what to do about that. So I conclude that AI is going to have a hard time replacing comedy writers and comedians.

JG: I mean, I think so. I want to believe that the work that people do has a humanity to it and a creativity to it that can’t be replicated by this technology and won’t be replicated by this technology. But even above and beyond that, on top of just a fondness for human creativity and an admiration for human creativity, the technology right now is just drawing from and recombining the material it’s been trained on. So even if it comes up with something great, it’s not coming up with it. It’s kind of a plagiarism jukebox, and maybe it’ll get something right, but it’s still on the backs of work that humans have created already.

JW: A plagiarism jukebox, exactly. Well, here in LA, our mayor Karen Bass, called on the studios and unions to, “Work around the clock to reach an equitable agreement.” Have the studios been working around the clock to reach an agreement?

JG: Speaking as a member of the Writers Guild, we haven’t gotten a comprehensive counter proposal from where we were in May. I don’t know what the studios are doing, frankly.

JW: Well, we do know one thing. The studios have not been meeting with the Writers Guild negotiators for 75 days, or with the Actors Guild negotiators.

JG: Yeah, I mean, it certainly feels that they’re not working around the clock to get a deal done. They might be doing something around the clock, but it so far has not borne any fruit of a reasonable set of proposals that either union could feel remotely good about. If you look at the materials the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild have both released, there’s just so much daylight in between some pretty reasonable proposals, some stuff that won’t even cost the studios money, and they just say no. So it feels like they have not been making an especially good faith effort to get people back to work.

JW: Robert Iger, the head of Disney, told the media last week that the unions, “Just aren’t realistic.” Of course, his compensation is totally realistic. How much is he getting now?

JG: I think I saw $29 million last year. That’s for one person. We’ve seen some articles citing how much the writers and actors are asking for in total, and making that look like a pretty ambitious number, but it’s about what 10 CEOs make total. And we’re talking, that’s spread across 170 something thousand members between the two unions. So it really doesn’t feel unrealistic unless they consider it realistic that they would give up even a penny of the profits that we’ve helped them generate to go back to the workers that are generating those profits for them.

JW: I saw a list of the big productions that have been shut down because of the strike. It’s another Spider-Man movie, Gladiator 2, Deadpool 3, Kung Fu Panda 4 and Mission Impossible 8. What does this tell us about the creative genius of the studio heads?

JG: [laughter] I mean, obviously I always would love to see more new original stuff, but I think these are the kind of things that they are green-lighting. They work very inside the box in a lot of ways. I’ve heard people complain about some of the quality of creativity with Hollywood writers. Some people that are grumpy about the strike, ‘Oh, they don’t even have any creativity.’ Do you think that the writers all want to only be able to pitch stuff and write stuff that has to do with existing intellectual property? That’s not why anyone necessarily got into it. I think that people who work on these projects do a really great job in a lot of ways.  For lot of people, there’s a lot of fun and excitement even in these sequels and reboots, but I don’t think the bulk of writers just want to work on that stuff.

JW: There’s a report in the trade press that the studios want to break the screenwriters union. Deadline reported last week that the studios believe that by October, most writers will be running out of money after five months on the picket lines and no work. What was that quote about the studio’s end game?

JG: The end game is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses. Another person on the studio side called it a cruel but necessary evil. It was later walked back, but for them to think that that’s a good gambit to pull to say like, ‘Oh, we are not going to stop until the writers are homeless, then we think we’ll get a better deal.’ And you go, ‘Oh, well, that doesn’t sound like a group of people that’s especially motivated to do any kind of fair deal.’ It seems like fairness is not even on the table for them. It seems that they’re negotiating from a place of greed and cruelty, and all we’re asking for is to have these sustainable livings. And their answer has truly been, ‘Screw you all. You’ll sleep on the street.’

Again, I don’t know that there’s even veracity to that. They pretty quickly said, ‘No, no, no, no, they don’t speak for us,’ but this is how some executives are comfortable portraying their position as, ‘We’re in this to hurt the people across the negotiating table because we want everything. We believe it all belongs to us,’ even though there’s a group of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people that actually do this work. Not just the writers and actors, of course, other creative professionals as well.

JW: So I looked up the history of the 1960s strike, which was the last time that the actors and the writers were on strike together, and Ronald Reagan was President of SAG.

JG: Famed radical leftist, Ronald Reagan.

JW: The key issue for both the actors and the writers in 1960 was very similar to what it is today, residuals from a new medium. At that time, it was TV showing old movies and TV doing reruns of their already existing shows. The actors and the writers also wanted a pension fund and a health plan that these studios would contribute to. In the end, SAG had a four-week walkout against the film producers. TV was separate at that point. Something that’s changed. The actors got almost all of what they were after, royalty system for films on TV and studio money for SAG –  it was the beginning of the pension and health fund contributions from the studios.

The writers took a lot longer. They struck against both movies and TV studios, and that strike ran for 155 days on the TV side and 147 days on the film side. That’s five months. Apparently, there were divisions within the Writers Guild at that point that don’t exist anymore, but the writers ended up winning a lot of the same stuff, royalties for TV movies, contributions to the pension and health fund. I would say the biggest difference is that in 1960, unions were able to negotiate deals with individual studios and production companies. Studios learned the lesson of that. You have a united front negotiating and resisting at this time. In 1960, it was about residuals for the new medium of TV. 1980 was about the new medium of video, the cassette, cassette sales.  And now we have streaming and AI. So every time, it takes months and months of striking for writers and actors to get paid for their work.

JG: I think that that’s a really important point because what happens is every time the technology changes, we have to win that jurisdiction in the contract and we have to win fair terms in the contract because every time there’s a change in how our work is distributed and the work of our colleagues is distributed, the studios think that they can put a stake in all of it and say that it’s all their profit. So this is what’s happening again. We’re saying if you’re putting all your eggs in these streaming baskets, you’re not doing it because again, you think streaming is a neat technology that you’re investing in for kicks. You’re doing it because you think this is the future of the industry. And if you think this is where you’re going to be making your money, and if this is indeed where you’re making your money and people are coming to this new media in the numbers that you claim they are and generating the revenue that you’re telling the shareholders that it is, then we deserve our cut of it.

It’s pretty straightforward, the system that exists for TV and film, where you can tell how much money something makes, you can see what the ratings are more or less. You can tell when something is re-aired. But in streaming, everything is being re-aired every moment in perpetuity until it gets pulled down, and they give a very small, fairly flat residual fee for that. It’s literally taking money away from writers, actors. Yeah, it’s very unfair.

JW: I know you’ve been on the picket line a lot lately. Where have you been and what’s it like now?

JG: It’s a real big infusion of energy to have even more SAG-AFTRA members on the line than there were before. There were a ton of SAG-AFTRA members coming out in solidarity with the Writers Guild strike even before last week. I was just at 30 Rock, and it was a big turnout. We had four different locations today. I think we’ll have that through a lot of this week. It’s just big numbers, a lot of energy, a lot of chanting, where the last couple of weeks prior to SAG-AFTRA calling their strike, we’d been at smaller locations, individual locations, trying to set up picket lines in the few places production was still happening and asking for the solidarity of their crews, which many crews had shown and shut down a lot of productions at great sacrifice to themselves. So that is something that is so appreciated. But the energy now is a little different because it’s now about showing our numbers, making our voices heard, letting people on the street see us and showing that we’re not going away.

JW: They’re not going away. Josh Gondelman: his new piece is Hollywood Bosses Are Trying to Scare Striking Workers into Folding, They Won’t Win – you can read it at thenation.com. Thank you, Josh.

JG: Thank you, Jon. A pleasure speaking with you as always.

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