In the Struggle with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The writer's ideas, unifying socialist and identity politics, are suddenly in the spotlight

By E. Tammy Kim

Photos By Hannah Price

The unseasonable October heat added to my nerves as I walked onto the campus of Columbia University in 2019. I was there to introduce myself to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the Princeton professor and socialist activist, who was giving a talk about her new book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. I had first come across Taylor in 2016, through her early history of the Black Lives Matter movement, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and began to see her name and avatar everywhere. She gave interviews, talks, and speeches at a relaxed, Texan tempo, and tweeted sharp critiques of the Black political class, like when the NAACP formed a partnership with AirBnB, in 2017: “how can the NAACP not see AirBnB as a motor of displacement and gentrification???” She wrote jargon-free essays on everyone’s favorite buzzword — intersectionality — explaining why socialists should demand an end to racism without relying on “campaigns aimed at ending economic inequality alone.” 

Her writing deals mercilessly with the contradictions of our day, but in preparing to interview her, I felt soothed by one observable fact: her use of emojis on Twitter. She was not above responding to the world’s absurdities, high and low: a burn by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an unintended butt joke in a Pop-Tarts ad. All those cry-laughing yellow orbs betrayed a critic with a sense of humor. 

In the modest lecture hall of Columbia’s Maison Française, a brick building that was once part of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, I joined a crowd of professors, students, and the odd community member, all of us forced to sit in uncomfortably stylish, clear plastic Ghost Chairs that refracted the sunlight pouring into the room. Taylor entered in an all-black button-up ensemble, blazer, page-boy hat, and red backpack, too hot for the day. She started her talk where Race for Profit begins: with rats, the vermin of inner-city housing. 

In 1970, a woman named Janice Johnson was given a federally backed mortgage to buy her first house in Philadelphia, where Taylor now lives. De jure segregation and formal redlining were no more, but “predatory inclusion,” Taylor’s term for the funneling of poor African Americans into uninhabitable homes, was just getting started. The “racial liberalism” of people like George Romney, father of Mitt and the secretary of housing and urban development under Richard Nixon, held that American capitalism “could finally produce fairness and equality” for all. Johnson was thus given a Federal Housing Administration mortgage based on a new set of qualifiers — she was Black, parenting on her own, and receiving welfare benefits — but forced into the city’s worst housing stock. She moved in to find a sewer break, a ruptured foundation, and unreliable electricity. And then, on Halloween, “Johnson’s son, Edward, woke up to find a rat in his bed.” 

Taylor brought sympathy and aggravation to a story so at odds with the pristine setting of her talk, and she carried this feeling into a challenging Q&A. First came probing queries from Robert Gooding-Williams, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, as well as a precocious undergraduate who’d already read Taylor’s not-yet-released book. Then came a white man in a baseball cap who asked whether the Black woman Taylor described simply wasn’t ready to own a house. Taylor heard him out while adjusting her glasses. Wasn’t it possible, she asked him, that the woman could have been both unpracticed at owning property and set up for failure? The podium troll conceded the point and retreated.  

The exchange showed not only patience, but also an organizer’s instinct: the ability to connect race and capitalism in a way that could be easily understood. After the talk, the room emptied into an adjoining space. I introduced myself to Taylor, and she immediately turned my handshake into a hug.

The exchange showed not only patience, but also an organizer’s instinct: the ability to connect race and capitalism in a way that could be easily understood.

Taylor was already well known at that point, but since then her ideas have stretched far beyond their usual audience. She became one of Bernie Sanders’ most influential advocates and, when his presidential campaign was over, urged people to keep organizing and avoid “moving from protest to polite politics.” In the early spring of Covid-19, Taylor taught remotely and gained extra time at home with her wife, Lauren Fleer, and young son, Ellison (named after Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man). She also had a new reason to write. “The most immediate question, at least for people I’m in touch with is, what can we do, what should we be doing, how do we organize ourselves publicly, with social-distance protocols?” she told me last April. 

This question was answered a few weeks later, after four Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, a Black 46-year-old father and security guard who’d been furloughed during the pandemic. Protests spread locally, then around the country and overseas, as far as England, Japan, Australia, and Ghana. In early June, not far from Taylor’s house, activists in downtown Philadelphia tried to topple a bronze statue of Frank Rizzo, a notoriously racist and homophobic former mayor and police chief; under pressure, the city itself removed the statue. The following weekend, thousands of Philadelphians marched in 90-degree weather. 

Taylor stayed inside, on account of her asthma, but contributed through essays and online talks. “That’s been odd for me, not to be able to personally be involved, because it’s intersecting with a pandemic,” she told me. “These are the choices we’ve been left with. We can either be in our houses, afraid to get sick and die, or out of our homes, attacked, harassed, and ultimately killed by the police. So it means people have to do something. You can’t sit at home and wait for this to blow over.”

Where does your name come from? A little while into my correspondence with Taylor, I asked this obvious and likely tiresome question. She said that it was hard to explain — “Very 1970s. I didn’t have a name for a month.” — but promised to dig up a document that laid it all out. Much later, she texted me a photo of two yellowed sheets of paper, mounted side by side on a red backdrop and set in a thin gold frame. The pages were covered in neat cursive, scribbles, and emphatic marks in fountain pen and ballpoint ink. Her late mother’s hand: 

Her name will become, Keeanga-Yamahtta

The Taylor Collective wishes to announce

A Marxist-Leninist proletariat revolutionary has emerged in this historic epoch to aid in our struggle against capitalism, racism, sexism, colonialism, neo-colonial, and imperialism. Her name is Keeanga-Yamahtta.

Keeanga-Yamahtta is a dialectical name which will become the living embodiment of her life. 

Unity       Struggle       Unity

Intensify class struggle

The Taylor Collective

Henry
Doris
Malik
Jean-Jacques
Keeanga-Yamahtta

Doris and Henry are the names of Taylor’s parents, and Jean-Jacques is her older brother, named after the Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. But who was Malik, I asked. “…the dog… A collaborative effort in hilarity,” Taylor replied by text. Henry intended his daughter’s name to express “tricontinental” unity: “Keeanga” would represent Africa; “Yamahtta,” Asia; and “Taylor,” the West. “I wanted her life, her experiences to define the name,” Henry told me. “That’s what I meant when I said a ‘dialectical’ name: a name that’s continuing to evolve and develop.” (His youngest child, Taylor’s half brother, is Chad-Cinque, named for the West African revolutionary Joseph Cinqué.) 

“Keeanga-Yamahtta is a dialectical name which will become the living embodiment of her life.”

When Taylor was born, the family had moved from Virginia to upstate New York so that Henry could switch careers, from speech pathologist to historian. He entered a doctoral program at the University at Buffalo and got involved with the socialist Black Workers Congress. The organization eventually sent him to Cincinnati, Ohio, to do labor organizing, at which point he split ways with Doris and the kids. 

Doris would raise Taylor and Jean-Jacques in Dallas, Texas, but the siblings went to stay with their father in Cincinnati every summer. When I asked Taylor about her first personal encounter with politics, she named an unlikely source. In Dallas, when she was 12, her mother gave her a subscription to Seventeen magazine, and one issue featured a story about abortion. It was “the first time I felt an acute sense of outrage,” Taylor recalled. “The idea that someone else could tell someone what to do with their bodies, especially about whether or not to give birth, was just… my own, personal sense of liberty and self-determination — it was such an affront to that.” 

A couple years later, a 26-year-old factory worker and member of the Socialist Workers Party, Roni Lerouge, made an improbable run for mayor of Dallas. Taylor’s high-school government teacher invited Lerouge to speak, and when she did — about U.S. aid to Nicaraguan contras, the deportation of undocumented immigrants, Texas’ right-to-work law, and the threat to abortion access — Taylor felt an immediate pull. “Her whole speech was about socialism,” Taylor recalled.

Lerouge predictably lost the election, but she did manage to win young recruits to the International Socialist Organization, the umbrella network for the Socialist Workers Party. Taylor and a few classmates began to attend monthly ISO meetings at a bookstore in the Jefferson Avenue corridor of Dallas. “It’s fair to say that the ISO was the largest group on the far left in the country for a long time, probably until the rapid development of the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America],” Taylor explained. (The ISO folded in 2019.) The meetings were held in both Spanish and English, as Latino immigrants made up most of the local chapter. Race and class, the domestic and international, were all of a piece in their conversations. 

Taylor went to the ISO in search of answers, and not in a casual or theoretical way. Her mother was a brilliant, enterprising woman who held a graduate degree in education but was unlucky in her career. As an administrator for Dallas’ school district, she hit a discriminatory ceiling. Then, as the owner of a house-cleaning business, she faced a recession. “My family was very educated — and this is the case with so-called middle-class Black people — but their class status was fragile. They were insanely educated; I’m a fourth-generation PhD. Yet my mother filed for bankruptcy in 1982.” The family had to move nearly every year; the city cut off their electricity and gas, and debt collectors came daily to their door. Taylor was exhausted. 

At 16, she left home to live with her father, who had by then remarried and returned to University at Buffalo to be a professor. (Though their research has significant overlap, Taylor would not read her father’s work until she came across it referenced in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, which she was reading for her own studies.) She enrolled at her father’s college and studied with the poets Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, whose Language school emphasized “visuality,” process, and nonsense, and who “encouraged people to write for writing’s sake,” Taylor recalled. Inspired by their example, she dropped out and moved to New York City, where she attended City College but never quite finished. In 1997, her mother died suddenly, of lupus, and Taylor, deep in grief, soon relocated to Chicago. 

Taylor’s new home turned out to be the ideal place to observe the contradictions of liberal politics, especially as the Clinton years, so grimly mechanized against the “undeserving poor,” gave way to Bush junior. Taylor took an editing job at the ISO’s Socialist Worker and found a home among left-wing activists. Contrary to the class-is-all-that-matters stereotype of today’s socialists, the Chicago ISO of Taylor’s time “went way in the opposite direction,” she said, “which was that you can’t understand the class dynamics of the United States without seeing the centrality of racism to the political project of the elite.” She befriended a public-school teacher, Jesse Sharkey, who’s now president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Sharkey’s wife, Julie Fain, co-founder of the socialist publishing house Haymarket Books. She also befriended Fleer, her future wife, a carpenter turned engineer, at an anti-war meeting in Hyde Park. 

“Keeanga was the one other person under the age of 65,” Fleer recalled, “so she was very excited to see me.” (Fleer and Taylor would eventually get married in Fain and Sharkey’s backyard in 2011.) Taylor protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – she told a reporter in the emotionally raw days after 9/11 that the U.S. could “go and drop bombs anywhere in the world, but if anyone thinks that’s a solution, they’re completely naïve” – joined an LGBT rights’ group called Equal Marriage Now, helped coordinate Chicago’s part in the immigrant rights marches of 2006, and worked as a tenant organizer while finishing college at Northeastern Illinois University. 

Katrina “opened up this space to talk about racism and politics, and I felt unburdened.”

It was the preventable disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that, more than anything else, pushed Taylor’s thinking around white supremacy, class, and the state. Katrina “opened up this space to talk about racism and politics, and I felt unburdened,” she told me. Until that point, Taylor had mostly worked within the orbits of the iso. Now, she could write for a broader audience on wide-ranging subjects that she’d spent years examining. “The kind of official explanations were so misinformed and just dangerous that I felt compelled to intervene and knew that I could,” she said. 

Taylor, a passionate cook, also mulled culinary school, but what “put the kibosh on that was, we were organizers who had meetings every night,” Fleer told me. Instead, Taylor enrolled in a new PhD program in African American studies at Northwestern University, with the aim of studying housing and race. She inadvertently began to follow her father’s path. “I knew I knew about Black people and had been studying independently about race and racial politics forever,” she said. Her time at Northwestern spanned the foreclosure crisis, Occupy Wall Street, revelations of torture by the Chicago police, anti-NATO protests, the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, and Obama’s reelection. All of it seeped into her work on housing. Unlike earlier scholars who emphasized geographic segregation, Taylor was part of a new cohort that saw Wall Street’s “financialization” of homes as a primary “driver of racial apartheid,” according to her doctoral adviser, the historian Martha Biondi. “She was very interested in what happened after 1968, after the end of redlining,” Biondi told me. “Obviously, the great recession of 2007 revealed that there was an ongoing exploitation of African American homebuyers.”

In 2014, Taylor was thrown into the punishing lottery of the academic job market. She hoped to stay in Chicago, but none of the universities in the area wanted to hire her. She instead accepted an offer from the African American studies department at Princeton, which is known for its public intellectuals. “I’m not pretending I’m an objective, dispassionate observer of things that go on in the world,” Taylor said. “I feel like African American studies can handle that.” 

Taylor and Fleer moved from their beloved Chicago to Philadelphia, within commuting distance of Princeton’s campus. Then, just before her first semester, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Though Taylor had signed a contract for a first scholarly book based on her dissertation, she set it aside. She marched in the streets, wrote essays, and sat for interviews. It was, like Hurricane Katrina, a moment to confront the twinned threats of capitalism and racism. At the request of Haymarket Books, she agreed to expand a talk she gave in Baltimore, titled “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.”

Taylor wrote feverishly over nine months, sometimes 15 hours a day, knitting Black Lives Matter to socialist movements of the past and positing “a new period of Black protest, Black radicalization, and the birth of a new Black left.” She wanted her book to “create a different set of explanations for hardship, and what to do about it,” she told me. “This is why Marxism has appealed to people all over the world, because free-market capitalism has failed. There are some people who’ve been looking for an explanation or framework to make sense for them.” From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation was intended as a manual for radicals living under the racial liberalism of the waning Obama administration and an imminent future under President Hillary Clinton. But Taylor’s book, born a week after her and Fleer’s son, Ellison, would come to inhabit and challenge a very different era. 

The death threats arrived just a few months into Trump’s term, after Taylor gave a commencement speech at Hampshire College. Fox & Friends Weekend picked up her succinct take on the new president — “a racist, sexist megalomaniac” — provoking viewers to send Taylor a stream of violent emails. Princeton rushed to install security features in and around Taylor’s office in Stanhope Hall, the African American studies building, and Taylor cancelled planned talks in Seattle and San Diego. 

Instead, she put her thoughts on the page. She returned to her dissertation and, in the short-term, signed on with Haymarket to assemble a slim collection of interviews marking the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective statement, a 1977 manifesto written by Black queer socialist feminists, which called for “a clear leap into revolutionary action” and included the first-ever mention of “identity politics.” Taylor wanted to recover this term from liberals and conservatives who’d been using it cynically to deride calls for equality. “The inclusion of Black women on their own terms is not a concession to ‘political correctness’ or ‘identity politics,’” Taylor writes in the introduction to How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. “Looking at the condition of Black women reveals the utter inadequacy of what qualifies as social welfare in the United States today.” In the words of the statement, “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” 

I often imagine Taylor holding two microphones, each wired to a separate auditorium: one filled with a crowd of Black liberals, the other with white leftists.

Taylor is the direct heir of the Combahee women, who emphasized identity politics as a unifying force. “Solidarity did not mean subsuming your struggles to help someone else,” Taylor writes, “it was intended to strengthen the political commitments from other groups by getting them to recognize how the different struggles were related to each other and connected under capitalism.” I often imagine Taylor holding two microphones, each wired to a separate auditorium: one filled with a crowd of Black liberals, the other with white leftists. “Keeanga is seen as an emissary between different camps. She’s respected by people on all sides,” Micah Uetricht, an editor at the socialist magazine Jacobin and co-author of How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism, explained. Taylor’s work shows both that racial justice needs socialism and also that any critique of capitalism must include an analysis of race. 

Her converts are many. Kemi Role, an activist and employment advocate in San Francisco, told me, “I was very capitalism-neutral, and was in this false binary of, ‘it’s race, not class.’ And then you start reading Keeanga, and it’s like, ‘oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.’” Devin Allen, a photographer who has documented the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore, said that, through conversations with Taylor, he came to connect “the Sandra Blands, Ferguson, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner” with larger economic structures. 

In 2019, Taylor lent her talents to the Bernie Sanders campaign. At public talks and on the television and radio program Democracy Now!, she confounded the stereotype of the straight, white, male ‘Bernie Bro’ by praising Sanders for his commitment to “the working class, our class” and being the only candidate with a plan to end housing segregation. Taylor was neither his surrogate nor an uncritical fan, but she saw it as a sign of the times — and a victory for immigrant rights activists, Red for Ed teachers, Black Lives Matter, and climate strikers — that an old (and old-school) socialist could credibly reach for the presidency. Indeed, in the Nevada primary, Sanders won the support of Latinos and voters under 65 by extraordinary margins. The campaign attracted “young, working-class brown and Black people, not for strange reasons, but for obvious reasons,” Taylor told me. “The economy doesn’t work for them, and they’re looking for a different social arrangement.”

During the primary, I went to Princeton to see some of the young people Taylor had in mind. The day looked like a postcard of an Ivy League autumn, all crunchy leaves and blue sky, and Stanhope Hall was playing its part. As I made my way up the stairwell, I admired black-and-white portraits of Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, and Stokely Carmichael, and smiled at the directory on the wall: Taylor alongside Imani Perry, Naomi Murakawa, Cornel West, and Eddie Glaude. I thought of something that Professor Biondi, Taylor’s adviser at Northwestern, had told me: that Taylor “exemplifies the kind of engaged scholar or scholar activist that the Black Studies tradition, since its founding in the 1960s, envisioned.”

Twenty undergraduates, mostly Black but also white and Asian, gossiped in the second-floor seminar room and ate leftover Halloween candy until Taylor entered. She took roll call and apologized for not having brought their graded exams. She had just returned from a conference in Baltimore, she said, where an Uber driver zoomed off with a suitcase containing the tests and “the clothes I actually like to wear.” It was “the universe telling me to get away from Uber,” Taylor sighed. 

The course was on “African American History Since Emancipation,” and the day’s readings included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and sections of Howard Zinn’s Postwar America: 1946–1971. One student asked, in a quiet voice, why Baldwin’s criticisms of white supremacy seemed to soften over the course of the book. “Speak up!” Taylor told her. Another student argued that Baldwin unfairly placed the burden of Black liberation on Black people. “Who else will do it?” Taylor replied. She explained that Baldwin did not let African Americans or whites off the hook; his target was the hypocrisy of racial liberalism. “It’s not just that we’ve been excluded from certain things, but maybe the whole thing just doesn’t work,” she said, expressing Baldwin’s view. “Do we really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

After class, Taylor and I got in her SUV and took Highway 1 toward the Mount Airy neighborhood of northwest Philadelphia. “If you weren’t here, I’d be listening to sports radio,” she said. (Her preferred station is ESPN 1000; her preferred teams, of course, are the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Bulls.) “I listen every day to Chicago sports radio. I tried to listen to Philly sports radio, but it’s too ridiculous,” she said. “It’s the caricature of sports radio that people think of, which is loud men yelling at each other.” Her favorite sports reporter is her brother, Jean-Jacques.

I pestered her with autobiographical questions, which she answered between yelling “Get off your fucking phone!” at swerving drivers. We stopped by a daycare center to pick up Ellison, who sang to himself in his car seat. Back at their row house, Taylor sat him in front of a Korean train cartoon on Netflix so she could boil some rotini. Fleer would be home late; she was out canvassing for Kendra Brooks, a progressive candidate for city council. At the stove, Taylor talked about her latest obsession, Black America during the Reagan years, which she hopes to write about in a future book. “I’m intrigued by this idea that the most famous people in the 1980s were African American: Oprah, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby. Yet at the same time there’s this virulent attack on African Americans, so you simultaneously get the worst Black unemployment, ’82 to ’84, all of the crises that emerge out of that,” she said. 

“It’s all part of not just getting back to ‘normal.’”

After the pandemic made it impossible to visit, I was glad to have this image of Taylor: in socks, in the kitchen, tending to Ellison and talking politics. She and Fleer have worked from home and taken turns with their son, “trying to give each other four-hour shifts and pray for a nap each day,” she told me in April. We spoke by phone on Taylor’s birthday, and I could hear Ellison in the background, yelling “Mommmmy” and counting out celebratory cookies. As classes, talks, and conferences melted into a pixelated slurry, Taylor’s life narrowed around her wife and son — but she also found space to read and write. 

She had told me that, once in a groove, she could write very fast. The Covid-19 lockdown was like this: She binge-read the news, more horrifying by the hour, and wrote in a kind of trance. All the issues she cared about, all the thinking she’d done on race, politics, and the welfare state had come to a lethal convergence. She wrote a post-mortem on Sanders’ presidential campaign after the Southern primaries, regretting the fact that those “with the most to gain” from his platform “have also been the most disappointed by politics,” and argued in another piece that, despite the swing toward Biden, “Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders.” She wrote in praise of new protest movements among essential workers and low-income tenants, but shot for the radical solutions sought by community organizers: “that rents be cancelled and accruing debts wiped off the books — and that the federal government use its enormous resources to rescue tenants.” 

When it became known that African Americans were dying of Covid-19 at a disproportionate rate, Taylor named it the “Black plague” (reminding me of what her friend, the British writer Gary Younge, had described as her “really, really direct way of getting to the problem”), but didn’t stop at this bare observation. “The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility,” she wrote. “In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy.”

By May, Taylor had signed on as a contributing writer at both the New York Times and the New Yorker (she is now at the New Yorker only), and Race for Profit had been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Over the following months, as the country rebelled against the police and activists called for law-enforcement budgets to be transferred to schools and social services, she wrote at an even more furious pace. As Taylor saw it, the connections being made between racist violence, U.S. empire, and austerity in this iteration of Black Lives Matter were proof of progress. The election? Much less so. 

A few days after Joe Biden’s tepid win, Taylor published an essay titled “Voting Trump Out is Not Enough.” The Democrats had briefly reached left to build a minimal coalition, but “the need in this country dwarfs the best of what Biden has put on the table,” Taylor wrote. She argued that the future of the working class depended on “organizing and acts of solidarity.” The country’s “liberal leadership” could not be trusted to deliver pandemic relief, Medicare for All, police reform, or the Green New Deal. “One of the next things I’m going to write about,” she told me, “is the role of the Black political class in dismantling the public sector. To me, it’s all part of not just getting back to ‘normal.’”

E. Tammy Kim is a Lux contributing editor, a freelance writer, and a contributor to NYT Opinion.