Award-winning author and former CNN political commentator Dr. Marc Lamont Hill mused on race, politics and criminal reform during a far-ranging discussion Friday, Feb. 7, at Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium.
“I firmly believe this generation of young people has all the tools and talent to make this movement just as transformative as the previous one,” Dr. Hill said while drawing a parallel between today’s “woke” movement, which has raised awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice, and the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Young people around the world get it, and they’re right to want to be free.”
Dr. Hill told moderator Latoya Edwards, an Emmy Award-winning anchor on NBC 10 Boston and NECN, Emerson College graduate and Dorchester native, that today’s politically conscious young people often face unfair criticism from their elders, just as trailblazers like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. previously did. “There has never been a generation where their parents say, ‘these kids get it,’” he added.
Regarding the Black Lives Matters movement, Dr. Hill said, “There’s a perception that it went from being the center of the conversation, and that it’s just dissipated. “I think that’s unfair criticism.” Instead, he believes the movement brought issues like police brutality to the “mainstream.”
“Police should be held accountable, but that doesn’t mean we hate the police or wish harm on the police,” Dr. Hill said. “They shouldn’t operate with impunity. That’s the point of Black Lives Matter.”
As one of five children, one of whom was recently released from incarceration, Dr. Hill said he strives to “struggle for a world without prisons.”
“I’m not a reformer, I’m an abolitionist,” he said. “I want to live in a world where justice doesn’t look like punishment.”
A 42-year-old native of West Philadelphia, Dr. Hill also witnessed firsthand the devastation that the crack cocaine epidemic wreaked on the community he grew up in, as well as on his own family.
Dr. Hill recalls as a boy, an older cousin who would babysit for him would inexplicably go missing for extended periods of time; only later did Dr. Hill learn his cousin was smoking crack during theses absences.
“I remember these moments,” Dr. Hill said. “I knew he was sick, he had an illness.”
Moreover, Dr. Hill points to the hypocrisy of a prevailing view in society and the criminal justice system that cocaine use is a bad habit whereas use of crack cocaine equates a “bad person.”
“If you make a bad choice with cocaine, they send you to rehab, but if you make a bad decision with crack, you go to prison,” Dr. Hill said. “Justice doesn’t equal punishment, and punishment doesn’t equal confinement.”
Despite reports of a flourishing economy, Dr. Hill said the largesse – and opportunities- often doesn’t trickle down to people of color at the same rate.
“If you’re measuring the economy by how Wall Street is doing, you can absolutely call it a victory, but so many people have stopped looking for work and so many are vulnerable,” he said. “We have to keep track of that as well.
“We have to keep track specifically of the ways blacks experience unemployment, which doesn’t mean there aren’t jobs available [because] when you’re seen as black, you’re less likely to get a job – or even an interview,” he added.
Speaking two days after President Trump’s acquittal, Dr. Hill said, “If you don’t impeach this President, you should take impeachment off the list of possibilities. This President has clearly violated the spirit and letter of the Constitution.”
Dr. Hill added that U.S. citizens have a moral and ethical responsibility to hold both Congress and the Republican Party accountable for the trial’s outcome, with one notable reception – Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the sole Republican who voted to convict the president.
Still, Dr. Hill said, “I’m cynical about Mitt Romney because he had many other opportunities to hold Trump accountable before this, why now?”
Looking to the primary elections, Dr. Hill postulated that one Democratic candidate, Kamala Harris, is being held to a higher level of scrutiny by other women of color.
When Edwards asked Dr. Hill how to people of color could be better engaged at the voting polls, Hill said, “Part of the problem is we have to talk to everyday, working people and find out what’s important to them and articulate that in a way that resonates.”
And while the results of last week’s Iowa primary might’ve come as a shock to some, Dr. Hill said it wasn’t a very surprising outcome considering the state backed Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in the 2008 and 2012 primaries, respectively.
“There open to something different, it’s possible,” Dr. Hill said. “America’s a funny place – why is Mayor Pete still around?”