Writer Jeff Chang’s new book, “We Gon’ Be Alright — Notes on Race and Resegregation,” is a collection of essays that takes on multiple difficult questions.
Starting with “Is Diversity for White People?,” Chang examines recent student protest movements on college campuses across the country, controversies over cultural equity including #OscarsSoWhite, and the history that shaped the segregation and resegregation of American cities.
"We have the luxury and privilege of sitting on the fence, of waiting out the battle, of refusing to engage. But I think racial justice impacts us all, and now is not the time to be neutral."
Chang also challenges Asian Americans to be more than the in-between group, to be intentional and expansive in shaping Asian-American identity. His analysis includes the 1898 US Supreme Court case involving Wong Kim Ark, the trial of former NYPD police officer Peter Liang, Presidential candidate Donald Trump, and Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
Chang is also the author of “Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” and “Who We Be: The Colorization of America.” He writes on culture, politics, music, and the arts; has been a United States Artists Ford Fellow in literature; and has received the American Book Award and The Asian American Writers' Workshop Asian American Literary Award. He is also the executive director of Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts.
Chang took a few moments out of his national book tour to talk with NBC News about "We Gon' Be Alright."
Why did you write this book, “We Gon’ Be Alright — Notes on Race and Resegregation?" Did you rush to get it out before Election Day?
I had originally planned to do a new introduction to my last book, “Who We Be,” and so I went to Ferguson for the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death. I came back inspired and shaken and profoundly moved and wrote a 50-page essay. My publisher thought it was too long for an intro, but important to serve as the foundation for a new book. They gave me a short deadline — and I completed the rest of the book in under four months. It's definitely the fastest book I've ever done by far — the first two took me something like 20 years to do, all counted. But so much has happened in the past two years since “Who We Be” came out that this book sort of just poured out of me.
Please tell us about the title.
Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" has become an anthem for the Movement for Black Lives, and for many other young activists and organizers working in an array of justice movements. And I think it has because it doesn't short-change the intensity of the struggle. And yet Kendrick also insists that if we have each other and god's got us, we gon' be alright. We have to have a reason to move on despite the odds, and I think the song is a call to have faith and trust and grace. That's the spirit I was trying to write out of and into.
Your book connects issues affecting communities of color from #OscarsSoWhite to #BlackLivesMatter, from affirmative action to resegregation. What are some of the barriers keeping some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from getting more involved with issues perceived as affecting other communities of color? and vice versa?
We are in between. In between black and white. In between complicity and freedom. Between narrow self-interest and equal justice. We have the luxury and privilege of sitting on the fence, of waiting out the battle, of refusing to engage. But I think racial justice impacts us all, and now is not the time to be neutral.
What is resegregation? Why should Asian Americans and communities of color care?
Over the past half century, we have seen the destruction of the infrastructure put in place by the victories of the civil rights movement to move us all towards racial justice and cultural equity. The result has been increasing gaps between the races on questions of life expectancy, policing, incarceration, health, wealth, and income, and the rise of resegregation in housing and schooling. We are surging back to pre-Brown vs. Board of Education levels in some areas. Resegregation is really the underlying condition that has put us back into crisis here—from the extrajudicial killings to the return of the culture wars. We have not had a national consensus for racial justice in over 50 years. We need to care because we won't escape the cycle of crisis until we can come together to rebuild a consensus and an infrastructure that moves us toward equity.
By all measures, Asian Americans are the least segregated racial group. In a sense, this gives us a perspective on what a society predicated on justice and equity can look like. It also gives us an idea of how divided and unequal our society really is. I think we have a unique perspective to be able to understand how our society can move forward.
How are police violence, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter also Asian American and Pacific Islander issues?
What activists and organizers in Ferguson say is that "Ferguson is everywhere." The injustices faced by African Americans make possible the conditions that leave all of us less safe, more divided, more unequal. Militarization of the police means Asian American communities can expect intensified policing as well. Unabated police violence means everyone is less safe. Asians tend, like Blacks, to live in suburbs that are poorer and less white. Just as Black homeowners were redlined in the early 2000s, so too were Asian American and Pacific Islanders homeowners. The foreclosure crisis impacted all communities of color.
What message do you hope to convey to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders?
It's time for us to get off the fence, to declare which side we are on, and to join the side of justice not just for the few but for all.
What have you discovered on your book tour?
I'm finding on this tour that people everywhere are deeply concerned about the divisions we face and want to figure it out. It's enough to give me a strong sense of hope that we might be able to get it right this time.
Finally, we noticed that your first book, “Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” is featured in an episode of Luke Cage. You are so cool! What is going on there? Who is reading your book?
"We have not had a national consensus for racial justice in over 50 years. We need to care because we won't escape the cycle of crisis until we can come together to rebuild a consensus and an infrastructure that moves us toward equity."
Haha! Yes, Cheo Hodari Coker and I are really old and close friends — I think he was kind of prophetic and also recognizing the long arc of history making a point about the brutality of killing someone for reading a book— strong echoes in the Keith Lamont Scott case and an understanding of how the brutality of slavery really worked too.
One of the main points too in “Can't Stop Won't Stop” is that when gangs de-escalated their street wars in 1971 and in 1992, creative explosions happened that advanced hip-hop. So the character Koko is reading the book and tries to make a point about letting Luke Cage have his space, to live and let live. But Cottonmouth is ready to go to war. The only way for Cottonmouth to react to his lieutenant's call for peace is to kill him.
I'd like to think that partly Cheo did it sort of as an inside joke for hip-hop history nerds like us—but really his genius is that he made all these layered points in that one scene through the use of the book. I'm completely flattered and humbled that he did.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.