Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 29, 2021

Spence talks neoliberalism and black politics

By ROLLIN HU | January 28, 2016

Lester Spence, an associate professor of political science, introduced his new book, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics at Red Emma’s, a local café and bookstore, on Jan. 14.

“Neoliberalism is basically the idea that every single institution, every single part of human life should be governed by principles of the free market,” Spence said. “And to the extent individuals have to live a certain life by a standard, that standard becomes the entrepreneur.”

Spence spoke to a full room of Hopkins students, faculty and members of the public about neoliberalism and black politics.

He came up with the topic for this new book while researching for his previous book, Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics, which won the 2011 W.E.B. Dubois Distinguished Book Award. He described finding a hole in the scholarly literature relating to black politics and neoliberalism.

“When Tricia Rose writes the first big scholarly book on hip hop, she’s actually arguing that it was a response to neoliberalism, the neoliberal turn. I wanted to kind of dig in that and play with that a little bit,” Spence said.

“So as I was writing about what I thought I was writing about — hip hop and black politics — I end up writing the neoliberalization of black politics through black popular culture. So in order to get that right, I was looking for a citation that I could point the readers [to] and say ‘Okay, to understand how neoliberalism affects black politics in general, go look at this book or go look at this article.’ And it wasn’t there; I couldn’t find it. I thought somebody’s got to write that, [and] that might as well be me.”

Spence goes on to explain that the audience for this book is not limited to an academic readership. It is written so that the general public can understand the role of neoliberalism in black politics.

“I wanted to write a book that can reach academic audiences but more importantly can be read relatively broadly because I think this neoliberal turn is the most under-examined element of our contemporary landscape,” Spence said.

To introduce the material of his book, Spence began by playing two songs: “Work Song” by Nat Adderly and “Hustle Hard” by Ace Hood, which set up his argument that black populations are hurt by the emergence of large corporations.

Spence argued that the rise of neoliberalism has created a system that divides resources in a manner that benefits a few and hurts many. Under this system, cities and individuals are forced to be more competitive economically, which makes life more difficult for the disadvantaged.

“That dynamic reinforces the idea that there are some people who deserve a lot of stuff and some people who deserve nothing. That is the neoliberal turn,” Spence said. “Under the neoliberal turn, cities and individuals alike are forced to become more and more entrepreneurial, bearing both the responsibility and the risk for a range of actions. Under the neoliberal turn, progressive policies like welfare, public housing and unemployment insurance are either slashed or are attacked as these policies are viewed to make people less entrepreneurial and less responsible for their own choices.”

Spence then connected the effects of neoliberal policies to black politics.

“With the neoliberal turn, inequality within cities and inequality between cities increased. And race plays a central role in this turn,” Spence said.

Spence summarized his argument connecting black politics to neoliberalism.

“We see black political officials consistently argue that black populations have this moral obligation to be responsible for their own lives even as they suck municipal resources away from black peoples and then transfer it to corporate and legal stakeholders. We see that time and time again,” Spence said.

Spence also mentioned the role of black churches in propagating the effects of neoliberalism on black communities.

“So under the prosperity gospel, the idea is really, really simple. If you follow the word of God, if you follow the Bible, you will not only be spiritually wealthy, you will become materially prosperous. Under this line, poverty ends up being the response of a poverty mindset instead of being the result of structural forces,” Spence said. “So instead of mobilizing individuals for political projects that get them to argue for more state resources to deal with systemic issues, black churches mobilize churchgoers for an individual project where they are forced to become more and more entrepreneurial.”

Then Spence pointed out some situations in which black populations were able to successfully fight against the neoliberal turn.

I talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight in Baltimore to stop a $104 million jail for youth and adults,” he said. “I talk about the Chicago Teacher’s union struggle, and then I talk about Jackson, Miss. where they elected a progressive black nationalist mayor.”

Following his talk, there was a Q&A session in which Spence spoke about numerous issues such as neoliberalism on an international scale, and the roles of art and activism in black politics.

Senior Alex Crits-Christoph said he appreciated the perspective Spence brought to the conversation.

“I agreed with most the things he was saying. I have read a lot about similar ideas before, he gave some good perspectives,” Crits-Christoph said. “It’s great that we have a professor like Professor Spence at Hopkins. I’m a science major, so I’ve never taken a class with him or even heard of him before. But I looked up his credentials and his publications, and he’s both empirical, which is cool, and he’s very relevant.”

Freshman Angel Gabriel, who took one of Spence’s classes, wanted to see him outside of a classroom setting.

“I took his class last semester, Introduction to Africana Studies, so I attended the event with my friends to see him,” Gabriel wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Besides the fact that Dr. Spence didn’t need a mic to talk about his new book to hundreds of people, his book seems very thought-provoking.”

Gabriel went on further to describe the relevance of Spence’s work.

“Dr. Spence’s argument about neoliberalism in black politics should be relevant to the academia of Hopkins, because 1) We as students are living in a period in American history where neoliberalism is viewed outside of racial politics and 2) We live in Baltimore, a predominantly black city, so the observance of neoliberalism what Dr. Spence mentioned in his talk is right outside the Hopkins bubble.”

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