Friday, July 19, 2024

How to enlighten America: An interview with Keith Boykin

He’s Black, he’s gay, and he’s the one political analyst you need to listen to right now.

As we end another tumultuous year, journalist, author, and cultural critic Keith Boykin can shed light on some of America’s darkest and most persistent problems, discussing topics exclusively with Queer Forty, such as the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict; the fraught racial divide in America propelled by Donald Trump and the GOP; what it’s like to be a visible Black gay Gen X man in America at this political and social crossroads during a pandemic, and how white allyship demands more than just protesting.

Boykin has been quietly making history for several decades as an out gay Black man in the predominantly straight white world of mainstream U.S. politics. One can track the changes or lack thereof in the acceptance of both Black and queer leadership in those politics by what Boykin has done over the 35 years since he was an undergraduate at Dartmouth, an Ivy League college that even today has only four percent Black enrollment. 

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1987, Boykin worked on the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. When Dukakis lost the election, Boykin went on to law school and it was there that he came out as a gay man and began focusing his activism, as he detailed in his 1996 book One More River to Cross: Black & Gay in America.

Boykin’s time at Harvard Law School was also defined by progressive politics and activism. He was general editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and an on-campus leader of the diversity movement at the university. His subsequent work on the Bill Clinton 1992 presidential campaign in Little Rock, Arkansas led to his position in the Clinton White House where he took an activist role. Clinton appointed Boykin Special Assistant to the President and Director of Specialty Media. As the then-highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House, Boykin helped organize and participated in the nation’s first meeting between gay and lesbian leaders and a U.S. president, making LGBTQ history.

As a political commentator for CNN since 2017, Boykin is a familiar face discussing the impact of racism in America, particularly as it was emboldened under Donald Trump’s presidency. The politics of race and racism is a subject of all his books, but none so declaratively and provocatively as his latest book, Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America.

In this new work, Boykin pulls no punches. White people are scared of an America that doesn’t look as much like them as it used to: An America that has already had a Black president and now a Black and Asian vice president. An America in which the demographics of several states are more Black and brown than white. An America in which the 2020 U.S. Census found four in ten Americans identify as a race other than white. An America where one of the two major political parties has only three Black members of Congress and where that party is working statewide to limit voting access for Black and brown Americans. 

Boykin is succinct, noting how the anti-mask and anti-vax movement is connected to this white grievance that is also anti-LGBTQ grievance — the same people who are against Critical Race Theory are also banning LGBTQ books in school libraries.

Photo: Eastern Michigan University

Boykin says, “They blame the elites, the people that are perceived as elites. They blame a certain group of people—the people who tell them to accept trans kids in their schools, who say women have a right to control their own bodies, to accept same-sex marriage, to be nice to Black people.” 

When we spoke with Boykin, the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the trial of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery were winding down. We opened our conversation asking Boykin to talk about those trials and what they meant in a larger context, given that Rittenhouse had gone to a Black Lives Matter protest with an AR-15 rifle to, as his defense attorneys claimed, “protect property,” but where the then-17-year old Rittenhouse had killed two protesters and permanently disabled a third who he had wounded. 

Boykin said that “these trials put American justice on trial.” He cited the biases on the part of Judge Schroeder in the Rittenhouse trial and said that both trials had illumined “the bias of the American public—at least conservatives” against Black Americans.

“Look at the disparities,” he said. “Trayvon Martin—an unarmed teen in his own neighborhood—was 17, like Kyle Rittenhouse. Look at the way Trayvon was portrayed in the media and [at the George Zimmerman] trial. There is a huge disparity in how we treat Black children versus white children in this country.”

Boykin said that “Black children like Trayvon are demonized and white children [like Rittenhouse] are valorized for things that Black children could never get away with.”

As for 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, Boykin said, “Arbery was a Black man in a particular place where Black people were not supposed to be. The presence of Blackness in and of itself is intimidating to white people.”

Photo: Keith Boykin

Boykin explains that this is the premise of his new book. “In my book I look at this changing America,” he said. “And it becomes clear—the more white people feel threatened and aggrieved that they are losing ground, losing dominance, the more they lash out.” He quotes Emory University professor and writer Dr. Carol Anderson: “The trigger for white rage is black progress.”

One of the ways that white rage is reflected in mainstream politics, Boykin says, is with creating “more barriers and hurdles for Black and brown voters and rigging the Census.” He adds that in Texas people with gun licenses can vote but people with a valid student ID can’t. “It’s pernicious and deliberate,” he said.

The voting issue should be paramount for everyone. And as LGBTQ people are keenly aware, the GOP is trying to invalidate LGBTQ rights at the state level and as Queer Forty has previously explored, Black queer voices are historically suppressed and as a consequence rarely get heard.

Boykin says we have a Democratic president, House and Senate, and that there are three dominant issues that should be paramount for the party: The John Lewis Justice in Policing Act, the Emmett Till Act and the Voting Rights Act. “I haven’t heard the president talking about [these acts],” Boykin said. “I still haven’t seen the Democrats pushing for this. The Justice Department hasn’t come out about this.”

Boykin does point out that “there are things the Biden-Harris administration has done that have helped Black and brown people: the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit, the infrastructure bill. And Build Back Better will help even more. Biden even helped black farmers, which is way overdue.” But he also adds that while those things are good, “everyone should want voting rights.” He points out that “in the Senate in 2006 the vote for voting rights was 98-0. In 2006. What happened?”

The shifting demographics and the blatantly racist Trump happened. Boykin says it wouldn’t surprise him if Trump tried to run for president again. “He doesn’t understand the gravity of his crimes. Or what he did during the pandemic.” He adds, “I don’t think Donald Trump cares about politics. He cares about his ego. And that’s a dangerous thing, to put all that power and responsibility in the hands of someone like that. We have to be very careful.”

Political analyst and author Keith Boykin | Photo: Ricky Day

Boykin got ill with what he assumes was COVID at New Year’s 2020,  a harrowing experience he details in the introduction to his book (titled, so accurately, “Our Weary Year”). He says “I think we haven’t looked at how 2020 affected us.” 

He says of his experience with COVID, for which he was not tested, but which certainly sounds like COVID, “I thought about how this is how the first people who experienced HIV/AIDS must have felt.” And he believes the government understated and underestimated the impact of COVID on marginalized communities just as they had HIV/AIDS.

It wasn’t just that 2020 began for him with a likely COVID infection that left him incredibly sick. “I was going through a lot in 2020. I spent three months living with my mom in 2020 after her husband died. I was arrested in 2020 for the first time in my life while covering a protest.”

And the protests about which he writes compellingly in his book as he traverses the racial ground between Trayvon Martin and George Floyd did not mend all that was broken between white and Black people in America.

“I think it’s important that people engage in voting and in protests,” he says, “But white allies need to talk to their white families and friends about the fact that white people continue to vote against Black interests.” He adds, “No Democratic president has won the white vote since LBJ’s Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.” That was 1965.

What about the LGBTQ community — is it less racially polarized than when Boykin was writing about the confluence of racism and homophobia back in 1996? “I don’t know that I see that the LGBTQ community has gotten past whiteness. More people are becoming visible,” he says, citing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others, but adds, “They got to their position while being out and visible, but it didn’t prove anything about diversity.”

“We have a lot of struggles, still. My personal experience is that I had to file a discrimination lawsuit against a New York City nightclub.”

He explains in shocking detail why he had to file the suit after going to a club on July 4, 2020. “They had two separate door policies — one for white people in which they could basically just walk in, but with Black people they patted you down. They took my boyfriend’s iPod cords, saying it could be used to strangle someone.”

When Boykin, a fairly well-known figure, spoke to the nightclub manager “he said it was true — they did have two separate policies. In one of the most diverse cities in the world.” The club was found to have violated the city’s human rights code.

Boykin says white people have to look at the true history of America as well as their own actions and the actions of other white people they know.

“When we think about the 12 American presidents who owned slaves, the genocide of Native Americans — that’s the history no one wants to address,” he said. “We’ve had symbolic change: a Black president, two Black attorneys general, a Black woman VP — but that progress has only infuriated and inflamed white people and emboldened and inflamed people like Trump and his birther movement.”

What can white people do? Boykin wants white people to exhibit true intersectionality and “talk with those racist family members, that uncle who still says the n word, those people at work who say things in private that they don’t say in public. Talk to them about the impact of their vote and their words and what it does to Black people.”

For all the conflict Boykin talks about on TV and podcasts, and details in his book, he is aging with Gen X grace and fortitude, comfortable in his life and with his work. 

“I’m 56 years old, and I’m happily living my life as a Black gay man,” he says. “In addition to writing books, teaching, doing TV commentary, and developing a few new TV shows, I work out, run, play the piano.”

Although he is currently single, Boykin says, “I date, have sex, travel to other countries, meet new people, and explore new things all the time.” He adds, as he is about to head off for an event, “As far as I can tell, queer life doesn’t end at 40, 50, 60, or any particular age. It only ends when you stop exploring who you are and the world around you.”


After the stunning Kyle Rittenhous verdict came in, we went back and asked Boykin for his response:

“Unarmed Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when police pulled up in a park and killed him for holding a toy pellet gun. Unarmed Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was killed for wearing a hoodie. Tamir and Trayvon didn’t kill anyone, and yet they were treated as adults and attacked by some conservatives as ‘thugs.’”

He continued, “But Kyle Rittenhouse broke the law, crossed state lines, went to a Black Lives Matter protest armed with an AR-15, killed two people, and walked right by the police with his weapon, and conservatives hail him as a ‘hero.’ Even though the two people Rittenhouse killed were white, this case is still about race and America’s racial double standards. We all know if a Kareem Rittenhouse went to a MAGA rally with a gun and killed two people, conservatives would be calling him a thug and not a hero.”

In conclusion he said, “Kyle Rittenhouse is proof that white people can still break the law, carry illegal weapons, shoot and kill people, and get away with it in America by shedding tears and claiming self-defense.”

Get Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America by Keith Boykin here and at your local independent bookstore.

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Victoria A. Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Society of Professional Journalists Award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.

Victoria A. Brownworth has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Victoria A. Brownworth

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