- The Magazine
“I wish my soul had that ability to un-remember hearing George Floyd call for his mother,” says David J. Johns. “And while that is heartbreaking, I cannot wrap my head or my heart around the reality that there are fewer people right now who are concerned about justice for Breonna Taylor. Because there wasn’t a video. There are people who, in this moment, are saying to themselves, ‘Well, she must have done something to deserve it,’ or otherwise blaming her in the way that the media is inclined to blame Black and Black queer victims for their own death, because there is no public record.
“There is a clip of George Floyd’s daughter,” continues the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, “who was in the middle of, I believe, Times Square, saying, ‘Daddy changed the world.’ My thought is that while that moment might’ve felt good, I loathe to think about the moments where what she really wants is to talk to, hold, or otherwise hear from her father.”
Johns is one voice — a very prominent voice — among millions calling for justice, calling for change, calling for an end to violence against Black and LGBTQIA+ Black people in a country that seems intent on maintaining the status quo of oppressive, systemic racism. America may finally be at a turning point, however, as the largely peaceful, profoundly defiant civil rights protests over the past few weeks have begun to show evidence of change — whether it be corporate, such as Quaker Oats retiring its rooted-in-racism Aunt Jemima brand, or political: Both the House and Senate have put forth law enforcement reform legislation, and while there are similarities, the House Democrats’ version is far more comprehensive and unyielding in its social reach, whereas the Senate Republicans seem content with just the bare minimum, the equivalent of electoral lip service.
Johns is not always provided the same media buzz as his counterparts in HRC or GLAAD, but he is just as — if not more — deserving. His commentary carries weight and purpose, and his heart clearly belongs to the thousands of LGBTQ Black lives for whom he speaks.
“I set my sight on him early,” says former NBJC Executive Director Sharon Lettman-Hicks, when seeking her replacement. “I realized he was the magic that we needed for representative leadership of the organization. He had the kind of voice that already had deep-seated credibility within the African American community and the civil rights community. And he could bring a perspective that the greater LGBTQ equality movement really needed.” Lettman-Hicks, who currently serves as the organization’s Board Chair and CEO, adds that, in the three years since taking the organization’s helm, Johns has “succeeded and exceeded” in building “bridges in communities.”
An educator by nature and trade, the 38-year-old native of Inglewood, California, has spent the last several decades working in government and public policy. He took a pay cut from a job as an elementary school teacher to work in Washington as a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow in the office of former U.S. Representative Charles Rangle. His friends and family thought he “was crazy” for taking the post. But he forged ahead, subsequently working for the late Senator Ted Kennedy and former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. In 2013, Johns became the first executive director of President Obama’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The lessons imparted upon him from all three men were invaluable. “Ted Kennedy taught me to take the long view. Tom Harkin taught me that it’s really important to get to know people.” And Obama? “He taught him to lean into my expertise.”
“The work that NBJC does is invaluable,” says author and CNN commentator Keith Boykin, who co-founded the organization in 2003. “They have a unique niche and serve a role that isn’t otherwise being served, especially for people who are both Black and LGBTQ. It helps them talk about racism within the larger queer community, of homophobia in the African American community, and how we bridge the chasm between the groups.
“Under David’s leadership, it has become very culturally relevant,” Boykin asserts. “There are a lot of cultural issues that don’t necessarily resonate in the public policy sphere, but they’re really important for how Black queer people move throughout the world. And David, I think, has done a great job of finding those issues and articulating intelligent responses to them. Whether it’s celebrities, or TV shows and media, or anything that’s going on in the culture that affects our community, he’s been there to speak about those issues. And I think that’s valuable, especially in reaching younger people, because not everybody just wants to hear about legislation and policy all the time. Sometimes they’re just upset about the daily experiences that they encounter in their lives.”
Including experiences with the police.
“The fact that Black people have been lynched, killed, murdered publicly by people that wear uniforms, whether they are white sheets or blue police uniforms is not new,” says Johns. “It has existed for as long as police systems and the prison industrial complex were created.”
Johns tends to talk in long, uninterrupted passages — he has the eloquence of a skilled orator and, like a true educator, is able to distill an idea to its essence with pinpoint, often emotionally arresting clarity. His words aim for the heart as much as they do for the mind. Johns may never change the viewpoint of a man like Donald Trump, but his voice serves to amplify those who would otherwise go unheard, shedding a blaze of light on a cause, on a moment, on justice. He wants to ensure all are remembered, all are brought forward, all are treated equally.
“There are some people, although fewer, who are saying the name of Breonna Taylor, and they should,” he says during a two-hour phone conversation Sunday, June 7, during the first — and arguably largest — weekend of nationwide protests over George Floyd’s murder. “There are some who are saying the name of Ahmaud Aubrey, and they should. But few are talking about Tony McDade, the Black trans man who was murdered by the police in Tallahassee, Florida, and less than 24 hours before that was a victim of a hate crime — he was beaten on camera by a group of grown men. Fewer people are talking about what happened recently to Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman who was beaten on camera by a group of grown boys, who says that she wanted to get to a place where there was a camera, because if she was going to die, she wanted to die on camera. Or the name of McKinsley Lincoln, a Black gay man who was shot in the head in Arlington, Louisiana, a part of the country where, his family is clear, it is not okay to be Black or gay, let alone both.
“And so, I’m in this space of trying to make sense of what it means for there to be this overwhelming body of evidence that makes it painfully clear for anybody who is willing to just look at it, that every day Black people, in our beautiful diversity, face challenges that are designed to break us. Literally designed to break us.”
He continues: “I just thought about this. I had a [transgender] friend who celebrated her 37th birthday yesterday. The average life expectancy of a Black trans woman is around 35 or 36. Walking outside of her household before COVID was an act of self defiance, an invitation to violence. We should not need for people to continue to die for us to be not only aware of, but to respond to, things that are otherwise just inhuman and don’t make sense.”
Johns is not without hope, however. And that hope starts with education.
“I watched Sesame Street the other day as Muppets attempted to explain racism,” he says. “There’s this interesting way that we have of communicating with kids in plain speak and making it simple. I live for the day when we all appreciate that the differences between us are things that we should celebrate and not fear, and not respond to with hate. It will allow us to have simpler lives, to be able to benefit from the richness of the diversity of experience. And to invest the kind of energy that we’re expending trying to make sense of something that actually doesn’t make sense.
“It doesn’t make sense that you treat somebody different simply based on a social construct like race. It doesn’t make sense that someone would be denied access to public housing because of what someone thinks of who loves them. None of that stuff makes sense. And I wish that we would sit more in the discomfort of acknowledging that contradiction, rather than trying to push past it.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with what’s been happening in this country. We’ve seen days of massive protests calling for police reform, calling for an end to the systemic racism that has long plagued our country. Where other protests have died down, these have only grown in volume and intensity. What is your take?
DAVID J. JOHNS: There are a number of unique factors about this moment — this literal moment in time — that have contributed to the conversation we’re having. The connection to protest that exists not only in the founding origins of the enterprise of white colonization are also very much embedded in the efforts of people who have been marked by race, and affected by racism and homophobia, and all of the other things associated with power and privilege in this country. That struggle has endured for quite a long time. For hundreds of years, at this point.
I think what is different about why there are people willing to risk their lives to protest and signal they are no longer willing to be patient is in part because we are all responding to a global pandemic. There are many more people who are feeling the economic weight of capitalism in ways that aren’t so when people are going to work and receiving checks. People who have the luxury of having shelter and food security are otherwise forced to see very public and private reminders that Black and poor and queer people experience every day. They are now reminders of those experiences for other people to grapple with on TV screens and across digital streaming platforms and in conversations that people are having on Zoom and in real life.
That’s incredibly important, because so much of what people who are active are doing and asking is, “What do we do with all of this that we’re seeing, that we’re feeling, that we’re grappling with that we otherwise can’t ignore? This has been way too much for too long, and we refuse to sit on this. So let’s all figure out what more we can do so that we can all live better together.”
It is not lost on me that all this is happening during Pride Month, and that there would not be a pride anything — let alone the very public parades with rainbows and glitter bombs and drag queens — if it were not for the sacrifice made by Marsha P. Johnson.
[In 1969] Marsha P. Johnson decided to resist police violence at the [Stonewall] bar in New York City. There was a law in the city of New York that said that homosexual people, to use their term, a term that I loathe, but homosexual people cannot handle their liquor in the way that their heterosexual, heteronormative siblings can. And so we were forced into particular places that would provide us with liquor, because we are human and should be able to access the things that other people can enjoy freely. But in that space, where queer people were harassed by the cops, and shaken down by the cops, and beaten by the cops, it was a Black woman that started what became a five-week protracted resistance to that kind of state-sanctioned oppression.
MW: Do you think these current protests can, in fact, lead to genuine, lasting change?
JOHNS: Yes, without equivocation. The reality is that in the last two weeks there have been significant — not necessarily watershed, yet — but significant shifts in our lived reality. Right now, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus are talking about a radical piece of legislation that has been introduced that would provide some clear and consistent protection that would honor the reality that Black lives do matter, and should matter, and have to matter, in both principle and in practice. The introduction of that piece of legislation is important. The passing and codification of it is even more important. For decades, there have been efforts to do what has been done in days. And everyone should be clear about the fact that that is a reflection of the movement.
I’m an educator. I think that educators do God’s work, and I accept the calling that has been placed in my life to be an educator. I’ve taught elementary school, I’ve taught college. I think so much of my work in my role at NBJC is about educating, empowering, increasing competence. I watch so many things happening with our children that are a reflection of change. Before COVID, there was a survey that more than 50 percent of high school students identified as anything other than strictly heterosexual. I often have to say in public spaces that that’s not a reflection of the fact that there’s a gay agenda — I still have not seen the gay agenda. I really want to see the gay agenda. If somebody would send me the CliffsNotes, that would be nice — but really, it’s a reflection of the fact that young people are aware of these socially constructed boxes around identity constructs like gender and race and sexual identity and ability, boxes that have been created around us serve to strangle all of us. They erase the beauty that is found in the diversity that exists among all of us.
And so, there are many white children who are publicly processing, acknowledging, and challenging their white parents, who have access to and lean into their privilege. Kids who are crying, who are arguing with, who are protesting alongside other people who they value as humans. It is important for us to appreciate that if we don’t hold people accountable, if we allow white guilt and oppression to take up space, we cannot benefit from the fullness of where we are. We should all be clear without equivocation that there has been and will continue to be change.
And there will continue to be change, if only for the fact that these kids who are watching all of this are protesting. You can’t un-awaken a young person who now understands what James Baldwin meant when he talked about being Black and relatively conscious in America, to almost always be in a conscious state of rage. People should account for the reality that there have been — and will continue to be — organizations like NBJC, who will remain committed to this work, because we care about Black people, and the liberation of all Black people. It’s what we will continue to do.
MW: Your box analogy is a very powerful one. It’s easy for society to keep everybody assigned to their own boxes. But those boxes are breaking open.
JOHNS: Maybe. But also consider that there’s been a shift. Not in the boxes being real, but in the way that we can understand and highlight the fallacies around them. One of the ways that white supremacy works is to flatten race, to suggest that there is just black and there is white. We know that the physical existence of Afro-LatinX, or Afro-Caribbean people, or mixed people makes that not true. But we still write and publish books, and consume media, and entertain thought pieces that almost always obscure the beauty of diversity and simply talk about things as Black versus white.
In operation, what that does is suggest that when we’re thinking about Black people, we’re all a monolith. That’s why most people think that we all live in major metropolitan cities, we’re all concentrated in ghettos, we all speak with slang. It is intentional. The stereotypes have existed to benefit white people who have access to privilege, and heterosexual and normative people who have access to privilege. There’s a reason why it works. But what it does is erase so many lived realities.
I spent ten years on Capitol Hill crafting policies for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Whenever groups came to lobby on behalf of issues concerning Black children, there was never a possibility that those kids could be queer — it was just assumed that they were all heterosexual or heteronormative. The words weren’t even introduced in that space. Conversely, whenever the groups that are associated with the progressive white LGBTQ movement — and it’s important for me to say white, because often no one says white and it’s assumed that gay means white — but whenever HRC or GLSEN or The Trevor Project would lobby for gay kids and issues, there was an assumption that all of those kids were white. And that is problematic. It obscures the lived reality that there are people like me that show up in the world, who are Black and same-gender-loving. I use same-gender-loving because white is a gay male political identifier.
Most Black queer people live with other Black people. We live disproportionally in the South, we live in small rural and isolated communities which get erased and obscured. We live, quite frankly, in the states where it is legal in this moment to discriminate against people tacitly based on race, as informed by racism, and legally based on actual or perceived sexual identity, gender orientation, or expression.
I say that because, one, there is often a way in which the public celebration of white gayness — a la rainbows and public Pride parades in major metropolitan cities — misses the sad reality that there are a lot of Black queer people that do not have the luxury of being out in physical spaces in the way that other people have the privilege of doing and enjoying. It also obscures the reality that there are some of us who face the twin evils of racism and homophobia — and homophobia’s cousin, transphobia, and trans misogynoir, which is a thing that affects Black trans women in a unique way.
Oftentimes, those twin battles by design are erased. Because too often, we are talking about what Black folks need as a monolith, or what gay folks need as a monolith, while those of us who have these intersectional identities get erased and ignored. It’s why our organization exists.
MW: Let’s talk for a moment about that organization, the National Black Justice Coalition. What is its central mission?
JOHNS: We are the nation’s only civil rights organization that is both intentional and unapologetic in acknowledging that as long as there have been Black people, there have been — even before the terms existed or changed into what they are now — LGBTQIA+ Black people. We stand firmly in the intersections of racial equity and LGBTQ equality. I say equity because it is not a belief that you give everybody the same thing. It is about acknowledging power and readdressing grievances. And so, a lot of our work has been focused in federal policy development, codification, and implementation. For example, as the members of the Congressional Black Caucus do the work of advocating for the diverse needs of Black communities, [we want] that they also account for the lived experiences and needs of Black LGBTQ people as diverse as we are.
Recently, a lot of our work has included mental health. Black people, because of racism, are most inclined to need mental health support, and we’re least likely to have access to it. Many of us enjoy connections to diverse communities of faith. In this moment, we have been disrupted in our ability to gather as a community and connect to and draw upon faith in ways that we are accustomed to.
We also have to do a better job of being able to connect to competent and qualified mental health practitioners. A lot of our work at NBJC now is responding to increases in calls with Black LGBTQ people dealing with the effects of increased isolation, feeling depressed, experiencing death related to COVID, and not being able to mourn, grieve, or send loved ones home in the way that we have otherwise become accustomed to. So responding to that as well as the increase in suicide amongst Black youth.
NBJC for more than a decade has enjoyed having relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, Black faith communities, legacy civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Action Network, and so many others who show up in spaces with Black people to increase competence.
We focus a lot on the importance of engaging in dialogue, both oral or written. Much of my work over the course of my lifetime, especially at NBJC, is about reframing narratives, identifying and shattering myths, highlighting where there are resources that can help us rethink or reframe things and shift power. So much of what we do is try and provide people with the language that is sometimes needed to have stigma-free, asset-based conversations. We work to help people argue better. Appreciating that this stuff is difficult and, again, we provide resources and training and tools to hopefully contribute to ensure that these moments — what otherwise could be isolated moments — contribute to a movement.
MW: I want to address the topic of defunding the police. The term has been deployed by some conservatives — Fox News’ Tucker Carlson comes to mind — as one of upheaval and alarmism, as though it’s calling for eradication of all police forces and a means of giving rise to lawlessness and anarchy. But that’s not at all what it means.
JOHNS: Well, I’ll say two things. There are some people who are hearing exactly what they want to hear. They’re listening to people like Tucker Carlson saying that what it will lead to is an upending of the oppression that is enabled by white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The sad thing is that people have used language like anarchy and the rule of law — things that are signals — and Tucker Carlson is speaking to folks who have access to privilege, who are protected in ways that other people — Black people, Black queer people, people with disabilities, people who are non-native — are not.
The part that is not being discussed in the media, because it’s more nuanced and because it’s not as sexy or salacious, is that defunding is about divesting from police departments that have often received resources — federal resources, municipal resources, city funding, funding from taxpayers — that is designed for critical social services, things like social workers and competent mental health providers, quality public schools that exist alongside of public education systems that provide kids with access to opportunities that a whole lot of kids are born without access to. Those resources for decades in many cities — both major metropolitan, or small and rural and isolated — have been given to police departments who have not done the work of meeting these needs of the communities that they serve to the detriment of the other social service providers not being able to do that work.
And so, the most important thing for people to understand about the conversation now is that it’s not simply taking away funds from a city resource and giving them to someone else so that they can do something completely unrelated. It is about investing those resources with the experts, with people who are better equipped to meet those needs.
There are many people who might say right now that they don’t support divesting in police, but will say that you should allow experts to do what they are experts at. Think about the sad reality that in many communities, police officers and departments are the only resource for people who have needs around mental health, needs around social services, housing insecurity, food insecurity, domestic violence. It is those people who often encounter the police. And when they happen to also be Black and queer, chances increase that they will be the recipient of violence. This is a really long way of hopefully making clear that it’s about shifting resources that have already been designed for specific needs to experts who can meet those needs.
MW: It certainly doesn’t help that we have a president who —
JOHNS: Not my president.
MW: — seems intent on fanning the flames of hate and division. I sometimes reflect on the question of whether there is racism inherent in all human beings, no matter what our outward intent.
JOHNS: The short answer is yes, by virtue of the fact that we live in a society that has been structured by race. The answer is yes.
My reality is that I’ve had to work twice as hard to get half as far as a lot of mediocre white people around me. I was told that if I took an hour-long bus ride to school each direction every single day I would get a better education that would allow me to have a better life, which meant in practice leaving my home, leaving my community. I was told that if I went to an Ivy League university, and that if I had particular kinds of jobs that I would be able to enjoy the American Dream. My reality is that I know that if I’m stopped by an agent of the state, whether that be a police officer with a badge, or in the case of my brother Trayvon Martin, a self-appointed neighborhood watch official, I’m not going to. What I know is that my degrees, my associations, all of the things that I am told that would make me feel protected and safe, don’t.
My bio is not going to be read in the moment in which a police officer sees my 6’5″ black body, or when someone sees me holding the hand of the partner that I know that the universe has prepared for me right now, and doesn’t want me to love or be loved because of how we think about sexual identity and gender orientation. All that I’ve done in the world won’t matter in those instances where people only see me through the stereotypes that often inform why we don’t have these kinds of dialogues. My hope is we can shift that.
Let’s entertain for a second having a conversation about the current occupant of the Oval Office without using the lens of race. He most recently had an opportunity to simply lead. And not lead in a way that required him to respond to or atone for all the problematic ass things that he said about Black people, or LatinX people, or the countries of origin that make our country beautifully diverse, or Mexicans, or people with disabilities. I could go on and name all of the people who otherwise are not white and privileged in the way that Donald Trump is, acknowledging immigrant status in the way that that is often erased when white people operate in privilege. But he could have simply led, and been thoughtful and strategic in tapping experts, and leveraging resources, including the bully pulpit that he has provided far too often to do so much damage, so that there was a coordinated effort to respond to COVID.
He could have done that. He could have even decided, “You know what? I’m not equipped to do that. Let me allow folks who are appointed on a commission that I disbanded to do that work.” Or, “Let me allow people in Congress who are better positioned to do it, and I will support what it is that they do.” He didn’t do that. Not a conversation, not an engagement, not a meeting, not a summit, not a nothing. He could have worked with the Republican governors across the country, and the National Association of Governors, and all of the other policy entrepreneurial organizations that exist in D.C. and throughout the country, to come up with a response plan that was informed by a political party.
Because we’re in an election year — and again, a lot of people care about politics over people — it could’ve been a strategy. Like, “Here’s what we’re going to do, and we suggest that you all who warrant a part of it consider it.” He didn’t do that. What he did was lead into dividing and destroying this country. That abolishment of our country, the intentional unraveling and unweaving of the fabrics that literally make our country what it is, is an active enterprise that people are engaging in. But it’s not the protesters in the streets. It’s not Black trans or queer people who’ve been engaging in the enterprise of trying to fix things forever. It’s not Black women, both cis and trans who continue to give so many gifts to the world in spite of all of the challenges that they face. It is white supremacists who are intentional in holding on to this myth that the best parts of this country — what it means to live in a democracy that people contribute to, a country that Black people have built for free, that Black trans folks continue to sacrifice for so people can enjoy political privileges and other social liberties — that those benefits should only be held by a small few.
It shows up in us remembering that there are many people who have lost their jobs, who have lost their lives, who have lost their homes, who have lost anything that otherwise helps them feel normal, while Jeff Bezos has become even richer. Those things are by design.
We all have to engage with the system, public education, health system, police, jails. We all have the opportunity to acknowledge it, and leverage the tools that exist to check it and correct it. There have been lots of people that have been contributing to this effort to get people to shift from acknowledging that it is not enough — that it has never been nor will it ever be enough — to simply not be racist. That’s passive. It’s often silent. It often doesn’t require one to do anything but tell themselves, “I’m not a part of the problem.” That is not enough.
As a participant in this society, as somebody who benefits from the oppression and the pain of Black people, even being able to say to somebody else “Take race out of it” is a privilege. To be able to not want to talk about race, or to name it, to say, “Can we talk about inclusion rather than talking about racism?” — all of those things are manifestations of how racism lives within us. We can all shift to be anti-racist, and anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic, and anti-discrimination against people with a disability. We can all do that work. The question is, will we?
MW: Do you think Biden can beat Trump?
JOHNS: Do I think that Biden can beat him? I hope that anyone who cares about humanity and is guided by a sense of morality, or is concerned about the future of our country, appreciates that there’s no other choice beyond ensuring that a person who has said on television that people should drink bleach does not have the opportunity to hold the title of President of the United States.
MW: Do you have a favorite for Vice Presidential pick?
JOHNS: I have confidence that any Vice Presidential pick will be more competent, more compassionate, and a better leader than any of the leadership connected to the current occupant of the Oval Office. I am careful in this moment because I struggle with having conversations around politics that feel like traditional or normal political cycles. I struggle because normal doesn’t exist now. And I don’t want to return to normal. To be clear, normal didn’t really benefit many Black queer people.
While I understand that there’s an important work to be done around sharpening Joe Biden and what will be his running mate and their administration, I wholeheartedly believe that all energy should be focused on making the point that I previously made, which is that regardless of your political affiliation, your economic privilege, your whatever, unless you are a white supremacist who benefits from this country being torn apart, I don’t understand why any of this is even a question.
Words matter. I have to be clear about this. I need to be careful about my energy and having to channel my passion because sometimes that can be read as aggression, right? So all of that is at play when I go back to just simply saying that we don’t have the luxury of another day with Donald Trump in office or another year attempting to respond to the messages of race and racism in America. We have to do better. We have to figure this out. We can. And we should.
MW: Would you ever consider a run for political office?
JOHNS: As a student of political science, I understand the benefits of and needs for a political leader. In this moment, I am in the arena as an advocate, as a researcher, and as a teacher. If God and the universe and our ancestors at some point have other plans, I’m confident that they will let me know.
For more information on the National Black Justice Coalition, visit www.nbjc.org.
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