Marc Lamont Hill is no stranger to lending his voice to the tough conversations about race, social justice and the current political climate.
Just this week we watched him keep his cool on CNN as retired NYPD Detective Harry Houck stated, “Black people are prone to criminality.”
Now, the BET News host and CNN commentator is now headed to late night with his own show, VH1 Live!, where he’ll not only discuss current issues, but also put his spin on the latest entertainment news and gossip as well.
“I want to put a spotlight on our everyday life and have fun,” says Hill about the show. “That’s the thing—you can be smart, serious and political, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. It doesn’t mean you can’t turn up at times.”
As the 37-year-old Philly native gears up for the premiere of his new show on Sunday, he also has a new book, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, hitting bookshelves August 2.
Here, Hill discusses his upcoming book, his response to Houck’s statement, and how he won’t compromise his values on his new TV gig.
EBONY.com: Congrats on your new show! Tell us about the show’s format and how VH1 Live! balances its focus on pop culture, entertainment news and current issues.
Marc Lamont Hill: You can watch VH1 Live! with your friends and talk about Rich Homie Quan messing up the lyrics, you can talk the latest pop culture controversy, #OscarsSoWhite, Love and Hip Hop and the NBA Finals all in the same space. When we thought about a show we asked what kind of show can we make where the people who like to do all of that can get everything they want in one space, and that’s how we came about it. There are some surprises you’ll see on the first night, but that’s what we want to do. We know that we have loyal viewers at VH1 who love the content that we have there, so we’re going to speak to that. If you love Basketball Wives and you’re going to watch that premiere on Sunday, then you probably care about what comes after. Also, if you saw Serena Williams lay out on ground and just dominate with everything she had on that tennis court, we might talk about that. We might talk about the latest pop culture commentary. If this were last week, how could we not talk about Jesse Williams having a damn revival? How can we not talk about that? VH1 Live! has a space for all of that and we want to be really interactive.
EBONY.com: In addition to being on TV, you’re also a professor and author. Which medium is most powerful for engaging the masses in political and social change?
Hill: I think they all matter, that’s why I do them all. I think my classroom matters because that’s the place I get to engage students rigorously and deeply, and that’s where they can ask questions back. We can look at books closely and wrestle with ideas closely. And that matters. I’m working with students who one day are going to be the doctors, judges and the CEOs and I hope that the information they get in my classroom will allow them to make smarter decisions to make the world better. And I think that’s dope.
What I do on cable news is important because I feel sometimes like I’m a public defender. I’m not saying I’m always right, nobody is. I’m doing my best to fight the good fight for the people. I’m out here trying to speak justice. I’m trying to engage ideas. I’m trying to intervene in the conversation that otherwise might not be had the same way if I’m not there, or a few other people who do what I do—Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornell West, Eddie Glaude and Imani Perry. Without those people, those conversations don’t happen.
I think social media is important because it allows us to respond in the moment, unfiltered. It allows us to get information, share ideas and it allows us to have fun. I also think the pop culture space is fun and important because so much of the work we do in the world doesn’t happen in classrooms and it doesn’t happen in a newspaper. It happens in our everyday life. I do cable news all day and now I have a space where we can have fun at night. And that doesn’t mean we compromise our values. We acknowledge that we watch TV that isn’t masterpiece theatre, but it’s still fun. We don’t lose our critical eye either. If Stevie J says something out of pocket, I’m still going to call him out about it. If the Basketball Wives wild out one night, I can still have an analysis of it. We don’t lose our intelligence in that space. But we do have fun, we let loose, we laugh and we find joy. Part of how we hold on to our humanity is by holding on to our sense of joy. I don’t have any shame about laughing and having a good time.
EBONY.com: Your upcoming book provides a closer look at race and class in America. What does it mean to be “nobody” in today’s society?
Hill: It means you have been erased from the social contract if you were ever in it. It means you have been rendered marginal, not just by racism, but by economic inequality. It means that the basic provisions of democratic citizenship have been denied to you. It means you have been rendered disposable by the state. It means your humanity has been made illegible, both in the public imagination and in law, either intentionally or unintentionally. To be nobody means that you’re vulnerable.
There are so many vulnerable people in this country right now. If you are walking down the street unarmed in certain cities where stop-and-frisk is big and broken windows policing is the model, then you’re vulnerable. If you’re a poor white mechanic in Tennessee, you’re vulnerable economically. If you’re in Flint, Michigan, just drinking the water, you’re vulnerable. If you’re a women walking down the street, you’re subject to street harassment and you’re vulnerable. To be queer or trans, you’re vulnerable. I want us to think about what vulnerability looks like but also imagine ways to remedy that.
EBONY.com: How do you see this book contributing to the change in structures that keep people vulnerable?
Hill: First, we offer a deeper analysis. I think too often our analysis is thin. It’s easy to say Mike Brown got killed because of a racist cop. That might be true, but my argument is that even if it is true or even if it isn’t, Mike Brown was made vulnerable. Not just by Darren Wilson, he was also made vulnerable by the Normandy School District, which has one of the lowest performance ratings in the country. He was made vulnerable by economic policies that pushed jobs out of St. Louis and Ferguson when the factory shut down. He was made vulnerable when public housing collapsed when the Pruitt-Igoe project is destroyed in St. Louis.
By the time he was laying on the ground for four hours, dead, with people standing around, he was already rendered nobody before that moment happened. That’s the deeper analysis we need to have. We can hire the warmest, fuzziest cops in the world or we can get the nicest politicians ever, but that won’t change the structures that are in place. And the structures are what we need to wrestle with, that’s what we need to remedy that and that’s what I’m trying to get at.
EBONY.com: The other day on CNN, Harry Houck said, “Black people are prone to criminality.” What was going through your mind when he said that? How would you have responded to that claim if you had the opportunity?
Hill: The first thing going through my head was that I was going to confirm his suspicion if he kept talking! (laughs) Here’s the problem. First, his argument was contorted when he said Black people are prone to criminality. He said that the idea that systemic racism exists is a lie, and he set an example of that lie by saying the disproportionate incarceration of Black people is not because of an injustice, but it’s because Black people just commit more crimes. Then he used the New York violent crimes statistics as evidence. This is the problem with cable news. It’s a compelling argument if you don’t know anything. So you have to break down each part of the argument.
First thing, most people who are in jail, aren’t in jail for violent crimes. So even if every violent crime in America was committed by Black people, that wouldn’t necessarily support his argument. Most of us are in jail for non-violent crimes, for drugs offenses and such. When you look at the data, white people do drugs at the same rate as Black people. Black people go to jail more for those drugs than white people do. So, if we both do drugs at the same rate and only one of us is going to jail for drugs, we’re either really bad at getting caught or we’re either really slow runners. We just can’t get away from the police or there’s a structural issue there that might deal with it.
If I were to raid the dorms at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania or Harvard, do you know how many people I could arrest for public drunkenness, civil possession of marijuana, public urination, and disorderly conduct? But we’re not looking there. We over police Black communities, so of course you find more stuff. If you look at stop-and-frisk in New York, most of the people getting stopped and frisked are Black and about 90 percent or more of those people didn’t have guns or drugs. Most of them didn’t do anything. On top of that, we get longer sentences for the same crime. We get executed more often than people who commit the same crimes. We have access to inferior attorneys. These are all things I talk about in my book. There are a range of structural issues that make it more difficult, and that’s just the reality. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a conversation about responsibility. I have yet to meet a Black leader who said be irresponsible. The question isn’t about being responsible. The question is how can we create a world where responsibility is rewarded equally and irresponsibility is punished equally, and where everyone has access to second chances.
EBONY.com: In a recent Democracy Now interview, you said: “What happens tomorrow when the cameras go away, and a week later when the cameras go away?” Social media has a way of keeping these topics in people’s eye line or distracting them from these very real issues. How do we get beyond the hashtags to affect real change on a local and national level to ensure these tragic events don’t continue happening?
Hill: We organize. If we organize and come together and work together, then we’re not prisoners to the news cycle. I’ve been doing inside prison work for 20 years. In the last three, people have been talking about mass incarceration. But the reason we’re getting traction is because we were working when no one was looking. We have to work when they stop looking. We have to join organizations. Everybody can’t start their own organization. We have to commit to each other. If we do that, I think we can get somewhere. While digital organization is great and hashtag activism is important, we also have to get on the ground and meet each other and talk to each other, learn each other, trust each other and love each other. If we do that, then we’ll be ok.
Check out the premiere of VH1 Live! on July 17 at 10pm. Keep up with Marc Lamont Hill on social media @marclamonthill.