Sam Sainthil

Sam Sainthil is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He currently resides in Huntington, Long Island in New York, and is a facilitator for Artists Against Police Violence.

location_on Huntington, NY
High school Immigrant family Civil Rights Movement Consciousness raising Black writers Revolution Intersectionality

Do you wanna tell me a little bit about yourself?

I’m from Huntington, Long Island; I graduated from Columbia University in the year 2014 in a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.

Are you involved in any Black Lives Matter-centered activism?

Yeah, I’m part of an organization called Artists Against Police Violence. We try to be a resource for artists, especially artists of color, whose work is about resistance against anti-Black police violence. We compile those artworks together, and we put the artists in touch with other Black Lives Matter-affiliated or politically aligned organizations for grassroots organizing and stuff. That’s what we’re doing right now.

Would you be able to tell me how anti-blackness in the United States affected you before the Ferguson protests and such?

I guess there was just a…feeling of alienation from everyone else, especially from mainstream culture. I went to a predominantly white high school. It was diverse, but in the classes I was in, like honors and Advanced Placement classes,it was definitely noticeable that there were at most three students of color in any advanced class at any given time. So, there was that.

We didn’t really have any way to articulate it. At some point we thought it was normal. There was always something nagging in the back of my mind that it wasn’t normal. There was a sort of resentment that you are one of only a few Black students in an advanced class, and you wonder why there couldn’t be more of you.

You said that your school was diverse but your advanced classes were predominantly white. Was your neighborhood diverse?

Huntington, Long Island is pretty diverse but it’s also stratified economically and racially. So you have the vast majority white Huntington Bay, which is the very well-to-do upper middle class parts of Huntington. You have Huntington proper, which is by the nightlife hotspot of Huntington Village, which is where all the shops are, and that’s still mainly white. And then you have where I’m from, I’m from the border area of Huntington and Huntington Station, and that part is working class and disenfranchised economically, and it’s majority African American, Black immigrant, and Hispanic/Latinx.

Did your family immigrate here?

Yeah, my parents both immigrated from Haiti in the ‘80s. Their generation of my extended family all immigrated from Haiti to the U.S. before I was born.

What does your family think of the race struggles that have been going on in the U.S. over the past year?

There is sort of an understanding of the presence of racism in American society. In general, like most people in society, they understand racism as a situation of interpersonal relationships as opposed to structural organization and power discrepancies between groups…They’re aware of the disadvantages of being Black in America, but at the same time they follow the tradition of, what I would say is, many Black immigrants: “work hard and put your mind to it and then you can overcome everything,” or if not everything, then most things. Because, “look at Obama!” And it’s most clear when they’re juxtaposing themselves to what we call “Black Americans.”

Regarding all of this, what you experienced in high school, and the kind of respectability politics perspective that your parents have, would you say after Mike Brown’s death and the Darren Wilson non-indictment that your perspective on the situation of anti-blackness changed? Also, you focused on high school, but would you say that it changed in college all that much?

My perspective in college changed a lot from my perspective in high school because I’m pretty sure unless you grew up in a predominantly African-American community and your parents were very Afrocentric and your elders wanted you to be really Afrocentric, if you got a decent education, you’d understand racism the way most people understand racism as a problem of interpersonal relationships. And you might even think “oh, it’s not about racism, it’s about classism!”

Me and my friends say that you sound like every Black college freshman before they take a comparative ethnic studies course or an African-American studies course. “Oh, why can’t we all just get along?” A very white liberal conception of social issues…Maybe you understand racism as “oh, the system just isn’t working properly because there are bad people that don’t want it to work properly” as opposed to “the system is working properly, the system is just inherently unjust. The system is racist because it’s designed to be racist.” You might think, “the system is racist because we haven’t perfected it yet. We haven’t worked out the kinks.”

The system is working properly, the system is just inherently unjust. The system is racist because it’s designed to be racist.

I think my moment of politicization was the acquittal of George Zimmerman. That’s when I started reading texts by Black writers on the Internet and by old Black writers, trying to learn more. I think I got into James Baldwin after I graduated, but it could’ve been a little bit before. I mean in senior year I was taking Intro to Comparative Ethnic Studies and History of Racialization in the West. I was having conversations about it with people invested in the activist community.

I think my politics had a starting point and then it became a sort of gradual learning process. Because I mean, no one’s going to have a solid grasp of critical race theory in weeks. Or even in a year. It takes lots of time. I don’t know who your friends are, but if you can have a solid grasp of critical race theory in a year, you have pretty great friends. That wasn’t me.

So what do you read, or what did you start reading other than Baldwin? Who do you read now?

Baldwin…I just felt like I really related to James Baldwin and to his conceptualizations of—I wanted to say the current situation, but I forgot that he died in 1983. I can literally take everything by Baldwin said in 1965, transpose it to 2015, and there really won’t be that much of a difference.

I’d say if it’s not James Baldwin it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his work in the Atlantic. This is before there was an understanding on social media that “oh, we love Ta-Nehisi Coates, we’re all gonna share Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writings every time they come out on the Atlantic.” I don’t even know how I discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates, just that once I discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates I just wanted to keep reading him.

You said a lot of the stuff James Baldwin said in 1965 applies today, so what do you think about people that are seeing the Black Lives Matter movement as a new Civil Rights movement?

Let me just first note that the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s was subversive, and it did work, and it was very necessary. But I think we have to go deeper into the history of how the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in what it was trying to do. Because I feel like we have this conceptualization of the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King, who wanted to get Black people free within what sought to subjugate them for its own benefit — versus the Civil Rights Movement of Malcolm X, which was separatist and sought to free Black people either within or without the system.

I think that Black Lives Matter is an evolution of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, because we’ve taken those ideals of the ‘60s as far as they can go in terms of policy. How far can we take our liberation within this system? Because if the ideas and execution of the Civil Rights Movement were complete, you wouldn’t need a Black Lives Matter movement.

The main goal of Black Lives Matter is to get Black people free.

The Black Lives Matter movement is more intersectional and holistic, it isn’t hung up on the ostracization of different identities, or different cross-sections of identities within Blackness, like sexuality, gender, that sort of thing. It’s rejected the sort of respectability politics that might have been needed in the ‘60s to be successful. So at a certain point, the Civil Rights Movement operated within a framework that was acceptable to more liberally minded white folk in power, whereas the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t seek to be acceptable to anyone but Black people.

Its main goal is to get Black people free…Anytime it works within the system, I believe that it’s necessarily working in a subversive way in order to bring us closer to the revolutionization of that system. I say “necessarily” because I don’t believe we can liberate ourselves within this inherently white supremacist and anti-black sociopolitical system.

Is that what you would say the goal of the movement is?

I’d say the immediate goal of the movement is to get the state to both stop directly killing Black folks—police brutality, white vigilantes, and so forth—and stop contributing to an environment that’s deadly to Black people, via the stripping of the resources of poor communities of color and the criminalization of those same communities. These structural forces and conscious policies create a disenfranchised environment where people are pitted against each other for their survival.

Do you think that the activities of the movement are making headway towards its goals?

I’m starting to believe that we won’t be liberated in our lifetimes, or even our children’s lifetimes. Because I’m convinced at this point that anything less than the complete overthrow of white supremacy, and the way that it manifests itself within the American politic, will only have temporary positive effects.

The way I conceptualize it, the Black Lives Matter movement right now is moving in the right direction insofar as it’s uncompromising and unyielding to its purpose of truly saving Black lives from the institutions (white supremacy) that seek to snuff them out. But if we forget that the system is designed to subjugate Black people for the benefit of its own perpetuation, we’ll forget that every time we’ve gotten rid of any one major manifestation of white supremacy it’s always adapted into something else. So we had the emancipation proclamation, but then we had Jim Crow. With Jim Crow we had redlining, and we didn’t do the work to get rid of it after we got rid of Jim Crow. Now we have to deal with the effects of ghettoization and crime within Black communities.

Anything short of complete revolution of the way we conceptualize ourselves, and the way that America is structured, we’ll be fighting to save Black lives until America is over.

Basically every time we get rid of one major mechanism of white supremacy, it always adapts itself into another form of racial control, and I think that’s something that we have to force non-Black people to understand. Because they’ll think that “oh we got rid of this particular thing and everything’s going to be fine” and Black people know that racism is very adaptable. And Black lives have been endangered throughout the history of the United States.

Anything short of complete revolution of the way we conceptualize ourselves, and the way that America is structured, we’ll be fighting to save Black lives until America is over.

How do you keep going, in a fight like that? What do you draw on for support, in this pretty bleak and extensive situation?

We have to understand that if we’re doing this because we want it to be finished in our lifetime, we’re doing it for selfish reasons. We know it’s unlikely that the “revolution” will happen in our lifetimes.

The struggle itself, to make life livable for more segments of the population, whether that be Black people, or trans* people who are being murdered, or LGBTQ youth that are being kicked out of their homes…to make life more livable for them is good in and of itself.

If anyone who sought to start a movement to make the world a better place only did it under the condition that it would be fulfilled within their lifetimes, no comprehensive movement would ever have been born.

Liberation work is necessarily generational work. We’re building on the work of people who came before us, and died before they ever got to see the work. I’m pretty sure if anyone who sought to start a movement to make the world a better place only did it under the condition that it would be fulfilled within their lifetimes, no comprehensive movement would ever have been born. I don’t think that’s reason to be discouraged though. There are those who struggled before us who could only look back in time and see their parents and grandparents in chains, if they could look forward in time they would see their children and grandchildren in chains. They struggled anyway. Our long dead ancestors struggled and hoped anyway. We owe it to those who fought before us (on our behalf) to keep struggling and we owe it to ourselves to be the ones who fought to make humanity better. I think there is value in that.