Reckoning with another dangerous time for Black people in America

Descriptive transcript

Four Brandeis professors explored the complex intersections of history, politics, the law, race and white supremacy in a panel discussion last week.

"America's Racial Reckoning," a 90 minute, live-streamed conversation featuring University Professor Anita Hill, Louis Stulberg Chair in Law and Politics Daniel Kryder, and Harry Truman Associate Professor of History Leah Wright Rigueur examined and contextualized the national uprising sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

The event was organized and moderated by Chad Williams, the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Chair in History and Chair of the African and African American studies department. Williams opened the discussion with remarks James Baldwin gave to teachers at an event in 1963: “Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.”

“And yet, 57 years later, here we are again,” Williams said. “In so many ways, when we think of the long history of Black people in this country, we have always been in the midst of a very dangerous time.”

The current movement is revealing the vastness of America’s ongoing racial crisis and how deeply embedded anti-blackness is in every aspect of American society, Williams said.

“From the dismantling of police departments to the toppling of Confederate monuments, we are seeing how the structures, symbols, and myths that have undergirded the very idea of America are no longer sustainable,” Williams said. “We are at a true tipping point in this country's history. The question is, now what will we do? What will all of us do? What risks are we willing to take? How far will we expand our imaginations of what is in fact possible? How truly committed are we to reckoning with America as well as reckoning with ourselves?”

Here are a few of the subjects discussed. Watch the video above for the full conversation.

1968 to today

Wright Rigueur, an expert in 20th Century U.S. political and social history, said there are many differences between the events of the late 60s and today, but there are lessons that could be taken from the results of protests and riots from the 1960s. 

Several commissions were created in the aftermath of the race riots and protests of the late 1960s, most notably the Kerner Commission, which resulted in a comprehensive, in-depth report that showed systemic white supremacy and discrimination in America to be the source of race riots that occurred in 1967, and offered solutions that would require significant government spending to improve the quality of life in Black neighborhoods and encourage integration.

"What is interesting to me is that of all of the suggestions, the only ones that are really implemented are ones that increase the scope and power of the police in communities," Wright Rigueur said.

The 1968 Civil Rights Act was the most transformative positive change that resulted from the movements of the 1960s, but even that included a civil disobedience provision, Wright Rigueur said.

“While there is finally a comprehensive presidential task force that gives us an understanding of what the root cause of inequality in America is, there was a real reluctance to actually deal with it and institute the reforms, even in progressive legislation,” she said.

A look back at the Burger Court

Hill reflected on four Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s and early 80s: Milliken v. Bradley, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, Memphis v. Green and City of Los Angeles v. Lyons. Each case, in its own way, upheld local government structures and policies that have contributed to the community and individual vulnerabilities self-evident today, Hill said. In each case, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the dissenting opinion.

"As I think about all of these cases, I ask the question, how many schools, streets, and neighborhoods and jobs might be more available and better-financed had Marshall's legal reasoning been adopted and prevailed in just these four cases? How many monuments to racial hostility may have been removed or never erected? How many lives might have been saved from police brutality?" Hill said. "Now, of course, we don't know the answer. These are the 'What if?' questions that we don't know the answer to. But I think we can surely believe that the words of Justice Marshall, the words that he had penned in his dissent, can inform us today about how to move forward from these unprecedented times that we exist in."

The American policing system

Kryder, who is at work on a book on police and social protest in America, described the modern American policing system as “an incredibly complex and elaborate system of white power." About 700 per 100,000 Americans are incarcerated in prisons, while 4,000 African-American men are incarcerated per 100,000, Kryder said.

“We can find evidence of racist anti-Black outcomes across all dimensions of American government and American society, and I think many of these statistics and trends are clear to everyone,” Kryder said.

The Trump administration has turned its back on court-supervised consent decrees, limits on the transfer of military-grade vehicles and weapons, and has overseen a hollowing out of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, Kryder said. The policies show a sea change in the federal relationship to local police agencies from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, he said.

“These are real institutional changes that have led to a relaxation of the sense of federal oversight and the sense of deterrence that a more active Department of Justice and national, federal administrative oversight would provide to start to bend white power back towards a social justice outcome,” Kryder said.

There are obstacles to understanding American policing because it is decentralized, but it is time that more resources went toward examining the police system, he said.

“We've made great progress documenting and understanding our system of incarceration over the last 15 or 20 years, and I believe that it's time now to shift some of our intellectual resources towards focusing on police agencies and police organizations,” Kryder said.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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