Though the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013, systemic racism against Black people has a much longer history, said Professor Chad Williams (AAAS) in a virtual panel titled, “America’s Racial Reckoning,” which discussed past and present racial inequality in America on Friday.
“The current national uprising sparked by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, revealed the vastness of our ongoing racial crisis and how deeply embedded anti-Blackness is in every aspect of American society,” said Williams.
Williams said that following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a reckoning with America itself. Americans are seeing that the structures of America are no longer sustainable, he added. Williams called this moment a chance to be the tipping point in our country’s history, depending on how committed our society stays to reckoning with America, as well as reckoning with ourselves.
Professor Leah Wright Rigeuer (HIST), the Harry Truman Associate Professor of History, said that four years ago, the Black Lives Matter movement supporters were mostly Black, but people of all races are now taking to the streets to protest racial injustices. She referenced a New York Times piece which found that support for the Black Lives Matter movement has grown more in the last two weeks than it had grown in the last two years.
“We are really on the verge of something transformative,” Rigueur said. She credited these recent deaths at the hands of police as “a wake up call,” saying that it was no longer possible to pretend that police were treating Black citizens fairly.
Professor Dan Kryder (POL), the Louis Stulberg Chair in Law and Politics, argued that the popular protest chant “defund the police” can be misleading and that what people really wanted was a “fundamental reorganization from the ground up of the way that police interact with…the community.”
Rigueur followed him by saying that defunding the police isn’t the same as a complete abolition of police and that defunding the police is not synonymous with anarchy. Rigueur called for a complete redo of the police system, as there are many reforms in place that are simply not working.
Kryder stated that the “police system is a complex and elaborate system of White power.” He acknowledged the systemic racism within the police system, especially within the outcomes of interactions with the police department, as Black men are far more likely to be incarcerated.
Kryder then talked about the Trump administration’s relationship with local police agencies, explaining that Trump has turned away from consent decrees, investigating the police on use of force, limits on weapons and has “hollowed out” the Civil Rights division in the Department of Justice. Trump has, both passively and explicitly, created a society and culture where it is commonplace to express White power and White surpemacy, he said.
Discrimination against Black people is not a recent phenomenon, and neither are protests against injustice, according to Rigueur. These current protests are not just about the lives of a few Americans but rather a rage against “a longer history of Black Americans being subjected to the brutality of a racist state and unequal institutions…It’s a righteous rage of being denied access to the trappings of the American dream,” said Rigueur.
She went on to highlight how this country’s form of capitalism has always been against Black Americans, and how—shown especially during this pandemic—the healthcare system is simply not working for Black Americans and public policy has failed to protect Black Americans.
“Black protest makes the point quite clearly that the state is illegitimate,” said Rigueur. “The social contract that governs our lives has historically failed Black people and continues to fail them.”
Professor Anita Hill (HS) highlighted Supreme Court cases from the 1970s and 1980s that ruled in favor of inequality: Milliken v. Bradley, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, City of Memphis v. Greene and Los Angeles v. Lyons. Before she explained each case, she noted Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in all of these cases.
The most relevant case she spoke about was Los Angeles v. Lyons, a 1983 case against police use of chokeholds. Adolph Lyons was put in a chokehold by police that rendered him temporarily unconscious, Hill said. The Supreme Court sided with the police, claiming that “the courts were without jurisdiction to entertain Lyon’s claim.” Hill then cited reasoning from the court, which said that Lyons had been choked, he did nothing to establish “a real and immediate threat that he would again be stopped by an officer who would legally choke him into unconsciousness,” according to the case.
Marshall had pointed out that almost all of the deaths by chokehold from police are of Black people, Hill said. Marshall wrote, “under Lyons we now learn that wrath and outrage cannot be translated into an order to cease an unconstitutional practice.”
Brandeis hosted the conversation on June 12, just two days after university President Ron Liebowitz announced an initiative where groups of administrative officials will author action plans to transform the campus and address systemic racism. The university was criticized on social media for centering White administrators in those groups, and Liebowitz released a second statement on June 16 clarifying that membership of these administrative groups was not limited to those listed in his original email.
“Our challenge now is to step up and use this moment of crisis as a moment of opportunity,” said Williams. “I hope that you will leave this conversation… with a sense of responsibility, with a sense of commitment, and a willingness to take risks to change society.”
Williams argued that universities had to start seeing themselves as institutions of transformative change, that they had to start breaking from the status quo. Rigueur agreed, saying that universities had to do more than just “putting out really nice statements and holding a couple of conversations” but rather should be “actually making real transformative investments that sustain over the long term.”
Hill jumped in after Rigueur, saying that maybe the way universities teach in general has to be changed since the current way of teaching is hundreds of years old. She referenced the pandemic, referring to how universities all over implemented new methods of teaching for this semester, saying that these experimental teaching methods could lead to a more exciting and relevant future of education.
This panel was sponsored by the Department of African American Studies, the Department of Politics, the Department of History, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost.