8 powerful speakers that might make you think differently about racism

8 powerful voices share what it's like to be black in America, and why white people must break the racist status quo.

Clint Smith: In Thomas Jefferson's memoir Notes on the State of Virginia he wrote that the slave is incapable of love. The slave is incapable of possessing and sustaining complex emotion and that black people are inferior to whites in both the endowments of body and mind. And so, for me, that's interesting because the man who's largely considered the intellectual founding father of this country, responsible in Iarge part for the conception of the Declaration of Independence and the constitution, didn't think I was fully human.

And so there's an entire history from the very inception of this country of black people being dehumanized by the state and people who represent the state. And so that's why I think it's important to have this socio-historical context and understanding so that when we see police killing black men and women in the streets, we recognize that this isn't sort of something happening out of nowhere. That this is actually consistent with the narrative that has been given about and to black people throughout this country's history.

Robin DiAngelo: The mainstream definition of a racist is an individual—always an individual, not a system—who consciously does not like people based on race—must be conscious—and intentionally seeks to be mean to them—must be intentional. And that definition, I believe, is the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. It makes it virtually impossible to talk to the average white person about the inevitable absorption of a racist world view that we get from living in a society in which racism is the foundation. So I live in a society that from the time I open my eyes, in myriad ways, both implicit and explicit has conveyed to me that I am inherently superior because I'm white. The research shows that all children by age three to four understand it's better to be white. All children. Me. I got that message. You got that message. Everyone gets it. You can't miss it and it's not isolated. It's not singular. It's not dependent on any one person. It's relentlessly circulating.

James Arthur Baldwin: In the case of an American negro born in that glittering republic, and in the moment you were born, since you don't know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white. And since you have not yet seen a mirror you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock, around the age of five or six or seven, to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper—that the Indians were you.

Clint Smith: I remember receiving the news when Tamir Rice was killed, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was shot in the park playing with a toy gun. Police killed him within two seconds of pulling up in the car. And it immediately brought me back to a moment in my own childhood when I was playing with water guns and my father came and told me I couldn't do that—that it was unacceptable. I didn't really understand. I was frustrated. I was embarrassed that my father would do that in front of my friends. That he was the strict dad. I called him after Tamir Rice had been killed and I had a conversation and I told him I understand now.

James Blake: I saw someone running towards me and as he got to me I was smiling thinking this was some sort of a friendly encounter—a fan or someone that was just a long-lost friend or something, but he quickly dispelled that myth in my head and slammed me to the ground and had his knee in my back and cuffed me and told me to not say a word and just listen to whatever he had to say. So I did what he said and they said it was just a case of mistaken identity but as it was happening I was pretty much in shock.

Clint Smith: So many people in the black community, young black men in particular, grew up having the talk and getting the talk, so to speak, from their parents. But I remember having conversations with some of my white friends and realizing there was no notion of ever having to have a conversation about how to interact with police, who you are in the context of the larger criminal justice system.

James Arthur Baldwin: It comes as a great shock to discover that the country, which is your birthplace and to which you own your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved anyplace for you. The disaffection, the demoralization and the gap between one person and another only on the basis of the color of their skins begins there. And accelerates, accelerates throughout a whole lifetime so that presently you realize you're 30 and having a terrible time managing to trust your countrymen. By the time you are 30, you have been through a certain kind of mill and the most serious effect of the mill you've been through is, again, not the catalog of disaster—the policeman, the taxi drivers, the waiters, the landlady, the landlord, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details 24 hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that, because by that time you've begun to see it happening in your daughter or your son or your niece or your nephew. You are 30 by now and nothing you have done has helped you to escape the trap. And what is worse than that is that nothing you have done and, as far as you can tell, nothing you can do will save your son or your daughter from meeting the same disaster and not impossibly coming to the same end.

Robin DiAngelo: Most white people are not going to do anything different. Even those who are open to the message, if it is not sustained, it won't make much of an impact. I often say when I'm in front of a group "Everything outside of this room will compel you not to see this anymore." The forces are incredibly seductive. The forces of white solidarity, the forces of keeping other white people comfortable, the forces to not see or name any of this. And if you don't put some kind of structure around yourself to keep you focused there you're going to slip right back into the status quo. For so many white people we think that the answer to racism is friendliness. If you notice the evidence that most white people will give for why they're not racist, one of their top pieces of evidence is "I know people of color. I have friends of color."

Donald Trump: We had a case where we had an African American guy who was a fan of mine. Great fan, great guy. In fact, I want to find out what's going on with him. You know what – look at my African American over here. Look at him.

Joe Biden: If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump then you ain't black.

Robin DiAngelo: It's actually quite revealing. So, in order for a claim like that—'I know people of color. I have friends of color.'—in order for a claim like that to be good evidence of my lack of racism, a racist can't be able to do that otherwise it's not good evidence. 'This is what distinguishes me from a racist. I have people of color in my life. I live in New York City. I was in Teach for America. I went to a diverse school.' These are all the claims that white people will make for their lack of racism. Well, that must mean a racist cannot live in New York City, could not know or speak to or be friendly to people of color, could not be in the Peace Corps, et cetera. And I'm hoping you can see right now how ridiculous that evidence is because even an avowed racist can do all of those things. So, most white people believe that niceness is all it takes and the status quo of our society is the reproduction of racial inequality. That's what it does. It's a default of all of our institutions, our norms and our policies. It's what our society does. It's what it's always done. Our outcomes are not improving. By many measures, our outcomes of racial disparity are increasing.

Mary Bassett: New York has gotten healthier and healthier in recent years and our life expectancy now exceeds that of the United States as a whole. So, on average, New York City is definitely a place to live to be healthy. But that average doesn't disclose the huge variation that we see by neighborhood. And we find that the community district, actually, Brownsville, which was a neighborhood that I moved to when I was a little girl when I came to New York, has a life expectancy that is 11 years shorter than the Financial District. Now, Brownsville, if we considered it a country, is doing a little bit worse than Peru, a little bit better than Samoa and about the same as Sri Lanka in terms of life expectancy. We're talking about in a city that is one of the richest cities in the world, in the country that is the richest country in the world, we have neighborhoods where the patterns of health look like those of a developing country. That's not acceptable. In fact it's unconscionable.

The first thing that people might think in trying to explain that is that the people in Brownsville are making a whole set of bad choices. They're not careful about what they eat. They smoke too much. They don't exercise enough and that's why they're unhealthy. The "lifestyle" hypothesis is really powerful and, in many ways, it replaced the genetic hypothesis as an explanation for the poor health of the black population. But let's unpack what we mean by lifestyle.

Nobody picks a substandard building to live in with terrible issues of rodent infestation and indoor allergens that trigger asthma. That's not a lifestyle choice. No one picks a neighborhood because they want to feel unsafe there so that they won't use the park, or no one picks a neighborhood where there are no grocery stores or supermarkets that carry a range of vegetables that allow them to make the healthy choices we want them to make. So, when we talk about lifestyle, we're often mixing it up with poverty and all the constraints that poor, segregated neighborhoods place on people's ability to live a healthy life.

James Arthur Baldwin: From a very literal point of view, the harbors and the ports and the railroads are the country. The economy, especially of the Southern states, could not conceivably be what it has become if they had not had and do not still have, indeed, and for so long, so many generations, cheap labor. I am stating very seriously—and this is not an overstatement—that I picked the cotton and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else's whip for nothing. For nothing. The Southern oligarchy, which has, until today, so much power in Washington and therefore some power in the world was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And no one can challenge that statement. It is a matter of historical record.

Liza Jessie Peterson: People should be concerned with the issue of mass incarceration because it is a human rights crisis that is happening right in front of our face and it's being cloaked with "crime and punishment." The 13th Amendment in the Constitution, in the United States Constitution, it says that slavery is illegal. So we can't have slavery anymore—except for punishment of a crime. If you are convicted of a crime then you're exempt from that 13th Amendment. So that means that you're allowed to work as a slave, slave labor, slave wages. So you have people working for ten cents an hour, eleven cents an hour, doing agriculture, clothing lines, computer parts, airplane parts, military equipment, food that we buy organically grown. These things are being manufactured in prisons. So you have corporations, companies, who are profiting off of people incarcerated. So there is an incentive for hyper-criminalization of a population to keep capitalism running on a well oiled machine of slave labor which is the foundation for this country. Let's not forget that the fabric, the very fabric of this country, is rooted in slavery. Slave labor for hundreds of years.

So there is huge capital that was amassed. Systems and industries that were created from slave labor. So how does this system continue to operate? Well it just kind of shifted and now we have mass incarceration. We have people who are literally working for five cents, seven cents, ten cents an hour.

Malcolm X (El-Haji Malik El-Shabazz): To devise some kind of method or strategy to offset some of the events or repetition of the events that have taken place here in Los Angeles recently, we have to go to the root. We have to go to the cause. Dealing with the condition itself is not enough and it is because of our effort toward getting straight to the root that people oft times think we're dealing in hate.

We are oppressed. We are exploited. We are downtrodden. We are denied not only civil rights but even human rights. So the only way we're going to get some of this oppression and exploitation away from us or aside from us is come together against a common enemy. Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to, so much so that you don't want to be around each other? No, before you come asking 'Mr. Mohammad, does he teach hate?' you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you?

And I, for one, as a Muslim, believe that the white man is intelligent enough. If he were made to realize how black people really feel and how fed up we are without that old compromise and sweet talk. Stop sweet talking him. Tell him how you feel. Tell him what kind of hell you've been catching and let him know that if he's not ready to clean his house up, if he's not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn't have a house. It should catch on fire. And burn down.

Robin DiAngelo: I'm going to use a term here that I understand is charged and that is white supremacy. I'm very comfortable with the term. Yes, it includes extremists we might think of as white nationalists or neo-Nazis. It also is a highly descriptive sociological term for the water we swim in, for the society we live in. A society that holds white people up as the human ideal, as the norm for humanity and everyone else as a particular kind of human and a deficient one.

Clint Smith: Part of what's happened now is that we live in a hyper-documented era in which everything is being captured on camera phones and videos and gone viral and shared on different social media platforms. And a lot of people are saying 'Where did all of this come from. Like how are the police doing this. Why are they doing this. This just happened out of nowhere?' When actually this has been happening for an incredibly long time. In black communities, we've been experiencing disproportionate incarceration, we've been experiencing stop and frisk, we've been experiencing police brutality on an ongoing basis for decades and decades and centuries.

Wesley Lowery: The major question that lies at the heart of our inability to deal with and to actually create changes to a system that would lead to the decrease in use of fatal force is our refusal to believe black and brown people. Black and brown people have been saying for generations that this was the case, that they were being beat up. They were being pulled over. They were getting arrested on fraudulent charges. And we essentially for generations said 'We don't believe you.'

Clint Smith: What's happened now is that now there's sort of these primary sources, so to speak, these empirical evidence of these events transpiring in America and the world is being forced to look themselves in the mirror and reckon with how so many of us have been complicit in allowing such a thing to take place for so long and to really be forced to ask ourselves what are we doing or what are we not doing to allow this state-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies to continue? Black children in this country in part necessitate a different means of parenting in the sense that it is important to inform a black child of the realities that exist around them without making that child feel as if it is their fault. Racism isn't a child's fault. Systemic oppression isn't a child's fault. At the same time, you have to teach that child how to navigate a world that is often taught to fear them. My mother and my father had ongoing conversations with me throughout my childhood and my adolescence and my teenage years and even now as a young adult about understanding the way that I was seen even if I wasn't able to see that myself.

To recognize that when I went out with a group of my white friends or if I'm in an interracial relationship or if I am engaged in certain activities, that those things are perceived differently because I am a black man and the United States and the world has certain sort of stereotype or caricature of who they believe black men to be and that there are people judging me before I ever open my mouth. That there are people who have decided who I am before I've ever had an opportunity to show them or to engage with them.

And that this exists in every sort of realm of class. And I think that was an important thing for my parents to teach me as well is that, I come from a home of two parents with professional degrees and I attend Harvard University where I'm getting my doctorate. I think a lot of people can operate under this assumption, they'll say 'Oh, Clint. You made it. You've transcended racism and you've moved beyond these oppressive forces and obstacles that have sought to keep you down.' And the reality is that's not true. The reality is that I still get followed around in stores wearing my Harvard paraphernalia. The reality is that I still can't catch a cab on Massachusetts Avenue. The reality is that there are people who, white women will cross the street when walking towards me on the sidewalk at nighttime and those—it doesn't matter where I where my pants, it doesn't matter how well I speak or how smart I am or what my house looks like because I'm a black man and that is the first thing people see and that is it immediately for them triggers an implicit biases that they have been socialized to believe about who we are and what we do or do not do.

Robin DiAngelo: We simply can't get where we need to go from the current paradigm that says only mean, intentional individuals could ever perpetrate or participate in racism. What we need to do is think very differently about what racism is.

James Arthur Baldwin: I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and neither did I. That I was a savage about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course I believed it. I didn't have much choice.

William Barr: Well, history is written by the winners so it largely depends on who's writing the history.

James Arthur Baldwin: This dream is at the expense of the American negro.

  • Black communities have been telling the nation, for more than a century, that they have been targeted, beaten, falsely accused and killed by the police and other institutions meant to protect them.
  • They have not been believed until recently, when the rise in camera phones and social media finally enabled them show and disseminate proof.
  • Even after the video of George Floyd's death on May 25, 2020, there remains defensiveness and denial among white Americans and institutions—a defensiveness that prevents change to the root of the problem: systemic racism. In this video, eight powerful voices share perspectives on being black in America, and why white inaction and white politeness must end.
To learn more about what you can do to end the racist status quo, educate yourself and take action. Here is Robin DiAngelo's list of resources.

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