By john a. powell
Oct. 31, 2019
I have been asked lately, more than a few times, whether our current president is the most racist president in the history of this country. Bearing in mind that Andrew Johnson once called the United States “a country for white men,” that 10 of the first 12 US Presidents owned slaves, and that Woodrow Wilson screened the racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House—this question is the wrong one.
Much like the question of whether President Bush cared about Black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the question of whether a chief executive is racist is largely besides the point. The point, as the Dr. Rev. William J. Barber put it at the 2019 Othering & Belonging Conference, is “not what’s in your heart, but what’s in your policies.”
At a time when our world is more polarized than ever and communities face increasing threats to their rights every day, our focus should be on understanding and addressing how racial inequality is perpetuated, not whether a single individual is a racist. This work begins by remembering that racial inequality in the US is the substance with which our nation’s very structure was built. Racialized outcomes are systemic, beyond the purview of any one person or president.
And to understand how these systems came to be, and to dismantle them, we must look to the past, which is why the Haas Institute is playing an integral role in UC Berkeley’s year of events examining the enduring legacy of slavery, which arrived in the English colonies exactly 400 years ago this year. The institution of chattel slavery not only affected Black people, but everyone in the system—and not just everyone, but every system within that larger system. What I mean to suggest is that when we talk about the institution of slavery, we are not just talking about something that happened to Black people, but about something that happened to this country.
So how can we dismantle a system of racism that has affected every structure in which we exist today? From housing to education, health to criminal justice, no structure has been shielded from the legacy of slavery. Some might suggest that the discomfort at the root of these racialized outcomes is natural, that humans have always sought to dominate others and looked with suspicion upon foreign groups. We must not accept this premise. We must also remember that what we are seeing today with authoritarian leaders who use division and hate to wield power is also not new, and that people have often looked to voices of unchallenged confidence when things seem uncertain. I call these fearful and sometimes violent reactions to change “breaking,” and we have seen it before.
We have seen it, for example, with the white parents who angrily pulled their children out of public schools when they were desegregated by court order in the mid-twentieth century.
The policies and structures that underpin our lived experiences can either promote or alleviate breaking, this fear-based reaction to change. As my Berkeley colleague Rucker Johnson says in an interview for this issue, “Segregation is not inevitable, but is a direct product of our policy choices in both housing and education.”
If there is anything Johnson’s work teaches us, it’s that there is, indeed, another way to structure our world for the better and cast off the racist legacy of slavery. But while building stronger, more inclusive structures takes time, I’d like to suggest that all of us can start today by reaching out and bridging with those who are beyond our own groups, with those who we may not yet understand but who must be included in our imagined structures of belonging. There is always another way, and it begins with us.