Diversity Forum: Despite 2020’s upheaval, racial reckoning didn’t happen


If you think the past year has been a racial reckoning for America, think again, Danielle K. Brown, faculty member in the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, told the July 28 panel, “Bitter Fruit: The Poison of America’s Racism,” at Pitt’s 2021 Diversity Forum.

“Nobody was forced to reckon with racism” in 2020, Brown said. “We were forced to talk about it,” but too many people “weren’t even forced to acknowledge that racism was a thing … And nothing really radically changed because of it,” she said of the year’s events.

“We’ve always been really good at calling out one bad guy,” she said, “one bad group … but not the system.

“The facts of racism are made to seem like (people’s) opinions,” Brown continued.

She has examined media coverage of the past year’s protests over George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis policeman, and “it’s been heartbreaking, soul crushing for me to analyze (the) data,” she said.

Too often coverage of Black Lives Matter protests have trafficked in stereotypes of protesters and of Black people, and too often “coverage doesn’t necessarily comfort the afflicted,” Brown said.

For the last year, “there’s been lots of diversity statements and lots of promises … but there has not been a system overhaul,” she added, noting that a survey of Minnesotans revealed that “even George Floyd’s murder is still up for debate: Was he a victim? Was this a murder?”

She expects that “the trauma and terror of racism will continue without systemic change.”

Brown’s sentiment was echoed by all the panelists in a morning session overseen by Keisha N. Blain, co-editor with Ibram X. Kendi of “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019“ and associate professor of history at Pitt.

”There is so much resistance to talking about this topic,” Blain said, but “we know that race and racism does shape our everyday lives.”

Lorgia García-Peña, a Harvard faculty member in Romance languages and literatures, however, did note that “this was the first time we’ve seen a national conversation about racism among the Latinx community.”

But 2020 and 2021 have simply been “a new representation … of the same colonial violence that led to slavery … separation, genocide” and other violence, García-Peña said. “We talk about anti-blackness and we talk about immigration but we do not talk about anti-blackness and immigration together.”

Racism is not just an issue for the United States either, she said, “but part of the symptoms of global capitalism,” most recently manifest in the way in which some countries lack enough coronavirus vaccine “while half of (this) country rejects it by choice.” In fact, she said, the connections “have never been more clear” between immigration issues and racism today.

If you want to understand how racism and white supremacy will develop, “you have to look at faith communities,” especially Christianity, said Jemar Tisby, of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and a historian of religion. “They’re playing out in religious spaces even before they hit the headlines.”

He cites the pre-Civil War split inside the Methodists, Southern Baptists and Presbyterians over slavery as a harbinger of the coming conflict, and notes that slavery and the conquests of native peoples had religious justifications at their roots.

“The same pattern continues today,” Tisby said, with conservatives incensed over critical race theory, an idea of which most people have only just heard. “Really, it was playing out years ago in far-right Christian denominations,” he says of the fear of critical race theory. He calls this battle “a bellwether for what is going to happen nationally.”

Black voters had a major hand in voting to replace Donald Trump with Joe Biden, he said — and in reaction, there has been a backlash against voting rights. Seeing echoes today of the 1877 “Redemption,” when white supremacists took back the South from the Reconstruction effort, Tisby said, “Christian nationalism and white supremacism … have been and remain the greatest threat” to American democracy.

The threat to Asian-Americans from racism also came to the fore again last year, said Russell Jeung, Asian-American studies faculty member at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. It happened because Trump urged his followers to dub COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” he said.

“We’ve received thousands of accounts of racism,” at his nonprofit group, he reported. “That term ‘Chinese virus’ was deadly … that’s how white supremacy works. We’ve become the scapegoats for the (Trump) administration, probably to deflect” their botched response to COVID-19. When asked what their greatest fear was during the pandemic, Asian-Americans pointed to other Americans’ racism, he said — not the virus.

One good result, he said, came when large numbers of Asian-Americans were pushed to be first-time voters in 2020. But Jeung, a sixth-generation American, questioned the position of Asians in this country: “The logic of immigration is that we came to the United States for whiteness … not to be white, (but) we want the kind of treatment that whites receive. The logic of immigration pushes us toward whiteness.”

And yet, “last year, Asian-Americans were not perceived as insiders … Asians were now treated as outsiders, not belonging to America.

“I don’t want to belong to America” as it has been, given its racism, he said. “Why would I want to belong to this society as it is? This is a time when we really need to reimagine America, morally, as it should be.”

Oluchi Okafor, a recent Pitt graduate in Africana studies and political science, asked the panelists whether a peaceful transformation to a more just society was really possible.

“I don’t think there is a model” for such a transition, said García-Peña, calling racist violence “a global pogrom.” Still, she was “very optimistic,” she said, that the future would involve dismantling racist institutions. “It’s not about having conversations and hashtags and posting things” — the solution rests in doing the work of changing racist systems, she said.

“I am personally not interested in being ‘included’ in anything,” she added. “I want to be part of the structural changes.”

Asked by Blain to say whether they felt hope or despair, Brown, too, said, “I don’t think there is a model for how we do a racial reckoning.” But she asserted: “There is one way that racism works (against) people of color. That is not up for debate anymore. We can work consciously to make this, what has become deniable and debatable, back into factual spaces.”

Tisby concluded that we are involved in “a narrative war. We’re still fighting a narrative battle about truth … on many fronts … and we’re losing … because the other side is better at telling a story.”

Those who do not understand systemic racism, when confronted with the sight of George Floyd’s killing, “they see that video of police violence and they say ‘One bad apple.’ They forget the other part: ‘… spoils the whole bunch.’ ”

“Part of this education is helping (people) understand privilege and oppression,” Brown said to conclude the panel. “Everyone in their life has experienced privilege and oppression” — if not because of race, then perhaps because of age discrimination, against the old or the young, or other causes. “If you can make those connections” for those who disbelieve privilege and racism are pervasive, “that’s the baseline where we start.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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