In “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” Jeffery Robinson aims to help us do just that.
“The third verse of the national anthem is not very well known in the United States,” Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), tells me, exasperated, over the phone. “Here’s how it ends: ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave. / And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.’”
“That is our ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” he says, pausing to let the words sink in. Then he explains: “The Colonial Marines, a group of black slaves who fought with the British during the war of 1812 [for their freedom], were part of the troop that drove the Americans back into Washington, DC, and set the White House on fire. And four weeks later, Francis Scott Key is in Baltimore and he writes this national anthem—and he is celebrating the murder of slaves.”
Robinson, a veteran criminal-defense lawyer and self-avowed student of an untold American history, pulls it all together. “When people have a debate today over ‘respect’ for the anthem, I think it’s interesting to pull the covers away and take a closer look at what’s really there.”
Robinson, who joined the ACLU two and a half years ago, has been touring the country with a talk filled with these kinds of bracing revelations. It’s called “Who We Are,” and it traces the history of racial oppression in the United States of America. In 2011, after a death in the family, his wife’s nephew was sent from New York City to live with them in Seattle. “A lot of the [racial-justice] issues that had been critically important to me took on a new tone, because I now had a young black man in my home,” he says. His nephew, who wanted to “do things like other kids,” to hang out with friend and go out at night, brought with it anxiety for Robinson. “I started having real concern about what was going to or could happen to him.” The result of his worry became a long study into our nation’s violent racist history.
There is power in knowing this history, Robinson believes, a power that will help us on the path to a more equitable society. He hopes that the talks he’s given—which will culminate in New York City on June 19 in an event featuring performances by Alfre Woodard, Amy Ryan, and the Resistance Revival Chorus—will open the door to a much more expansive project around reckoning with our past.
The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
The Nation: Your event in New York City is happening on Juneteenth. What’s the significance there?
Juneteenth is the earliest recognized celebration of enslaved people being freed, June 19. It’s a day that’s been traditionally celebrated in the black community in America, and we thought it was appropriate to have that event on that day because the history of that day is so critically important to understanding how and why we got to where are in June 2018.
So, how did we get here? Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is what many of us in media do with the deluge of information we’re getting. That is, when it comes to covering issues surrounding racial justice or criminal justice, a lot of the time the work being done is more about triage.
I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve started where I have. Because the triage is like a whack-a-mole. “There’s a problem here and I’ll hit it!” and “There’s a problem there and I’ll hit it!” And you will continue to spin around hitting these problems. This has been the experience of America on race relations since the end of the Civil War. You may remember Hillary Clinton telling Black Lives Matter activists, “You don’t change hearts and minds, you change policies and procedure.” Anything that is given to you in a policy and a procedure can be taken away in a policy or procedure. And we’ve seen that with the current administration revoking executive order after executive order. So that is not the answer.
The triage we see, in my view, is a result of us never having had a reckoning with our true history. If you say America was founded on the concept of white supremacy, people will say that is an exaggeration, that it’s a political statement. My response is: Let’s go to the history books. Let’s just look at what the people who founded this country said and did, because they weren’t embarrassed about it. And that unknown history runs from 1619 all the way through to today.
We’ve been treating this problem like it’s a headache, and you can take aspirin and cure a headache, but if you’re taking aspirin when you really have is brain cancer, it’s not gonna work. We have been taking aspirin instead of chemotherapy for our problems with race for decades and decades, if not centuries. The only way we will move forward is if we have a very clear understanding of what the true history of race and racial oppression is in America. I believe that will make people take a different look into where we are now and where we need to go into the future.
I feel like under the Obama administration we were able to delve into some of the issues and history that you are doing. But now, we can’t. Do you ever feel a tension about doing this work as opposed to focusing on the triage work?
No. Because I have 34 years of representing individuals who were being crushed by the criminal-justice system, one at a time. That is triage as deep as you can get. And I love that work. But for me [doing this new work] was the opposite [of a tension]. I was trying to do a reset, if you will.
“The only way we will move forward is if we have a very clear understanding of what the true history of race and racial oppression is in America.”
This is just as important. Think about President Trump saying Andrew Jackson was really upset by what he saw in the Civil War. Andrew Jackson was a psychopathic slaver. He put an ad in the newspaper to catch a runaway slave in the 1830s, and at the end of the ad he said, “I’ll pay you $50 but I’ll pay $10 extra for every 100 lashes you will give this enslaved person up to the amount of $300.” Andrew Jackson was vicious and died 16 years before the Civil War even started! So the president saying [Jackson] was this great man who didn’t think the Civil War was necessary, it’s a complete fabrication.
And how do people respond to that? Are you talking to a diverse group?
My message is this: I had one of the best educations in America, and I grew up right in the middle of the civi-rights movement—and I didn’t find out any of this information until seven years ago. And I am humiliated by not knowing this information. I have given this presentation all around the country, to audiences from public defenders to the American Jail Association—an association of guards in prison. The reaction is pretty uniform: people are shocked.
In the trailer for the talk you say: “We can either deal with it [the country being founded on racial superiority] realistically, or we can keep trying to deny it.” What would it mean to deal with it realistically?
It means to start having an idea of the reality of 2018. Why is it that blacks as a whole have made virtually no progress since what was reported in 1968 in the Kerner Report [the result of a federal commission’s investigation into the experience of black Americans]? In March of this year, the Economic Policy Institute came out with a study 50 years after Kerner that said there’s been virtually no progress in the black community. Is that because we’re not intelligent or motivated? Or, is there something else going on?
As we look at why people are not employed at higher levels, this is not, “Oh it’s just a fault of minority communities.… Many people think that America is segregated in its neighborhoods because of social choices and money. And that is a little bit of it, but people fail to recognize that the federal government drew red-line maps of every major city in America. And then for 30 years it was the law that they couldn’t lend money to black people to buy homes in white neighborhoods.
If we can demonstrate where the federal government has deliberately put its thumb on the scale to make things uneven, then I think we can have a conversation about taking our thumb off the scale. But you can’t have that conversation without understanding the scale, and that’s one we’ve never had.
In the promotional video for your project, you say, “Our history has been stolen from us.” But you are not talking just to black people, it seems. Can you expand upon that?
This is not a white or black problem, this is an American problem. And I’m not saying we don’t have racism in other places in the world; we got plenty of it everywhere. What I’m trying to deal with in this project is to tell a chronicle of racism. Not the chronicle, but a chronicle. This is one of the chronicles of the black experience in America. It’s about our history, all Americans, it’s our collective history that’s been stolen from us.
Looking in the mirror is the most difficult things to do and America has avoided the mirror for a long, long time. It’s time all of us take a good long look, ’cause we’re not gonna like what we see—and that means you’re gonna have the opportunity to do something about it.