Can You Hear Us Now: Juneteenth
Trymaine Lee: We're in the midst of a great reckoning on race in America. But in many ways, it's a reckoning on America itself, of what this country has been in the past, what it is today, and what it could one day be. As we grapple with these big, fundamental questions, we're left to interrogate virtues we assumed to be true; that at its core, America is a land of freedom. But freedom has never been free. Especially for the descendants of enslaved Africans who toiled in bondage for centuries, it took struggle and bloodshed.
Today is Juneteenth, a day that marks June 19th, 1865, when two whole years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, enslaved people in the state of Texas were finally told that they were free. On this black independence day, we ask the question: Are we truly free yet?
I'm Trymaine Lee and today on Into America, I'm sharing a conversation we're calling Can You Hear Us Now: Juneteenth, from NBC News NOW. It's a discussion about justice, equality and the true meaning of freedom. I had the chance to convene this virtual conversation earlier today with playwright and actress, Anna Deavere Smith, Wes Moore, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, Dr. Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, and Tiffany Crutcher, whose twin brother, Terence Crutcher, was shot and killed by police in 2016. I began with the question to Dr. Peniel Joseph. Dr. Joseph, I wanna go back to this notion of freedom. Black folks have certainly fought for it. But what is true freedom in this American context? Have we achieved it? And if not, why not?
Dr. Peniel Joseph: Well, we have yet to achieve true freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., struggled his whole life on radical black citizenship, and Malcolm X talked of radical black dignity. And King defined citizenship as not just the absence of racial oppression and racial segregation. He defined citizenship as the appearance of health care, decent housing and really a guaranteed income. And that's what the Poor People's Campaign was about.
So, to achieve citizenship, we have to not only get rid of thousands of racist policies and transform systemic racism in this country, we have to actually have the appearance of anti-racist and racial justice policies. And for black people, that means very simple things. It means the ability to accumulate wealth, to have income, to have housing, to have health care, and really to have safety and security, and not in the way we think about the criminal justice system (which is incarcerate and punish and demonize black people), but safety and security to have investment in communities, to have mental and physical wellness for our children, to have assets for our LGBTQ communities, to say that black women's lives matter, that black trans women's lives matter. So, it really means both the end of racial oppression but the appearance of institutions that are both anti-racist and are promoting racial justice in every facet of (UNINTEL).
Lee: Wes, Dr. Joseph talked about Malcolm X there. And I wanna talk to you about the idea of racial progress. Malcolm X once said that stabbing someone in the back and pulling the knife out two inches isn't actually progress. Progress is removing the knife and then beginning the healing process. Where are we in terms of that process? And metaphorically speaking, is the knife still in the back of black America?
Wes Moore: The knife is absolutely still in the back of black America. I mean, think about it where, according to the Federal Reserve right now, a black (UNINTEL) a net worth of just shy of $18,000, compared to a net worth of $171,000 for a white guy.
So, in other words, one white family has a net worth of ten black families. And that's not just because these families worked harder. That's because of histories and structures and systemic racism that has been placed into all the frames within our large society. Race is one of the most predictable, greatest predictors of outcomes across several areas within our society, and that is life expectancy, academic achievement, income, wealth, maternal mortality.
And so, if we're not willin' to acknowledge the history of why these disparities exist, then there's no way we can actually begin to attack 'em with any real degree of sincerity. You know, when we talk about progress, progress can also only be made if we're willing to acknowledge the history of why the progress has been so backwards and reverse in the way that these systems have been built.
Lee: Anna, Wes talks about those economic disparities. And in so many ways, that's also been violent, right; the violent economic dislocation of folks. But when it comes to actual violence, Anna, this week marks five years since the Emanuel Church massacre and we're on the heels of a string of deadly police shootings. What role has police, vigilante, and white supremacist violence played in limiting black freedom?
Anna Deavere Smith: Huge. Huge. Not just in terms of lives lost but also it's a spiritual assault. I have friends who are accomplished black individuals who are afraid to go out for a run. And of course, the massacre in Charleston, we'll never forget it. So, I think all of these things, the grief it's caused, the anxiety it's caused, in addition to the blood that is shed.
Lee: Sadly, many of us watched the video of your brother being killed by a police officer. And you are among countless black people who've had a family member killed by police violence. And I wanna ask you, when the state kills, what do we lose, collectively? Obviously, you lost your brother. But all of us, have we all lost something when that happens?
Tiffany Crutcher: Absolutely. And thank you so much, Trymaine. All I can say is that we're in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America. The past few weeks, they've been tumultuous, they've been triggering, and of course they've brought back memories of what happened to my twin here in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
And today, everyone from all over the country is touching down in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to commemorate Juneteenth, and not only Juneteenth but to continue the protest of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and of course my twin brother right here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But you can't really talk about what's happening today in Tulsa, Oklahoma, without reflecting back on what happened almost 100 years ago during the Tulsa race massacre.
The same police culture, that same state violence, that burned down Black Wall Street is the same state violence that killed my twin brother and that's killing black and brown people in America today. And so, we all should be concerned.
Lee: When we think about the systems that bind us, and you think about whether it's access to health care, whether it's criminal justice and police violence, you know, black folks are trying to move through these systems. And one of those systems that we've been grappling with for a very long time is the political system, the electoral system. And we're in an election year, one with really high stakes. And there's already concern about voter suppression efforts. And I wanna ask each of you: Can we vote our way to freedom? Wes, let's start with you.
Moore: The answer of can we vote ourselves to freedom is we have to. 'Cause we have to understand how much voting matters and how much laws matter. You know, I think about the amount of progress we have been able to make is because we've been able to push a value system that eventually our laws were able to keep up with, you know, where as Dr. King once said, you know, that laws won't change the heart but they will protect me from (UNINTEL).
And so, who we put in these offices and what we permit to be done on our behalf as taxpayers, it does matter. And so, as we're thinking about this election, to know that there's not a single bit of philanthropy or corporate social responsibility that is going to be enough to be able to not only undo the level of inequity that's happened but also to actively push us towards an anti-racist agenda that can actually give our communities and our people real opportunities at growth, that is something that has to be done in concert with elected officials who are sitting in these seats and supposed to be advocating on our behalf.
Lee: Anna, what's your take on that? Obviously, folks have made it harder to vote. There are many hurdles. You think about voter ID laws, you think about the long lines black folks face in this election. Is this a hurdle that black folks can get over? And is this a way towards freedom?
Smith: Well, I mean, let's go back to the notion of not knowing that you were free; that the information that you were free was denied you, right. So, as again, we think about Juneteenth, so I would say that we know about this throughout history and that activists, all of us should assemble what's happened before to think absolutelyout how we can disrupt it, actively disrupt it.
Lee: Dr. Joseph, what do you think? You know, historically speaking, it's been tough. And voter suppression efforts have been keepin' folks back. Is this a way?
Joseph: I think we have to vote and everybody should register to vote and, you know, vote like our lives depend on it in November, because they do. But I also think it's about more than the vote. The transformation that we're seeing now is about black people, alongside of Latinx, Native American, Asian, indigenous and white allies, really taking to the streets.
We have to remember democracy is in the streets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the greatness of America lie in the right to protest for right. Too often, those of us who have access think that those who don't should vote, and we wonder why they do not. Citizenship is more than the vote. Citizenship is health care, it's child care. It's black kids not having disproportionate rates of asthma. It's black women not having negative outcomes in terms of maternal outcomes and lower baby weight than their white counterparts, irrespective of income.
So, we have to organize on the ground. We have to love each other. We have to convince different institutions locally to have deep empathy for black lives. And when we think about the Black Lives Matter movement and the policy agenda of a movement for black lives, they talked about policies that were not just dependent on the voting, but depending on all of us reimagining American democracy and making racial justice the beating heart of American democracy.
So yes to voting, but we need to transform food deserts. We need to end racial segregation in our public schools and in our neighborhoods. And we need to have guaranteed income and health care and housing for all black communities in the United States. So, we don't have just archipelagos of prosperity in the black community and vast, searing, racial wildernesses of disadvantage and police brutality and incarceration and premature death of black communities.
So, voting is a part of this. But until we educate and feed and house and clothe and employ every single member of that community, they're not gonna use the voting rights that have been suppressed since 2013. So, voting is only the tip of the spear. So, when we think about the political sword and the political shield, voting is our shield but that sword is organizing, educating and agitating.
And we're seeing it on the streets of America, and globally. The only reason why corporations are saying black lives matter is we have forced them to say that black lives matter, because we have democracy in the streets. And we've done what Dr. King tried to do in 1968: A Poor People's Campaign that was the first Occupy Washington movement that said nonviolence, civil disobedience, was gonna be a political sword to transform American democracy even when Americans didn't want that democracy to be transformed for black people.
Lee: We're gonna take a quick break. Stick with us.
Lee: I pick back up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when NBCBLK reporter, Janell Ross, is on the ground for a Juneteenth celebration.
Janell Ross: It's an interesting mood. I would say it's very festive here in what's known as the Greenwood District, which is exactly the heart and center of what used to be known as Black Wall Street. They've modified their usual celebration a bit. Usually, it's a pretty big festival that goes on all day, well into the night, in a field a little ways from here; maybe about a block and a half from here.
But this year, they've scaled things down, largely because of the coronavirus. There are a number of people here. There are many of your sort of traditional activities. There are singers. There will be speeches. And of course, there are also people here registering people to vote. But then there is this sort of added element. I think that I've been told that this is perhaps one of the more diverse crowds at a Juneteenth event here in Tulsa.
There certainly is a diverse crowd here. About six minutes away to the south and west, in downtown proper, there are people already lined up to try to see the president at the BOK Center, and that is a decidedly not diverse crowd. I would say also that there are a lot of people who are certainly in conversations with people talking about the things that are going on in our country, from the protests to certainly the issues with policing.
And in keeping with something that I heard you mention, Trymaine, I had a conversation with a gentleman who is a baby boomer, grew up here in Tulsa, was born here in Tulsa, and told me that he was taught absolutely nothing about the massacre right here, that began right here at this intersection in Tulsa when he was in school. And the only reason that he really learned much about it is he had a high school job working in the library and saw references to it in other newspapers and in other cities and in books. And that is how he even became aware that it had occurred.
Lee: Janell, let me ask you this just really quickly. Do you get the sense there on the ground that this year, the Juneteenth commemoration, has added significance in any way?
Ross: I think so, yes. I mean, again, I think some people seem to be here I think perhaps as a show of solidarity, a show of interest. If you strike up a conversation with almost anyone here, it really doesn't take long for anyone to get to the issue of policing and police accountability.
It doesn't seem to take long for people to then move on to broader issues of inequality; in particular, economic inequality. Obviously, in an area that once had a thriving black business district that was known all over the world, there are a lot of concerns about the issues that seem to stand in the way of so many black businesses being able to function, open, begin business, much less thrive. And certainly, there are black-owned businesses here now. But this is a whisper of what this area used to produce.
Lee: Janell Ross, thank you very much. Keep up the good work. Your reporting has been spot on over the last several weeks, so thank you.
Lee: Back with me is Dr. Joseph and Anna Deavere Smith and Wes Moore. Dr. Joseph, let's get back into this wealth disparity. The typical white family has ten times the wealth of the typical black family. Help us make sense of that. Give us a quick history on how we got to this moment.
Joseph: Well, we get to the wealth disparity really in the aftermath of racial slavery. And right after Juneteenth, African Americans had promised 40 acres and a mule, and that promise was not kept. So, instead of being able to have land, and there was 4 million free black women and men (most of them were living in the South in the former Confederacy), and when we think about what they were able to do was, instead of getting 40 acres and a mule, they got sharecropping, peonage, and the convict lease system which criminalized blacks and really set up the first racial profilin' system in the 19th century that continues into the 21st century.
So, there was really this great wealth disparity starting in the late 19th century. We've had a movement for reparations, when we talk about that wealth disparity. The great historian, Mary Frances Berry, has the brilliant book, My Face is Black, My Face is True (SIC) about Callie House, a black woman who led, like black women had been leading for centuries, black freedom movements and black liberation struggles for pensions for formerly enslaved African American women and men.
Ultimately, she was unsuccessful. But even as we get deeper into the late 19th and early 20th century, black people founded towns, even before Tulsa. They founded freedom villages in Texas and other places; Oklahoma. And many of those freedom towns and villages were ultimately massacred and victims of racial pogroms.
Black people who did get a chance to buy land and settle hundreds of thousands of acres, a lot of times, that land was lost through unscrupulous real estate deals. Courthouses refused to legitimize black wills. So, they became heirs' property. And many, many multiple descendants had access to them and they could be taken advantage of by white real estate speculators.
And then when we get into the 20th century and the creation of the New Deal and the Second World War, black people don't have access to the GI Bill. They don't have access to the 30-year FHA low-interest mortgages, which is how most of the white middle class is built. Homes that cost $50,000, $75,000, in 1950 would be worth $350,000 and $450,000 two generations later. That's the wealth that white families gave to their children in ways that African Americans never could get. So, there's a reparations movement. We've got N'COBRA, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations. We've got a great new book by Sandy Darity talking about reparations; the esteemed economist at Duke University.
So, when we think about wealth gaps, we have to remember black people built up the wealth in the United States. Scholars call it racial capitalism. I call it racist capitalism and white supremacist capitalist. And what black people have done is build up global capitalism but never got the value that they produced, have it accrue to themselves or their neighborhoods.
So, we've consistently undervalued black neighborhoods and black property. And not only that, we've had banks (like Wells Fargo and others) durin' the great recession provide racist loans to black homeowners that they were calling mud loans. And so, we're marginalized economically both in terms of income but certainly in wealth.
So, the conversations that we have to have, when we're saying how are we gonna fix this, have to include reparations and a movement for black lives has reparations as a policy agenda. This is not a check for every individual black person. This is investment in education, in housing, in transforming segregated, economically impoverished neighborhoods into beacons of investment and American citizenship and black dignity.
Lee: Wes, Dr. Joseph kind of took us the long route to where we are now, from right after Reconstruction into the present. And you work day to day tryin' to shrink this gap with families and communities every single day. When you look at those huge economic disparities, do you see a through line? And what's the lasting impact been on black communities?
Moore: The lasting impact on black communities has been devastating. And I think it's both in terms of how we've exposed levels of vulnerability, and I think we've seen how that's played itself out with COVID-19 and the fact that when you look at black communities and brown communities, these communities have been hit double both in terms of infection rates and also in terms of death rates.
And that is completely because this is a virus that exposes preexisting vulnerabilities. And so, when you're looking at the fact that you have communities, for example, communities in west Baltimore, where half of the children are growing up with asthma, you know that that is a community that is gonna be disproportionately hit.
Lee: Anna, COVID-19 has been described as a heat-seeking missile for vulnerable communities, with layers of preexisting conditions. I wonder how the collision of race and COVID-19, what it's revealed about America. And you talked earlier about the kinda psychic wounds and psychic trauma. When you see all this colliding together, what does it reveal about who we are?
Smith: It makes me think about the (UNINTEL) in the 20th century to have not only, you know, good health but good health care workers. And by that, I mean, let's look at the whole medical community; a community that's used to making procedures or doing procedures, or this idea that I came across in the New York Times; I don't know the author. I'm so sorry. But the notion of a flawed black body; that there's something the matter with you and you have to do certain things to correct that.
So, to me, in the same way that we need to revise schools to make sure that our kids will stay in school and learn to be curious, learn to be joyous, learn to be kind, learn so many things and not get thrown out of school, in the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to revise what medicine is to attach itself in a different way to diseases that are socially determined, chronic diseases in particular.
If you have a doctor who looks down when you come in and doesn't wanna have a conversation with you, there's no relationship. And real healing happens with a relationship. So, if the doctors only wanna do procedures, then we need other kinds of health care workers who wanna bring people through the gauntlet; run in the gauntlet with them to well-being.
Lee: Can You Hear Us Now: Juneteenth, a conversation from NBC News NOW. Thanks to Dr. Peniel Joseph, tiffany Crutcher, Anna Deavere Smith, Wes Moore, and thanks to my colleague, Janell Ross, on the ground in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday. Have a good weekend, everyone.