In These Times: Black lives and the call for justice

The first two episodes of the Omnia podcast’s second season discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and the lasting impact of slavery and colonialism on the laws and policies that have governed Black lives throughout history.

Season two of the Omnia podcast In These Times explores Black Lives Matter protests alongside the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in episode one, while episode two takes a look at the laws and policies that legislated Black lives, movement, and security, and consider the lasting impacts of systems including slavery and colonialism.

Cartoon montage of a protest, a raised fist, a gun, and a masked African American individual.
Image: Adriana Bellet

Faculty members from the School of Arts & Sciences discuss the events of Jan. 6, while two students reflect on the events of the past year, and share a glimpse of their experiences as young Black adults finding their path in a nation that has yet to come to terms with its legacy of racism and white supremacy.

Herman Beavers, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies talks with Camille Charles, Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences, and Heather Williams, Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought. They are joined by Breanna Moore, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, and senior Jelani Williams.

The enslavement of Black people was supported by a legal system that included everything from laws preventing legal marriage to those restricting movement and access to education. When slavery was abolished, this system did not go away. Instead, it evolved to include Jim Crow laws and 20th-century policies including redlining and urban renewal. In episode two, two historians and an anthropologist talk about the violence embedded in our shared history and legacies that persist: Heather Williams speaks with history professor Brent Cebul, and Deborah Thomas, the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography.

Episode one highlights:

5:38: [Heather Williams] “I remember saying to a friend a couple of times, ‘This reminds me of the 1850s,’ the division in the country, but not just division among individuals, but somebody at the helm who’s sowing that division and encouraging it. And she said the ‘1850s? Not the 1960s?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, 1960s, it was intense. It was powerful,’ but it’s the 1850s when the country was so divided over slavery and abolitionists were pushing more and more against slavery. And the pro-slavery people in the South and elsewhere are saying, ‘No, we’ve got to hold on to slavery.’”

7:47: [Camille Charles] “Certainly, we are a nation founded on the idea of Black inferiority, and because we have never really dealt with that origin story, right, that original sin, we don’t educate our children in a way that would address that and then begin undoing it. Right? So that for everything that we might see in society that we would think would make it better, I think there’s too much that remains in our society, beginning with K to 12 education, that really just perpetuates that origin story. Or, at least the piece of it that suggests that somehow slavery wasn’t so bad and Blacks are to blame for their subpar economic position, right?”

12:46: [Herman Beavers] “I knew by the middle of 2017 that we were well on our way to becoming a fascist authoritarian state. And by 2021, when 45 left office, that’s what we were. So the coup attempt on the 6th, and that’s exactly what it was, the coup attempt on the 6th is what happens in a fascist authoritarian state, where people are doing what they think the authoritarian leader wants them to do. So it was disheartening.

“The other thing is this, white supremacy and systemic racism have become, if not household words, certainly sort of public watch words. And I’m skeptical about how deeply invested people are, particularly white people are, in addressing those things. ... Nothing that I’ve seen, including white people participating in street protests, nothing that I’ve seen has induced me to think that we have reached at what people are calling an ‘inflection point.’ Because, January 6 undoes all of that. If we were on our way to it, it’s all undone. Because for better, for worse, we live on a country whose history is built around the idea that white people are central to everything that happens and everybody else is an add-on or an imposition or an intrusion that needs to be either silenced or erased or removed.

“So, the only people that can turn that around is white people. I reject that whole language of white people being my allies, I just reject that because I didn’t advance white supremacy, racism. I didn’t invent those things. So my expectation is that people who are really serious about engaging white supremacy and systemic racism, they need to take January 6 as the arena in which they need to enter to challenge those things.”

Episode two highlights:

9:43: [Heather Williams] “The main legacy [of slavery] is, again, the ideology, the belief that I think is, it’s hard to explain it and describe it. We often think about people like those people who went to those rallies that some of us disapprove of, that call themselves white supremacists, or would not deny being white supremacists, who run around with the Confederate flag and have some excuse for why they’re doing that. And then you’ve got the masses of white people, including good white people, nice white people, some white people I know and are friends with, who have embedded in them an idea that they are better than other people.

“And I think that is the most pervasive, and the most damaging legacy. That more and more, especially young people are trying to throw that off, or trying to question that, or trying to challenge it, but it’s not so easy to do. And people talk about privilege. It’s not so easy to give up privilege. It’s just not, even when you recognize it, and a lot of people don’t recognize it. They don’t even look for it. They don’t think about it. But even once you do, when the rubber hits the road, do you really stand by that?”

15:13: [Brent Cebul]: “We often talk about redlining, the practice of government providing insurance to particular neighborhoods for mortgages, right? And so the classic understanding of redlining is that it denied the benefits of mortgage and lending to black neighborhoods and cities disproportionally, but also Jewish neighborhoods in some southern Eastern European immigrant neighborhoods. But what we often forget is that the white neighborhoods, and the aspirationally white neighborhoods and suburbs, were given favorable status by those same programs. And so not only are they starving poor communities and cities of access to that capital, they’re creating new markets for white families to move out to suburbs. So there’s both a stick in cities and a carrot that’s pulling white people out. And that it would not be an underestimation to say that that nest egg that a mortgage offers really creates the white middle-class.”

23:52: [Deborah Thomas] “You asked if anthropology has colonial origins, right? So all disciplines have colonial origins. Humanism as a Western philosophy, of course emerges outside of the scientific revolution, and in the wake of the Renaissance from the 14th to 17th centuries. And central to the emergence of humanism was an attempt to reckon with reason and rationality by developing a new universalism that would dislodge theological conceptualizations of causality in favor of a new idea of man as a secular political subject. And in the process of developing this new secular idea of man, it also located European views of the world as superior to all other possible views.”

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