NEWSLETTER WEEK 35 – JANUARY 26, 2021
Thank you to everyone who could attend Sunday night’s conversation with Dr. Deion Hawkins (is he incredible, or what?!). If you couldn’t make it, you can access a recording by becoming a sustaining member of our Patreon (we start as low as $2 per month and every single cent goes directly to our future speakers and the organizations they support!). Here’s a speaker synthesis if you’re interested in some of our key takeaways from Deion’s abundance of wisdom and advice for cultivating authentic allyship.
In the spirit of both the inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration last week, and our conversation with Dr. Hawkins Sunday night, today we’re talking about the danger of thinking we’re in a “post-racial” era. And to do that, we’re going to go shut our eyes and go back in time to 2008 real quick.
In researching this newsletter, the very first article we found was a hopeful NPR piece about the impact of a Black president. We came across this line, published January 28, 2008: “The wish for a post-racial politics is a powerful force and it rewards those who seem to carry its promise, says Peter Boyer in The New Yorker. It may still be too early to speak of a generation of colorblind voters, but maybe color blurred?”
The sentence feels almost laughable in retrospect. Of course the election of a Black man into the highest political position of power in the nation did not render racism obsolete. For many people, casting their ballots for an “atypical” candidate was a perfect way to declare “I’m not racist and neither is my country.” And voting against him was merely a “difference in policy” that required little-to-no investigation of one’s own values. His election was heralded as the arrival of a “post-racial” America, one in which the nation’s “original sin” of racial slavery and post-Reconstruction Jim Crow discrimination would finally be absolved by the election of a singular Black man as commander in chief. And white liberals and conservatives alike carried this narrative with them for years to come (cue the dad from Get Out).
RACISM GREETED OBAMA’S PRESIDENCY AT THE DOOR
However, in mere days that followed Obama’s first election, hundreds of incidents of assaults, abuse, and harassment, predominantly experienced by Black people, and South Asian people assumed to be Muslims were reported across the nation. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups saw a spike in interest. And white people everywhere became absolutely insufferable about how “they weren’t racist, but…” (okay that also happened pre-Obama and obviously Reuters doesn’t have data on it but we’re reporting from our lived experiences here).
The racism that fueled such vitriol for Obama’s presidency was used as a catalyst for the racist undertones and political extremism of the Tea Party, and the rise of rightwing political fringe movements known as the alt-right. It is nearly impossible to divorce the “MAGA movement” from the racist ire stirred by Fox News and Trump himself throughout the Obama years.
It is deeper than such examples of explicit racism, though. During Obama’s second term the Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act’s federal preclearance standard was overturned in Shelby County v. Holder. This resulted in the new wave of implementations of previously illegal discriminatory voting policies such as voter identification laws and increasing existing voter suppression tactics, like gerrymandering. In his opinion, Justice Roberts makes clear that he thinks the country is ready to “move on” from policies that would give Black Americans any sort of priority treatment.
On its face, this doesn’t seem so much like abject racism as it does some sort of toxic, colorblind optimism. But when colorblind optimism allows well meaning white people (who are “tired of conversations about racism”) to reverse course on the very antiracist policies that are actually moving the needle toward a more equitable nation, the impact is the same.
OBAMA WAS UNABLE TO IMPLEMENT WIDESPREAD ANTIRACIST POLICY
There is a lot we could say about the way Barack Obama ran his campaign in order to appeal to white voters and to stand out as more than just the “Black” candidate. There is even more we could say about the way President Obama distanced himself from the “radical” and “divisive” rhetoric of those who had gotten him elected (community organizers, Black pastors critical of the continued mistreatment of their congregants and neighborhoods, people who had never voted before because electoral politics had never looked like them). Obama regularly framed his criticism of the nation’s racist history in a way that still remained palatable to white political allies: by honing in on Black Americans’ responsibility to fix their lot, rather than on massive systemic changes that would be necessary to actually improve those conditions. We can believe that the intent of this distancing was born out of political necessity as the first Black president or taking Black constituents for granted or something more insidious but at the end of the day, the impact was the same: mass incarceration continued to lock away one out of every three Black men in this country, intense educational disparities remained in nearly every state, immigration deportations rose sharply during the Obama years, food and housing insecurity remained arguably unaffected, and we could go on and on.
Before someone reads the above paragraph and thinks “wow so glad I was justified in not voting for Obama in ‘08 or ‘12,” let us stop you right there. This isn’t a criticism of Obama explicitly, but rather a criticism of the belief that a single person can be the savior of their entire race and nation. While Obama’s Blackness made it easier for white liberals to avoid confronting their own racism for eight years, his position of power did not automatically elevate every other Black person (or other persons of color) out of hundreds-years-long systems of oppression. While the office of the president does give someone a lot of leeway to implement broadstroke reform, it is fair to say that Obama’s fear of not being reelected, coupled with his generally moderate stances on everything once he got elected, kept him stagnant on many issues. Mitch McConnell—current senate minority leader—and other conservatives made many of Obama’s more ambitious policy ideas inoperable (a great example of this is the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans helped craft into a less effective system, and then completely bailed on in an attempt to retain clout with their own constituents).
RESIST THE URGE TO GET COMPLACENT
As we enter a post-Trump era, where the Vice President is a Black, South Asian woman, it can feel tempting to adopt a similar belief that we have “moved past” the need for conversations about race and racism. In the past week, we have seen sooooo much content about “letting people celebrate” and “a new dawn.” That’s great. Celebrations are great and we sure are happy that the Cheeto in Chief has left the building. However, the time to start pushing for accountability in the Biden-Harris administration is now. The time to keep our feet on the gas is now. The time to continue to explore and deconstruct the way that white supremacy culture manifests itself in our own lives is now. Please do not let this
ALSO, we have seen firsthand through the Obama years that despite ambitious policy plans and big promises, change doesn’t work unless constituents keep a fire under politicians’ asses. This is not about political heroes going down in history as “the good guys,” this is about a better, more livable world for us all. It is okay to critique our leadership! It is not okay to make raceblind optimism our official stance going forward, just because we don’t have a president that calls majority-Black nations “shithole countries” in office anymore.
*wow, Emily cursed twice writing this! This reminds her of this quote by Tony Campolo:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
THIS WEEK’S NON-FINANCIAL WAY TO TAKE ACTION
This week, we are calling on our readers to call the Department of Justice and ask that President Biden commute the death sentences of every single person on death row and abolish the federal death penalty. This was one of the Biden-Harris campaign’s campaign trail promises –and we know they know that this is the right move.
AND, on Biden’s second day in office, 35 elected officials signed a letter urging him to end the federal death penalty. We’re not alone in this demand. We just have to push!
OUR TASK THIS WEEK
This week, we are asking our readers to make a quick call to the White House Comment line and express your support for the commutation of ALL federal death penalty sentences.
HOW TO CONTACT THE WHITE HOUSE
This week, because the Biden-Harris administration’s Attorney General pick, Merrick Garland, has yet to be sworn in by the Senate, we are calling the White House public comments line directly. We have also included information for letters and emails just in case anyone is particularly phone-averse (hello, fellow millennials).
MAKE A PUBLIC COMMENT – 202-456-1111
TTD/TTY NUMBERS (for Deaf or people with hearing disabilities)
SEND HANDWRITTEN OR TYPED LETTERS ON 8X11 PAPER:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
“Hi, my name is ______ and I am calling to make a public comment to urge President Biden and his new cabinet to commute the sentences of everyone currently serving time on death row and to put an end to the federal death penalty. I believe that this would be an important first step in repairing some of the legacy of the Trump administration, especially regarding the thirteen executions under Bill Barr’s Justice Department over the past seven months. The death penalty is a waste of taxpayer dollars, it is a violation of the 8th Amendment provision against cruel and unusual punishment, and has roots in this nation’s history of racism. President Biden promised to end the federal death penalty during his campaign and after being elected president prior to inauguration. I am hopeful that he will make good on that promise. Thank you and have a great day!”
You can always modify our scripts to match your own language – we just jot these down so you have a place to start!
HOW IS THIS RELATED TO ANTIRACISM?
Rooted in racism, the death penalty is just a more socially acceptable form of lynching. It is impossible to divorce the popularity of the death penalty in the US from our racist criminal punishment origins. The data backs this up: Black men are overrepresented on death row (44% of those incarcerated on death row are Black while Black people only account for 17% of the national population). There’s also an undeniable bias towards the death penalty in white victim cases.
We broke this down a few weeks ago in this newsletter.
A FEW MORE QUESTIONS ANSWERED
What does “commute a sentence” mean?
Commute just means to change a sentence to a less severe version. In the case of a death sentence, a commutation would mean that all people serving time on death row would no longer have execution dates hanging over their heads and instead would most likely serve life sentences without the possibility of parole.*
*We don’t think that LWOP (life without parole) is a healthy punishment standard either, but it’s obviously a step down from the current option. We will talk about LWOP when we talk about mass incarceration, but for now, just know that this isn’t a silver bullet, either.
Why are some crimes punished federally?
Sometimes crimes are charged (and therefore sentenced) federally because they happened in multiple states or because crimes are more offensive at the federal level (things like terrorism, large scale drug operations, RICO violations, etc.). Sometimes, crimes are so extreme that, despite being charged at the state level, the federal courts also want to be the arbiters of justice. Dylann Roof, for example, was sentenced to death at the federal level as well as sentenced to nine consecutive sentences of life without parole at the state level that would hold even if his death sentence was overturned.
This is just the federal death penalty – what does this mean for the states that still use the death penalty?
Technically the death penalty currently is classified as a state police power, which means that unless there is a constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court case on the issue, the federal government cannot tell the states how to sentence those who have been convicted of crimes inside their borders. However, abolition of the federal death penalty would mean greater conversation around the very existence of the death penalty at all levels.
In some good death penalty news (what a strange way to start a sentence), Virginia, which has historically executed more people than any other state in the country, seems to be headed in the direction of death penalty abolition. Just five years ago, Virginia was still pushing to use the electric chair for executions and making secret contracts with pharmaceutical companies to get the (thankfully, increasingly rare) lethal injection drugs with which the state performed executions. Virginia ending the death penalty would be enormous leverage for the anti-death penalty movement in the 30 other states where the practice is still legal.
Need more anti-death penalty ammo and already read our take from a few weeks back? We loved this article from the Southern Center for Human Rights’ communications director, Hannah Riley last week.
RECRUITING FOR OUR BIPOC BOARD
Another push: we are building a BIPOC Advisory Board and we want your help! While this initiative emerged as an attempt to cultivate honest, shame-free conversations about whiteness without burdening Black friends, Indigenous friends, and friends who are people of color, as this initiative grows, we think it’s important to bring on a leadership team that *isn’t* white. If you are or anyone you know is *already interested in* antiracist work, please forward this email to them or reply to us so that we can reach out! We are expecting this to be a low-lift role but want to make sure our resources are reflective of the communities we seek to support with Unlearning Racism.
FIRST DIALOGUE OF THE YEAR THIS SUNDAY
Mark your calendars for our first dialogue of the year this Sunday at 7PM EST/ 5PM MDT. We’ll be talking about ways to work against complacency, with a focus on the excuses and exceptions common in the way white people discuss racism. We’ll be specifically talking about this incredible piece, linked below:
We’ll send this information again Friday along with the questions we’ll be parsing out in Sunday’s dialogue and a zoom link.
Alright friends, we’ll be back in your inbox on Friday with a dialogue reminder, a pre-Black History Month message and our weekly roundup. This week, we’re reading this call for better immigration policy under Biden than Obama, this perspective of what the end of the Muslim ban means for Muslim Americans, and this incredible story and farewell to baseball legend Hank Aaron, which is mostly a story of the woman who read all his hate mail so that he wouldn’t have to. We can’t stop listening to Durand Jones and the Indications, especially their new single Power to the People. And honestly, we’re just trying to get as much time outside (Ellie got a ski pass! She is officially a Denverite! Hayden’s heading back to college this week! Emily is just trying to move her body more than the bare minimum every day.)
We’ll see you Friday. Godspeed until then.
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden