Civil rights attorney, Jeffery Robinson, released a film in 2021 entitled, “WHO WE ARE: A CHRONICLE OF RACISM IN AMERICA.” In the documentary, Robinson addresses an audience onstage as if he’s inside a courtroom, arguing a case on how grappling with racism is “our shared history.” He challenges them to question why so many aspects of American history related to slavery, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination against Blacks had been forgotten or even hidden. Since the film’s release, what inroads to racial progress have happened in the United States? Join us as I SEE U Host Eddie Robinson speaks unguarded with the founder and executive director of ‘The Who We Are Project,’ an organization that tackles this country’s history of anti-Black racism and white supremacy, Jeffery Robinson. A former ACLU Deputy Legal Director offers up a compelling look at the importance of reframing today’s discussions around race and the implications of understanding what could happen if these hidden histories are suddenly revealed and circulated throughout communities across the nation.
Eddie Robinson: Renowned civil rights attorney Jeffery Robinson is making a case for racial equality. The former ACLU deputy legal director released a film in 2021, which is now on Netflix, entitled Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. In the movie, he addresses an audience and challenges them to question why the history of so much state sanctioned violence and discrimination against blacks was never really taught in school. But since the film’s release, has anything changed here in America?
Jeffery Robinson: It’s loving America enough to say you’ve been acting like you’ve got a headache, when what you’ve really got… is a brain tumor.
Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and stay tuned for provocative chat with racial justice activist Jeffery Robinson. We’ll dive deep into his perspectives on the future of our country and how it’s connected to our past.
Oh yeah. I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.
It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. And we’re fortunate to have with us civil rights attorney and racial justice activist, Jeffery Robinson. He’s the executive director of the who we are project. And he’s also released a documentary entitled Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, where he draws. A sobering timeline of anti Black racism here in this country.
Jeffery Robinson: We’re 50 years later now. Once again, America is having to look at issues of race dead in the eye. And once again, we are at a tipping point.
Eddie Robinson: Shot inside New York City’s Town Hall Theater back in 2018, Robinson presents… A powerful on stage lecture about the untold histories of racism in America.
Filmmakers Sarah and Emily Kunstler also weave in archival footage, interviews, along with Robinson’s own story, as the film explores an enduring legacy of white supremacy as this renowned civil rights attorney presents his case for our collective responsibility to overcome it. Former American civil liberties union, deputy legal director, Jeffery Robinson joins us from Seattle, Washington. Jeffery, thank you so much for being with us here at I SEE U.
Jeffery Robinson: It’s a pleasure. And I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.
Eddie Robinson: You know what, Jeff, our first I SEE U episode, when we launched featured. Academy Award winning filmmaker, Kevin Willmott. And he talked about his inspiration behind directing his movie called 24th.
It was about members of the Army’s all Black 24th Infantry Regiment that became involved in a deadly riot in Houston back in 1917. And Jeff, he was telling us that he had come across an old black and white photo which was captioned, The Largest Murder Trial in US History. And he’s like, U. S. history? I’ve never heard of this incident, much less seen this photo in history.
And he was making a claim that this is not just Black history, this is American history. There’s a difference. Fast forward to a recent I SEE U episode featuring a Fort Bend County, Texas, ISD official and a social studies teacher here in Sugar Land, Texas, by the name of Chasity Olainu-Alade. And she was basically saying that she went to graduate school and studied U. S. history. And inside their books… There was absolutely nothing about a new kind of slavery practice that was known as convict leasing in 1867 here in Texas. So, your work, your documentary, which is available on Netflix, It’s just a provocative look at untold histories of racism here in the United States. What led you to creating this film in the first place?
Jeffery Robinson: Well, I have been a criminal defense lawyer as a public defender at the state level, as a public defender in federal court. Then in private practice, all of that before I ever went to the ACLU, all of that was involved, work that was involved with racial justice issues.
But as is explained in the film, because of a death in my family, my wife and I, who didn’t have children, became parents to our 13 year old nephew. And when that happened, I was terrified about my responsibility as a parent and how I was going to raise this young Black man who was now in my home. And I’m looking at him and thinking, I know what can happen.
And I started looking for things to read to help me become a better parent. And what I found… We’re a series of incidents in our history, much like the one you described in 1917, where I thought, my God, I’ve never heard of this before, and I’ve had one of the best educations in America. I graduated from Marquette University and Harvard Law School.
That is to say that those institutions did not give me this information. And so I started looking for more and more, and when I looked for one thing, I would find three others, and when I followed up on those, I would find two more, and as a criminal defense lawyer, I was trained, when you have a complicated set of circumstances and facts, put them into a timeline to see what it tells you, and when I did that, the top of my head came off, because What was there was an unbroken line from at least 1619 until today of pattern, practices, policies, and procedures that give a very clear explanation as to why America looks like it does today, specifically why there is a gap between white America and black America at every socioeconomic Measure that you can imagine.
And when I found that, I started going around the country talking about it, and I met the Kunstler sisters and that’s when the presentation started to take the direction of, of a documentary.
Eddie Robinson: And there’s an emphasis on the word “we”, you know, in the film’s title, Who We Are. Because on some level, you can totally understand the notion of African Americans knowing their culture, you know, knowing who we are as a people, the importance of knowing our history.
But there’s also a piece that’s directed, you know, in my mind, to white Americans, right, in making sure that it’s important for them to know what role they played in all of this, right?
Jeffery Robinson: We were very intentional about the title of this film, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. It’s a statement about who we are based on the facts of our history.
It’s a question about who we are. Based on our aspirations for something better based on that thing in our constitution that says we’re always striving to form a more perfect union. It ain’t like it’s perfect at any point in our history. It’s always being modified so that it is a more. Perfect union.
And so who we are, people ask me, who is the audience for your film? And I’ve said the audience is everyone in the United States. It’s for people outside the United States to understand more about what our true history is. And some people have said, well, are you preaching to the choir? And my response is, if there is a choir, They don’t know this tune, because I didn’t know this tune.
I didn’t know these facts. And, and so, it is not to say that America is not a great country. That’s a lot of double negatives or triple negatives. America is one of the greatest countries that’s ever existed. And we’ve demonstrated that in every area of human life. It is also one of the most racist countries that’s ever existed.
And people want to, people want to have it one way or the other. If you say we’re great, we can’t be racist. Or if you say we’re racist, it can’t be great. And that’s a very nice, convenient little mindset to have. But after spending 40 years representing people who have been caught up in the criminal legal system, some guilty of what they were charged with, some innocent of what they were charged with, what I understand very clearly is that people aren’t just one thing.
Every single person listening to our discussion has acted as a saint at some point in their life, and they’ve also acted as a sinner. At some point in their life, people aren’t one thing and all countries are, are collections of people. So if people aren’t one thing, then countries aren’t one thing. So it’s not a matter of trying to tear down America.
It’s loving America enough to say, you know what? You’ve been acting like you’ve got a headache and you just need some ibuprofen when what you’ve really got is a brain tumor. And what you need is chemotherapy. Without knowing the truth about how we got to today, we can’t go forward in a way that’s going to bring us closer to a more perfect human.
So I don’t think this is about bashing America. It’s not about trying to make anybody feel guilty about something that happened 200 years before they were born. It’s simply saying this is our history. And if you’re looking to explain why things look like they do today, our history is a critical part of that.
George Orwell said it most ominously. Who controls the past, controls the future. And by wiping away all of these events, by wiping away that event in 1917 in Texas. People have a lack of understanding about how past events have influenced what’s happened today. You can’t take it into account if you’ve never heard of it.
Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I See You. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with Jeffery Robinson. He has a very thought provoking Netflix entitled, Who We Are. A Chronicle of Racism in America, it’s truly a must watch if you haven’t seen it. And if you’ve seen the documentary, please, let us know your thoughts, and write us a note on our webpage, I S E E U show. org. You can also comment on our Instagram page. Why do you believe it’s somewhat difficult and a challenge? For some white Americans to really come to grips and subscribe to this importance of knowing the role that they played in dealing with racism and social justice.
Jeffery Robinson: I think it’s important to understand, and one of the things that I do in the film is to ask if anybody in the audience has ever enslaved anybody.
And of course, no one ever raises their hand. Because that’s not our fault. We didn’t institute the practice. We didn’t drive it. We didn’t sustain it. It’s just not our fault. But if you acknowledge that it’s our shared history, now you’re having to acknowledge that it might have an impact on the present.
And I think it’s important for folks to understand that for many white Americans, for many black Americans, for many Americans of all races, our creation story, that America was based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that America was based on freedoms, that yes, we had this little thing with slavery, but that ended in this after the civil war.
And then there was a civil rights movement and everything got cleared up. If that is your view of history, then you can look at an America today where almost one in five black people live in poverty, and you might buy into the bootstrap argument. Lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. There’s no reason for you to be in this kind of, uh, problem today.
When the last administration was leaving office, Jared Kushner said, President Trump wants Black people to be successful. But he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful. Implying, of course, that it’s just that Black people don’t want it bad enough. Our community hasn’t worked hard enough.
And when you see the disparities… And that’s the answer to why they exist? That exonerates you, as an individual, whether you’re Black, white, green, or brown. It exonerates you from having any concern about it. That’s not my fault. It’s not my problem. They just haven’t worked hard enough. But if you understand the history that brought us to this point, if you understand that after the civil war for almost 90 years, separate but equal was the law of America.
If you understand that between 1934 and 1962, the federal government gave 98% of federal government backed home loans to white people. If you understand that America was segregated, that the Federal Housing Authority employed a company setting up red line maps of every major city in America. Now you start to understand that the economic outlook in communities across America is based on a whole lot more than whether somebody was willing to work hard enough.
And so… While it is an insult to the Black, to the character of Black people all across our country, it is based. In ignorance, because if you don’t know about this history, you can’t take it into account.
Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we’ll continue our chat with legal scholar and civil rights attorney Jeffery Robinson. We’ll find out if he believes that there will ever come a time where reparations are paid to the descendants of former slaves. Plus, how does he effectively approach discussions with people who are still holding on to symbols of racism?
I’m Eddie Robinson, a captivating second segment of I SEE U that you do not want to miss. We’ll be right back.
If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with Jeffery Robinson, civil rights attorney and executive director of the Who We Are Project. His Netflix documentary, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, was released in 2021 and it’s received critical acclaim. Shot in front of a New York City audience back in 2018, the documentary features his powerful speech, as well as archival film footage of historical events and his own personal story through on site interviews and conversations with guests he’d connect with in cities and towns that he visits.
And it reveals some surprising revelations. As he tells the history of our nation from a very different perspective. Attorney Robinson, I think it’s fascinating to think that there still exists though of movement to keep these truths hidden, you know, to conveniently leave them out. And there’s, there’s also what appears to me to be like a propagandistic movement to throw shade, to throw misleading comments here, a misinformed remark there.
To sort of create a sense of uncertainty and confusion. Like, I think I came across recently an article that talked about how parents are starting to push back on American colleges for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, because those principles promote a culture of fear, a culture of intimidation.
What do you say to that?
Jeffery Robinson: I think, I think it’s important to recognize that for many people. What the, what I will call the movement about the truth about our history, for many people, what that movement is doing is asking them to reconsider their creation story and human beings hold on to creation stories desperately, just desperately.
And so, you know, it’s not about George Washington and I cannot tell a lie and chopping down the cherry tree. It’s hard to say that Abraham Lincoln was the hero that freed enslaved people when he wrote in a newspaper before the emancipation or it’s after the Emancipation Proclamation, actually, but he was responding to someone who was criticizing him about not freeing enslaved people more quickly.
And he said, you need to understand if keeping the union together meant preserving slavery I’d do it. And if keeping the union together meant getting rid of slavery, I’d do that. This ain’t about slavery. This is about the union. And while I don’t personally like slavery, I’d keep it if it would keep the union together.
This is what he wrote, and this is what he said, and he then backed it up by passing something called The Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, which was passed before the Emancipation Proclamation. And what it did is he knew that DC slave owners were going to be upset and he wanted to keep them loyal to the union.
So he set up a commission and he paid them money. And by the end of that commission, about 900 DC slave owners. We’re paid 1 million in 1862 money for lost property. So this was reparations for slavery paid to slave owners. And this was Abraham Lincoln. Now that doesn’t change the good things that he did, but this is a very different view.
And if you’re trying to understand our history, it wasn’t like, Oh, the Civil War ended and all this morality then came into the relationships between white and Black Americans. It’s just like y’all aren’t enslaved anymore. But as was argued by Thurgood Marshall, when he argued Brown versus the Board, almost 90 years later, he said separate, but equal, that’s just the attempt to keep Black people as close to the position of slavery as it’s humanly possible without having the institution.
So these things have a long, long tail and understanding how that history developed is just critical. So people are concerned, and I think what we saw on January 6th, and what we see with parents of fourth graders screaming at a school board, About CRT, which is a law school course, it would be the equivalent of a parent of a fourth grader going in and saying, I don’t want you to teach nuclear physics to my child and the school board would be saying, of course not.
It’s not a fourth grade course. So why are parents of fourth graders screaming about a course that’s not even going to be taught to their children? These are acts of desperation. And they are acts of desperation because these folks understand if this knowledge becomes circulated throughout our communities in America, especially with younger people, but even with older people, people are going to say, I didn’t know that.
I didn’t know that. And I wonder if that makes a difference. And I wonder what I need to do to incorporate this into the way I think about things. Now, those are the questions that those people who don’t want us to advance on racial progress. They are terrified to have people ask those questions. So the desperation, if anything, is simply an affirmation that the truth will end up changing America in a significant way.
If you think it’s not going to matter. Ask yourself, why are people so desperate to hide it? They’re so desperate to hide it because they know that this has the potential to go across conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat. I’m not saying you get everybody, because you won’t. But there are people who will hear this information and think, I’ve got to reassess.
And that’s a moment that America needs desperately.
Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I See You. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with legal scholar Jeffery Robinson. His documentary, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, is available to stream on Netflix. Okay, their creation story, versions of the American narrative, I love those, um, points and I want to get some thoughts on, in the film you have a very interesting conversation with a white gentleman holding a confederate flag.
I think the film cuts to you on the bus, and it just seemed like you were really upset as you were leaving. I want to ask, how do you approach these discussions with people who are still holding on to symbols of racism? Right? Do you try to change their mindsets? Do you offer up a counterpoint? You know, what’s your approach to having these discussions with people?
Because sooner or later, people… Will say things that really rile people up. And I think the beauty of your conversation was that there was no arguing, you know, there was no yelling at each other. And I just thought that that exchange and that engagement that the two of you were having was absolutely beautiful.
Jeffery Robinson: I’m a little sick today. And so I’m just standing in the heat. Uh, thank you for talking to me. I will say that. I appreciate that. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that with this gentleman that I was talking to in Charleston, South Carolina. I will be honest.
We got there on Thursday night. And I gave a three hour presentation on this history on Thursday night in an all black high school. On Friday, we went to Mother Emanuel Church and sat in the room where Dylann Roof slaughtered people. On Saturday, we went to the Slave Mart Museum. Which is also in the film.
And we also went to a plantation. So I had been seeped in this stuff and in the history of Charleston for three full days. And I was sick that day in the film. I say it’s hot out here and it was about 90 and I’m kind of sick. And I was sick. I look back on it now and I think I was sick more from the information that I was processing then from a flu or anything, but Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler called me and they said, this man is down here and he signed a release and he’s willing to talk.
Will you come down and talk to him? So I went down there and I was prepared to be offended. And he offended me with virtually everything he said, but I wasn’t interested in showing him and others how he offended me. What I was interested in was confronting his view and his narrative and asking people to look at that in a critical way.
And while you couldn’t see it with the camera in the movie. There were people looking and listening because it’s not all that often in Charleston on the waterfront on Sunday that you see a Black person with TV cameras talking to a white man with a confederate flag and people were like what’s going on here and I used the skills that I was taught as a criminal defense lawyer to cross examine somebody.
He said moral tariffs. I wanted to show him I knew what those were.
And he looked at me and he’s like, Okay. This guy knows a little bit of something about what we’re talking about.
Eddie Robinson: Excellent.
Jeffery Robinson: And I took him through the, the concept of, you say it was about tariffs, but none of this money existed unless slave labor was here.
And then when we got to the other part of the discussion about, you know, enslaved people stayed because they were treated as family. That was a punch in my gut. And I did turn away from looking at him when he said that.
And that was a moment when I was counting to myself, 1, 001, 1, 002, do not tell this man what you think of him, because that’s not the point. And I wanted… To show him why that was riddiculous. So I talked about, okay, then let me own you as long as I treat you like family.
And he wasn’t having any part of that. So by the end, he’s saying slavery is evil. I’m not denying that. I’m just saying the flag has nothing to do with it.
If there’s one thing I regret about that interview is that I did not read to him the secession statement from South Carolina, which says we are leaving the Union because of slavery. My point is that having conversations with people on this topic, if you’re going to do it, you need to be armed. And when I say armed, I don’t mean with a weapon, I mean with facts.
So that when people start saying things, you can challenge them with facts. And people can say, Oh, that’s not a fact. And you know, these days, if you’re sitting around with a computer, get on the internet and it’s like, well, let’s go to the South Carolina historical society. And let’s go to the original copy of the secession statement that they have under glass in South Carolina.
Is that good enough for you? And so, what I’ve learned as a lawyer, is that facts win arguments. Yelling doesn’t win arguments. Posturing doesn’t win arguments. Facts win arguments. And that’s where I tried to focus that conversation, so that I wasn’t going to yell at him, I was going to hit him with facts.
Eddie Robinson: Coming up. We’ll continue our chat with former ACLU deputy legal director and legal expert featured in the Netflix documentary, Who We Are, Jeffery Robinson. We’ll go deeper on the debate of heritage versus hate, an opinion mostly held by white residents of Southern states who prefer to leave symbols of Confederate flags and memorials on their lawns, outside their homes, or on vehicular bumper stickers.
Why are some Americans still holding on to the Civil War? And then later, we asked the attorney, how does white supremacy, even non violent white nationalism, continue to expand and resonate for some Americans to this day? Why is there a resurgence? And it remains an ongoing threat. Whether it’s hidden, deliberate, Or subconscious, who or what is keeping this ideology alive and on the rise?
I’m Eddie Robinson. Our final and most provocative segment of this I SEE U episode comes your way in just a moment. We’ll be right back.
If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
You’re listening to I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with Jeffery Robinson. He has a very thought provoking documentary out on Netflix entitled Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. The movie works to argue the dominant narrative of our country’s founding, demonstrating how the legacy of slavery, and a consistent effort by some Americans of avoiding discussions about slavery, have led to ongoing racial inequality and persistent discrimination.
But Jeffery also uses this film to promote change and challenges those who are watching to learn and share this history with others, regardless of your skin color. And if you’ve seen the documentary, let us know your thoughts and write us a note on our webpage, iseeushow. org. You can also comment on our Instagram page.
Jeffery Robinson also serves as the Executive Director for the Who We Are Project. You can learn more about his initiative by visiting thewhowereproject. org. You know, here in the South, you know, I’ve seen quite a few Confederate flags still proudly perched up in front of people’s homes. You know, one instance in particular had the Confederate flag post up and it read, It’s not about hate.
It’s about heritage. And I need some guidance from you there as to what you believe that means. Because some people down south feel like they are forever in the Battle of Vicksburg. And shed some light as to what you think that, that means.
Jeffery Robinson: You know, I grew up in the South. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was born in 56.
So I understand Southern culture and Southern heritage. You know, like coming out parties and balls and Southern hospitality. You say hello to everybody. And all those things existed and were really wonderful. But they were underlaid by the institution of slavery. And so what I think it’s important to remember is that the South lost the war, but they won the peace.
They redefined what the Confederacy was about. And so if you want to understand this, look at Confederate monuments, and I criticize those monuments and some people have said, well, George Washington owned slaves. Do you say he shouldn’t have a monument? And my point is, it’s all about what the monument is for.
There’s a monument to George Washington because he was the leader of the constitutional army and he was the president of the first president of the country. That’s why there’s a monument to George Washington. That monument would be there whether he owned enslaved people or whether he didn’t. Now, is he damned for owning enslaved people?
Yeah. But did he do fantastic things in setting up our country? Yeah, he did. Confederate monuments are different. They were built to honor people for one thing, what they did between 1861 and 1865, and what they did in that time period was maim and murder American soldiers so that the institution of slavery could abide.
That is what confederate monuments honor, what people did during the Civil War. And so when you understand that the monuments are honoring that and not something else, you have a very different view. And the perfect example is John C. Calhoun. South Carolina, twice vice president, one of the most villainous, racist in American history, his monument in Charleston has come down since I was there and speaking, it has come down.
But before it was taken down, we were working with the mayor to say, okay, people say this is about heritage. If you’re going to have a monument to John C. Calhoun, let’s cover the bottom of the monument with quotes from him about what he believed. And those quotes were some of the most violently racist things you have ever read.
And so this is the point. If you want to put up that monument and put something down below that says, this shows how disgusting the views in America were. Confederate monuments in the United States. They honor people for the Civil War. And once you understand what the Civil War was about, the question is, tell me how you think American values should honor maiming and murdering people to, to maintain slavery.
Just tell me how that works, because I don’t get it. Look at the Texas secession. Over 30 times in that statement, they talk about slavery and they say how Texans intended for slavery to last forever. What do you mean you’re talking about ending slavery? And slavery is beneficial. To both bond and free and is justified by the experience of mankind and by the revealed will of the almighty.
That’s the Texas Secession Statement. So anybody that tells me Texas got into the Civil War for some other reason, my question is, well go, don’t, don’t believe me. Go look at what the Texans said. It seems that they’re the best people to give the honest answer about why they did what they did and they weren’t trying to hide anything.
So how you can make that match up with this heritage versus hate. It’s simply a lack of knowledge. It is ignorance of the true facts of our history that allows that argument to
Eddie Robinson: thrive.
Recently, Jeff, I came across a Washington Post columnist who wrote an opinion piece called The Most Dangerous Threat to America, White Male Entitlement.
And for the most part, he was mentioning White men, especially from Republican states. The author’s point is that, you know, they’re the ones that have enjoyed the plethora of rights, the plethora of privileges of the Constitution. These are the people throughout US history that’s been the most advantaged by the Constitution.
They didn’t labor in chains. They didn’t have to fight for their right to vote. They didn’t have to fight to own property or see themselves being represented in power, political power. The article goes on to say that the insurrectionists, January 6, were quick and eager to resort to violence, but Blacks whose ancestors were enslaved, whose parents suffered under Jim Crow laws, who are targets of racism, voter suppression.
And then even goes on to say, you know, women watching their reproductive rights evaporate, but they’re not protesting with AR 15s. They’re not speaking about overthrowing the government with violence. Why do you think that dichotomy exists? And this entitlement is still being kept alive. And it almost feels like it’s, it’s being expanded and it’s resonating for some Americans today.
Jeffery Robinson: I think it exists because America. As I say in the film, it’s at a tipping point.
We were seemingly, to me, at a tipping point. Where we were either gonna roll forward with this incredible momentum on racial justice, or we could roll back. And then, April 4th happened. And King got shot in the neck. And it felt like the whole thing just rolled back.
And we have been at tipping points in history before. I think it’s critically important to understand that, at least in my view, tipping points in a history of a country 400 years long, they don’t come in a moment. People say, oh, George Floyd was a tipping point. And I respectfully disagree. No, it wasn’t.
What George Floyd was about was this. Cell phones and cameras that can make people look. At what’s happening and see it with their own eyes. If the Yankee catcher Yogi Berra was still alive, he would have responded about George Floyd, Yeah, that was horrible. But that was just deja vu all over again. If you think that was the first time something like George Floyd happened, that’s the problem with not knowing your history.
That’s the problem with not understanding that George Floyd is a symptom. He was not a tipping point and not understanding that history allows people to say, well, we solved the George Floyd problem by passing a law saying police can’t kneel on your neck. That’s not going to solve the problem because that’s not the cause of the problem.
But if you don’t know the history behind George Floyd, you might think that that’s the problem. And once again, this is the power of knowing your, your history. And so I think. In any human population, if you give a segment of that population, let’s call them privileges, if you give them privileges for 350 years, 375 years, and then all of a sudden you start to take those privileges away so that you can come closer to equity.
And equality for the people who have the privileges taken away. You are assaulting their very life blood. Their rights, quote unquote, are being impacted. That’s why you see laws that say you can’t teach something that makes people feel uncomfortable. Just think about it. that for a minute. And of course those laws can’t be used.
If I’m saying not teaching about my history makes me feel uncomfortable. Those laws won’t help me at all. And it’s not the comfort of the students, of the children, of the youth. Because they can figure this out. Somebody 14 can sit there and say, Hey, you know what? I never enslaved anybody. But this was really messed up.
What the parents and the people that passed those laws are concerned about, it’s not their children being uncomfortable, it’s their children coming home and starting to ask the questions. How come this happened? How come we’ve never talked about it before? Did anybody in our family have anything to do with this?
What are we doing about it now? Those are the questions that they’re afraid of. So, it’s about comfort. But it ain’t about the children’s comfort. It ain’t about the student’s comfort. It’s about the comfort of people who don’t want to accept that they have been privileged for a very long time. And I think it’s so important to say, when we talk about things like privilege, especially white privilege, It doesn’t mean that white people haven’t overcome difficulties.
It doesn’t mean that white people haven’t done heroic things. It doesn’t mean that white people haven’t been knocked down and pulled themselves up and dusted themselves off and moved forward. It just means… That the playing field ain’t level in America and for all of the obstacles and roadblocks that white people have had to overcome, they have never had to overcome starting their life in this country as an enslaved population for almost two and a half centuries.
They have never had to overcome separate but equal laws that lasted for almost 90 years. After the Civil War, they have never had to overcome the systemic racism that exists in America. So it doesn’t mean that you haven’t overcome obstacles and worked hard. It just means that there are all these other things you didn’t have to deal with.
And now that we’re talking about that, that has the implication. If we’re talking about it… Some people are going to want to do something. I think that’s where the problem was. That’s where the discomfort comes from.
Eddie Robinson: Another powerful moment in this film is when you’re speaking with retired Alabama state Senator Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré, another attorney and civil rights activist. And the three of you are standing near the Edmund Pettus bridge out in Selma. And we learned from Senator Sanders about the Confederate general, Edmund Pettus, his connection with the Ku Klux Klan, the whole thing.
Jeffery Robinson: When this bridge was completed, I think in 1940 or so, they wanted a symbol. They wanted to name, uh, the bridge after somebody who, uh, would send the signal of stay in your place because symbols, uh, are more powerful than words. And so this is a very powerful symbol.
Eddie Robinson: I find Senator Sanders remarks about symbolism, so well articulated, in saying that we should never confuse symbolism with history, adding that symbolism is someone’s interpretation or idea about a response to what happened, not what actually happened.
Jeffery Robinson: Not what actually happened. And I will tell you, he, his insights were among the most moving things about this entire experience. That interview with them that day is something I’ll never forget. And there are two reasons. The end of that interview, Senator Sanders said, and so 50 years later, we’re still fighting for this.
We’re still fighting for that. We’re still fighting this. We’re still fighting that. And he ended by saying that shows you the depth of the power of white supremacy, and I didn’t understand that. Chills went up and down my spine when he said, I didn’t understand that because this guy is a freaking national hero when it comes to the civil rights movement, and he was acknowledging that the depths of white supremacy in America or a thing that he didn’t clearly understand and but it’s like, yes, yes.
Otherwise, how could it still be lasting this, this, you know, so long into our future, the other thing I will just say that’s a little aside is that we thought that we were not going to be able to use that interview because just imagine there are three Black people and cameras at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Every time there was a stop light, a red light, people were laying on their horns, trying to interfere with our conversation. And because of the magic of our sound editors, who did a fantastic job, We were able to preserve that conversation, but that happened in 2019. And even the, the, the, the site of three black people with cameras at the bottom of the Edmund press bridge had people saying, we don’t want to, we don’t want to hear about that.
Because they know what’s behind it.
Eddie Robinson: That’s right. Wow. I feel like I’m in, I mean, you’re such an educator. And, and just, I feel like I’m in class. I mean, this is really phenomenal. There’s one partI SEE Ular question that I do want to ask as it relates to that Edmund Pettus moment. What’s more powerful to you?
The symbolism or the untold history that that symbol represents,
Jeffery Robinson: I think, you know, symbols it’s like Senator Sanders say symbols get in you and they have an impact and they have always had an impact and the cure, the antidote for that impact of symbols that represent something that’s antithetical to what America is supposed to be about the antidote to that is history.
So, you determine that this person is a hero, and then what you find out is that this person did these horrible things. Your view changes, and it, it, once again, it doesn’t mean that you forget the good things, but your view just changes. And so, I think the truth is the most powerful thing. In changing hearts and minds, which is why so many people don’t want folks to hear the truth about American history.
That’s why the Who We Are Project is going to be dedicated to doing just that, bringing that truth to everybody that will listen. And come to our website and you’ll see, because we’ve got plans and they include Texas, I promise you.
Eddie Robinson: It’s wonderful to hear. Do you think black people can ever gain social power and legal authority?
Jeffery Robinson: It’s an open question. I don’t know. And the reason I have some optimism is because what I know is we have never had discussions about racism in American history that are this deep, this pervasive and this widespread America didn’t get to look at Emmett Till being killed. So they just had like the reports and his corpse.
But America got nine minutes of George Floyd being choked to death. William Burroughs, the author who wrote Naked Lunch, and he said a naked lunch is that moment when everyone has to look at what’s really on the end of everybody else’s fork. And America is having a naked lunch moment with racism in our history.
And so, I don’t know if we can ever get that social power and legal authority, but I know that without these conversations, and without this reckoning, We’ll never get it because we have a 200, 300 year history that shows we’ve never reckoned with this issue. And so we’ve never gotten that social power and legal authority reckoning with this history.
Now it’s an open question because we’re doing something. We haven’t done before, and that’s when change happens.
Eddie Robinson: As a man who’s spent three decades working on issues relating to criminal justice, racial inequalities and reform issues. You’ve tried hundreds of criminal cases to verdict with a private practice in Seattle.
You’ve done some remarkable work with the ACLU. You’re now doing remarkable work with the who we are project and building more initiatives there. Jeffery Robinson, of all that you’ve had to endure for some 66 years, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?
Jeffery Robinson: Wow. I would say that what I’ve learned is that I’m not afraid to admit and acknowledge my ignorance.
I’ve learned that becoming comfortable with that. It’s one of the most powerful things that a person can do because if you’re just willing to acknowledge, I don’t know about this, then you can actually learn about it and then you can actually act from a place of information and data and, and intent and purpose.
So something that I think in maybe at a different point in my career, I would have been embarrassed to admit. I found that letting go of that fear and just acknowledging it is one of the most powerful things that you can do. If you tell somebody you’re ignorant, they’ll actually start telling you stuff to explain what you’re talking about.
And it’s amazing what can happen when that kind of information gets shared.
Eddie Robinson: Legal scholar, Jeffery Robinson, his documentary, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is available to stream on Netflix. He’s also the founder of the Who We Are Project. Thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.
Jeffery Robinson: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Eddie Robinson: Our team includes Technical Director Todd Hulslander, Producer Laura Burks, Editors Mark DiClaudio and Johnmitchell Goode, Sound Designer Dave McDermott. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And for more updates and episodes, visit our website. I S E E U show. org.
I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Until next