William Barber explains how to tell if we’re really at a watershed moment for race in America

By: - June 16, 2020 5:30 am

The signs are so striking and numerous that it sure seems as if something transformative and historic is underway in America. All across the nation, powerful and conservative white voices – voices that have long remained silent or actively opposed real change and progress in addressing centuries of racial oppression – are speaking up to say, in effect, “we were wrong.”

Here’s former President George W. Bush decrying police misconduct toward Black men and repudiating Trump’s assaults on protesters. Here’s the U.S. military, at long last, saying “no” to the idea of honoring men who led a war on behalf of its enemies. There’s the leadership of NASCAR finally pulling down the curtain on the Confederate flag, and the National Football League reversing its stance on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the National Anthem. Here are conservative politicians across the country decrying the killing of George Floyd and vowing to end such outrages.

As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post put it this past weekend in a largely hopeful column entitled “This is a moment where we can make the impossible possible”:

‘No justice, no peace’ is not just a slogan. It is a truthful statement. For the first time in a long time, a large majority of Americans, moved by realities they can no longer deny, seem ready to sign up.”

And yet, the hard truth is that we’ve had moments like this before that America has frittered away.

A decade ago when the federal government provided states with the opportunity to cover millions of uninsured residents and boost their economies for a relative pittance, authors and supporters of the Affordable Care Act scarcely considered the possibility that numerous states would actually put ideology over human life and reject the largesse.

Seven and a half years ago when a 20-year-old man executed more than two dozen small children and their teachers in a Connecticut schoolhouse, it seemed inconceivable that the nation would fail to act to curb easy access to military-grade assault weapons.

And, of course, the last 150 years of American history are replete with moments when repeated promises of equal opportunity for all were dashed on the rocks of white supremacy.

And so it is today that even during what seems like a watershed moment, it remains far from certain that the national policy current will finally alter its course in a fundamental way.

One man who is quite familiar with this pattern of missed opportunities – especially when it comes to the nation’s tortured history of racism and oppression – is North Carolina’s own Bishop William Barber. Barber, who will lead a virtual Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington this weekend and who preached a powerful sermon at the National Cathedral this past Sunday, was kind enough to join Policy Watch for a special Crucial Conversation last week. Click here to watch.

At one point during our conversation, I cited some of the recent hopeful developments noted above and asked Barber about the current moment and whether there might just be a real sea change occurring. His reply was instructive.

After citing numerous incidents throughout history in which white American leaders had decried individual incidents of violence against Black people without altering their stances on broader issues – from ending Jim Crow to passage of the Civil Rights Act – Barber put it this way:

“I don’t know if folk are really ready to deal with racism until I see where they stand on policy. Because racism isn’t about feelings. Racism is about policy and power and position – the three ‘P’s.’”

And that, Barber said, means more than tinkering with a few statutes. While it’s all well and good to push for specific policing reforms, like banning chokeholds, there’s vastly more to dealing with and defeating racism, the civil rights leader said, than merely stopping abusive law enforcement tactics or removing symbols of hatred.

Important as statements and gestures are, he said, the nation can’t be viewed as truly serious about addressing racism until it undertakes a systematic overhaul of policies – in areas like access to healthcare, voting rights and wages and income – in which people of color have been repeatedly, intentionally and disproportionately disadvantaged.

“Once equality and justice comes in the mix as a matter of policy,” Barber said, “that’s when you’ll find out who’s really responding.”

Notwithstanding his “show me” stance when it comes to assessing the prospects for real change, however, Barber said he remains hopeful, not so much because of statements from powerful members of the establishment, but more because so many average people of all colors and backgrounds have embraced activism and protest.

“Moral protest,” he said, “is a sign of hope and love, because it’s a sign that folks haven’t given up on the democracy, on the experience.”

All caring and thinking Americans should derive hope from the fact that Bishop Barber clearly hasn’t given up on it either.

Click here to learn more about (and participate in) this Saturday’s historic online march and assembly.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.