The Sunday Magazine

The fire this time: two Black female leaders on protests, inequality and rage

As the United States reels from the violent aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, we look at how the echoes of the rage, riots and burning cities of the 1960s and the legacies of slavery, lynching, segregation and police brutality targeting Black Americans are manifest today. Michael speaks with Elinor Tatum, the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Amsterdam News and legal scholar and author Patricia Williams.

'People are taking to the streets in a way that I have not seen in my advanced years'

Jessica Moore of Ullin, Illinois, U.S., speaks with a counter-protestor at a rally against police brutality, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Brian Munoz/Reuters)

The anger exploding on the streets of the United States has marked a turning point in the fight against anti-Black racism and police violence.

Patricia J. Williams is legal scholar and law professor at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study/Harvard Unversity)

"People are taking to the streets in a way that I have not seen in my advanced years." said Patricia Williams, one of America's top Black scholars, who teaches law at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. "There has been a confluence that has made this a perfect storm."

She cites the shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging near his home in Georgia, and the case of Breonna Taylor, age 26, who was killed by Kentucky police when they acted on a "no-knock" search warrant, at the wrong residence.

The murder of George Floyd followed. A Minneapolis police officer, now charged with murder in the second-degree, knelt on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. Video of his final breaths sparked protests against police brutality across the United States and around the world.

"We have been through so many tragedies and some of them happened in such quick succession," Williams told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright.

Elinor Tatum is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Amsterdam News — the oldest and largest African-American newspaper in New York. (Bill Moore)

"Against a backdrop of desperation, with people feeling helpless in the affliction of COVID and the further ingredient of the incredible incoherence of the federal administration to all of these crises, it has fed a sense of futility and despair," explained Williams. 

Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-in-chief of the The New York Amsterdam News, the oldest and largest Black newspaper in New York City, concurs. She believes that younger generations are taking to the streets in larger numbers than they have in decades because the progress made in the past has not been nearly enough.

She says in the 1990s, she asked her father why he didn't teach her how to protest. He replied that he thought it wasn't necessary.

"Unfortunately, that generation thought that they had, for the most part, won those major battles and we all thought that was going to be enough — that we won the right to an equal education," said Tatum. "We had won the right to not have to sit at the back of a bus. But at the same time, with all those rights and 'privileges,' the idea of separate but equal was inherently unequal, as we all found out when these attacks on our communities continued to happen over and over again."

That inherent sense of inequality is shared by Williams. In the 1980s, she was one of the original pioneers of Critical Race Theory, a legal argument asserting that racism is baked into the very soul of American institutions and law enforcement.

For both Williams and Tatum, U.S. President Donald Trump's reaction to these protests — compared to his description of the mostly-white, anti-social-distancing protesters as "good people," — is further evidence that racial discrimination is so clearly rooted in one of America's most valued institutions: the White House.

His response to people who are not armed and who are simply protesting George Floyd's unwarranted death is: 'Bring in the troops.'- Patricia Williams

"Trump was chiding Governor Whitmer of Michigan to talk to the people who took long arms and military machine guns up the steps of the state capitol because they wanted to challenge the order to stay put in the wake of COVID. And he said 'Talk to them, deal with them,'" said Williams.

On the other hand, she added, "His response to people who are not armed and who are simply protesting George Floyd's unwarranted death is: 'Bring in the troops.'"

When quiet returns to the streets of American cities, Williams hopes to see a lasting impact from the demonstrations.

"I wish that the despair will be taken very seriously and that could be the starting point for a new American coalition," she said. Williams wants to see a more civilized and humane debate about the future of race relations in the U.S.

Companies have to hire more diversely, promote more diversely and listen to everyone.- Elinor Tatum

"It's not just black and white and it's not just right or left. These are economic issues, mental health issues, issues of violence, issues of where we live," explained Williams. "There are so many conversations we need to be having."

Tatum also believes it is time for a broader conversation about race.

"We are definitely at a precipice," she said. "Companies have to hire more diversely, promote more diversely and listen to everyone. And they need to understand that to be an inclusive company means to be inclusive on all levels and then change the way they think."

Click 'listen' above to hear both interviews.

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