Berkeley Talks transcript: john powell on rejecting white supremacy, embracing belonging

Denise Herd: Now, I’d like to welcome our keynote and final speaker, Professor john powell. Professor powell is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. He also holds many other hats. He’s a professor of law, African American studies and ethnic studies here at UC Berkeley. He was previously the executive director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University and the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that, he was the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He is a co-founder of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and serves on the boards of several national and international organizations. He is internationally known for his path-breaking work on belonging, and what better way for us to end our day together to think about how we can go from slavery to belonging. So, I’d like to welcome John to the stage right now.
John Powell: First of all, the issue of belonging is a big issue. It affects all of us. We’ve all felt at different times and in different places that maybe we didn’t belong, and certainly, around the issue of race and slavery. It’s a country formerly saying not only do you not belong, but you’re not even people. One of the most famous cases in the United States history is Dred Scott Case in 1857 where chief justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Taney said that blacks could never be part of the political community whether they were free or not.

john powell: In many ways, the history of the country and even the colonies before the country was a country is a question or struggle about who belongs, who is part of the we? I’m sure many of you have followed the New York Times effort to lean into this question and despite nothing being perfect, I think they’re to be applauded for this Project 1619. If you read it, take a little time to read some of the comments and you’ll see that a lot of people are really upset, including the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has a Ph.D. in History and yet he can’t see why the New York Times would focus on slavery.

I think he can. I think he’s really saying something else and we’ll get into that. I think because this question about our history is really about our future. It’s still the question of who belongs. We see a resurgence of people who say, “If you’re not white, if you’re not male, if you’re not Christian, if you’re not heterosexual cis. If you speak with an accent, if you’re an immigrant, if you are Muslim, and that goes on saying, “You don’t belong.” Saying, “This is our country.”

Obviously, we have to push back from that. I know from being around Berkeley a little bit, we are reluctant sometimes to claim this country because it does have a checkered past, but we have to claim this country and more than a country, not just for ourselves but for all of us. That’s what belonging is about. It’s both recognizing our past and recognizing our present, but more important, participating in creating that future where we all belong.

Now, you’re probably wondering, who are these really handsome people up here? It made me not surprise you, this is part of my family. The woman is my aunt and I’m leaving next week to go home to visit my dad, who is the person, the man in the picture. My dad is turning 99.

I sometimes say, one of my brothers died a few years back and I just watched it tear up my dad and my mom passed some time ago, and I made a promise to myself and to, a silent promise. I never talked to my dad about this, that I would try to outlive him. But as he gets more closer to a hundred and beyond, I might have to rethink that.

One reason I’m showing this picture is that when we get together as a family, they’re five generations alive. The prodigy of my day. But when I was a boy, 11 years old, I got to know my dad’s grandmother. My dad’s grandmother was born into shadow slavery. I had relatives alive when I was a boy who had spent the first part of their life enslaved. So, this history is not really history. This is not by some abstract idea. This is about family. This is about who we are and who we’re becoming.

Some of you may have seen this picture. I see Marianne is sort of pointing it out. So, this was a man who was just released from 36 years of imprisonment just a couple of days ago. His crime, which he was sent to 35, 36 years, actually sends to life and they got it reduced. He only spent 36 years of his life for apparently stealing $50 from, you guessed it, Wells Fargo.

I don’t think Wells Fargo has spent any time in jail, even though they stole billions from all of us and especially the black community. So, to focus on this history makes some people mad. Now, I was in one of my classes a few years ago, not at UC Berkeley, but at another institution, University of Minnesota had mainly white students and I was talking about the taking of the Native American land.

One of the students raise his hand and said, “Professor Powell, this is not a class about Native American History. Why are you focusing on Native American History?” My response was, “I’m not. This is American History. You know nothing about Native Americans. All you know is that we took their land. That’s the extent of your knowledge. So, what their culture was, what their practice was, what their relationship with the land was, how they’re living right now, you know nothing. But what you must know is that in the colonies at the very inception of your country, it was predicated on taking someone else’s land, reducing people to a genocidal state, and then, not being satisfied having someone else work the land you had just stolen. That’s how our history. That’s your history.”

It doesn’t feel good sometimes to have to deal with that history, but think of how it feels if it was your land who was taken. Think about how it would feel if you were the one who was required to work that land. My family is important to me, I have a big family and I work too much. I’m not looking for your sympathy, but I say that because sometimes people come to me and they say, “John …” Actually, it’s interesting. A couple of things I’ll share with you.

My dad worked very hard, my mom worked very hard, they were born in the South. My grandfather used to say, “I’m glad to be from Mississippi.” My older brothers and sisters, we’re all born in the South. My parents were sharecroppers and my older brothers and sisters grew up picking cotton, and so no matter how long I labor over a computer, I feel like, “Damn, I’m lucky. I don’t have to pick any cotton.”

Those of you who have had the experience of picking cotton, and my guess is most of you have not, you get bloody fingers on picking cotton. It’s backbreaking work. So, things have changed even though we’re nowhere near where we want to or need to be. There’s ways in which we can and must move forward. We have to sort of think about, how do we actually move beyond this space of being tied to the slave state that refused to recognize? The state has built upon the degradation and oppression of others.

It requires something new of us. Because this process didn’t just create an economic society. It did, but it also created our identity as a nation and our identity as people. I’m not going to show you this video, but I will make it available if you want to see it later. But the gist of it is that we have to create a circle of human concern where no one that’s human is outside the circle. I’ll give you a hint. I do suggest that my reading, corporations are not human, so they shouldn’t be inside the circle, and yet, an important case in the late 19th Century, the Supreme Court held the corporations were people for the purpose of the 14th Amendment, and what resulted in that is they got a lot of rights that people did not get, including the freed slaves.

This fact, which is part of our history, in the 1930s was noticed by Justice Black, who was not a radical, he’s a moderate who talked about, “It’s amazing that the 14th Amendment …” and those of you who don’t study law, which is about equal protection, but more importantly, it’s about citizenship. That the 14th Amendment has been used hundreds of times to advance the interest of corporations, but almost never used to advance the rights of the freed slaves.

Our country, even when it tried to step into freedom, even when they tried to step into equality has oftentimes taken a detour. The two competing visions and these competing visions are not just in the United States, they’re also in the world. One vision is a vision of a very small hierarchical, mean spirited, exploit of we. Saying that only we, we define that. Only we count, not them. That them is large and even growing.

The other vision is a vision of a large we or many wes to come together to make it this large we. It extends to people who may not look like you, to people who may not talk like you, to people who may not worship like you or don’t worship at all. But it claims and it demands that we recognize despite our differences, our shared humanity. These are the two dominant narratives. These are the two dominant struggles in the world today.

I think we have to join in the struggle in a very deliberate way. These struggles are happening in India, in England, in Germany, in Australia. Today, 60% of the world live under authoritarian regimes and every one of those regimes has a designated other [inaudible 00:13:20], “I don’t care how long you lived here …” Muslim in India. “You don’t belong here. Go someplace else.”

In the United States that other is expressed in terms of, again, black people and native people. Anyone who is not considered normal. I want to suggest that, and I’ll come back to this at the end of my talk, that that’s institution of chattel slavery in the United States in the new colonies was a system that affected everyone in the system, not evenly, but it actually affected everyone in the system and essentially affected every system in the system, every structure in the system.

So, when we talk about the institution of chattel slavery, we’re not just talking about something that happened to black people. We’re talking about something that happened to a country, and in some ways, you could say our most important, most significant export from the United States is this discourse, is this system of racial hierarchy and racial domination. We’ve exported that all over the world.

This system was created, and I’ll come back to that at the end of my talk, because it was created, there’s nothing natural about it. There’s nothing inevitable about it, and it has gone through many different changes and it’ll continue to go through changes, but it’s important for us even as we struggle in it and struggle against it, that we don’t fall into the trap of naturalizing it. That we don’t assume that race, racism, racial hierarchy is inevitable and just a function of being human.

It’s actually fairly young. Some people say it really started in the 17th Century, some say it’s as recent as the 18th Century. There is another way of people coexisting of people coming together. In fact, this way is relatively new and it can be and should be challenged. We’re going through a rapid change around the world. Why is there not just Donald Trump, but why is there a Modi? Why is there … what’s happening in Brazil? Why is in the last 20 years, this explosion, not only of authoritarian ethnic dictatorships essentially but also of a resurgence of racial and ethnic nationalism?

It’s not just the United States, and so I think we missed something if we only focus on the United States. I think what’s happening is that this rapid change that I talk about in four areas change in technology, globalization, change in terms of the environment, and the one that people focus on the most is changing demographics that is threatened, increased anxiety and anxiety, it creates, it’s not just in anxiety in white people, it’s a deeper anxiety.

Humans can only process so much change in a short period of time without feeling anxious. But anxiety while being a natural human response, does not turn into hate by itself rather it’s hate or fear as result of stories, narratives, structures, cultural practices. So, people can actually move in multiple directions and leaders actually help people decide if this change, this anxiety, if this a terrible thing or is it okay?

If you decide that the change is terrible, and that is also tied to a particular population, that’s called breaking, that it’s not just saying there’s a group out there that’s different than you, it’s saying this group represents an existentialist threat to who you are, and it’s not just a threat because they might “take your job,” is that they might essentially take your identity in some way.

When you have the proud boys marching in Charlottesville saying, “We will not be replaced.” This is fear of the other. Someone designated that the other, and at extreme, you see the other as not just a threat, but it’s less than. It’s not fully human so that’s breaking. Another approach is to say, “Yeah, the world is changing and it’s a little unsettling, but we’re in this together. We can learn from each other. We can grow together and we can create something new.”

In order to bridge, which is what this is called, we have to be willing to engage in empathetic and compassionate listening and practices. Change is happening. Now, notice that the right-wing nationalists are afraid that they’re going to have to change. They’re afraid they’re going to be different and they’re right. The liberal response to othering that is denying someone the full humanity is saming.

Muslims may go to a mosques and Jews go to a synagogue and Christians go to a church, but it’s all the same. It’s a form of colorblindness. Okay, so gay people may not have sex the same way that straight people do, but they’re just the same, and if they’re really just the same, they don’t have sex at all because straight people don’t have sex either.

It’s an invitation to assimilate. It’s an invitation to be just like me so I’m still denying your full humanity. Let’s say the cost of humanity, as James Wallman talks about, is you have to give up anything that actually looks and feels different. In response to othering, the proper response, if I may say, it’s not saming but belonging, but it’s still a change.

I want to pose it right now today is that we will be different, that you would be different. Your children would be different than you in even more profound ways. That actually the change and not just what you have but who you are will radically change. For some people that would be very scary. If it’s not going to be scary, we have to create the conditions and the stories that help people step into a new space.

The changing of our identities isn’t until a logical question that from a secular perspective and a spiritual question from a religious perspective and for the most part, we don’t engage it. You think this is about things and stuff, it’s more than that. The future is coming and think about it. So, the right-wing nationalists, the authoritarians that are now ruling much of the world, what they promise people is that you can go back to the past.

Okay, the future is scary. I’m going to put on the brakes and we’re going to make America great again. When they ask most Americans, “So, when was that?” Maybe I was asleep, and most of Trump’s supporters says, “Somewhere between 1850 and 1950.” When women weren’t in the workplace, before the Civil Rights movement, when we didn’t actually … when gays were all crowded in a closet. The notion, and white people, white men rule. That’s the world I’m dreaming of.

That world is not happening. I won’t go into great details because I only have a few more minutes, although I’m going to steal another minute because of technical problems. In many ways, the fight with China is not about trade. The fight with China is about Christian white Jiminy in the world. That’s the threat that China poses. When we look at empirical data in terms of how whites process is growing change, the data’s interesting because the blue line is what people say at the conscious level.

The red line is what the unconscious says. So, when we actually talk about by 2050, we’re already here in California, there will be no racial majority. Most white people at unconscious level freak out. We think, “Yay. There are not going be racial majority.” It’s like, “Yeah.” Maybe I should move to Wisconsin. Part of the thing is that’s the reality that people experience. Now, to make this a little bit more inclusive, it actually turns out that not only do whites feel it, they do, but so do people of color.

So, within the African American community, there’s actually a growing debate as to who is really black. Some blacks are saying, “Well, not people from the Caribbean’s and not people from Nigeria.” We try to cabinet by saying, “They haven’t had the African American experience. They don’t qualify as really black.” Then, those blacks who were hooking up with somebody who’s not black, they’re not black either.

What that’s really expressing is that same … It’s not the same, but it’s similar anxiety about who we’re becoming. Instead of building bridging stories, that becomes a breaking story. Just one other thing on bridging. I tell this story often. When I mentioned that to a friend of mine, a pastor here, a testament bride. If you know Testament bride, you know there are four of them. I’m not going to tell you which of the four pastors, but one of them says, “John, are you saying I need to bridge with the devil?”

My response is, “Don’t start there. Build short bridges and become more practice, become more skilled at building bridges, and then, at some point, you may need to re-question, ‘who are you calling the devil?'” I also should mention that the Haas Jr. Fund has created a fund to actually operationalize bridging here at Berkeley between the students. I’m starting this project with Oscar. We just hit the beginning of it.

I’d be interested in your ideas. Change creates anxiety, and that’s not just in humans, that’s in all mammals. When change happens really fast, people struggle with it. For example, if in a two year period someone gets married, moves and gets a new job, that’s assuming that the person they married, they like. The chances of having a heart attack goes up 50%. We can only process so much change in a short period of time without it putting stress on the body.

This is actually interesting I think because if you go back to the 17th Century, and the creation of white identity as we know it today actually has gone through several iterations, but whites were not at the top of the food chain. Whites were the middle stratum. Who was at the top of the food chain? The elites and they did not consider themselves white. Whiteness was about creating an identity and the role of whiteness was to police those at the bottom.

In this iteration, those at the bottom were largely considered be indentured slaves, blacks. It took a while for this to actually take hold because before the system was in place, people of European descent workers and people of African descent workers and slaves actually made common cause in great numbers. When they first instituted this thing of saying, “You are different.” It’s like people’s like, “Well, he’s working land and she’s working land, what’s the difference?”

It didn’t happen naturally. The elites used it in response to rebellions that were put in place by the European workers and the African workers. They not only did that, when they prosecuted people for the rebellion, they did not prosecute the European workers. They were very conscious that in terms of social control, they had to separate these groups. That’s actually the Genesis of whiteness in the United States.

We need to create a culture of belonging, [foreign language 00:26:13], which means a Zulu word, which means, I see you. I see you meaning, I see your past, I see your ancestors, I see your future. Another way of saying it is the God in me or the divine in me sees the God in you.

Belonging. Belonging is a deeper dive than inclusion. Belonging recognizes that the thing you are belonging to, you co-create. It’s not already there. You co-create it not just for yourself on your group, but you co-create it for everyone. The charge to us as we move forward is to create a society, a belonging, which means as the last panel suggested, the blacks have to care about Native Americans. They have to care about poor whites. They have to care about transgender. Belonging actually extends beyond a narrow confines of one’s identity. It doesn’t mean tolerance. It means caring and loving, learning to actually love each other.

Slavery. Slavery created not just racism, it created anti-black racism. Slavery was very specific. The institution of slavery was doing some work and it created anti-black slavery that was critical for creating whiteness. Slavery and anti-black racism to hold and out of that came the concept of whiteness as we think about it today. Whiteness and supremacy is redundant. The concept of whiteness coming out of slavery was embedded in the idea of white supremacy.

You didn’t have to say white supremacy. Whiteness was enough. But because of the Civil Rights Movement and some change, now we have to be more specific and say, “White Supremacists.” Which means that if we’re going to get beyond white supremacy, we have to actually rethink whiteness. In many ways, the issue of race is not a black problem. It’s not even about black people, it’s about white people. The core, the hard edge, which holds white supremacy together is white supremacy.

I suggested it was never simply about, I don’t like you because you’re different. You have more melanin than me. It was about capital. It was about the United States actually industrializing and using his farm and cotton. It was about the elites trying to figure out how to extract as much capital as possible and using people and people’s land to do that. Slavery, is about America. We must reject white supremacy and even human supremacy.

When we look about what’s happening with earth, what’s happening with the planet? Part of that comes from the same gang, the same storyline of supremacy. The past is not the past, but the present. The future does not belong to the past or the present, but to us and all of us. We have to actually build on the past. But so we can actually move to a future and we move to that future, we must tell our story about the past but we must also develop history to create a future that belongs to all of us where we all belong. Thank you.