Race, the power of an Illusion: The house we live in

Generations of racism shaped the structures of the United States, working into the very DNA of our institutions and culture. Simply reforming the structures won’t do, a panel of experts said Friday, Oct. 9 at a UC Berkeley event. Instead, the experts urged, we must work to build a more just world. 

“We have to affirmatively think about … the structures and systems that promote the outcomes we want,” john a. powell, a Berkeley professor of law and African American studies said during a live, online panel discussion that followed a screening of Part 3 of the documentary, Race — The Power of an Illusion.

“We think about removing these barriers, but there are so many barriers, and they’re reinforcing; you remove one barrier and there are 20 more,” powell said, adding that we must be proactive in thinking about “how we organize our society.”

The event concluded a three-part series of live panels and screenings of the docuseries organized by Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, in collaboration with the School of Public Health, Center for Research on Social Change and Center for Race & Gender.

The third and final episode of the docuseries, “The House We Live in,” charts the history of American citizenship and identity as it is constructed around whiteness.

“Whiteness was key to citizenship,” the film states. “Which side of the racial divide you found yourself on could be a matter of life or death.” 

Part 3 takes its name from a 1945 short film, The House I Live In, which features Frank Sinatra defending a young Jewish boy from anti-Semitic bullying. In a call against racial and religious discrimination, Sinatra makes an appeal to a group of young children: “Your blood is the same as mine, it’s the same as his.” 

Yet, the reality of American life was not so simple — citizenship was contested terrain. As the documentary explained, government policy in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries excluded non-white people from the benefits of citizenship, including access to land, homeownership, social security and other means to build generational wealth. In fact, the federal government encouraged the creation of white suburban communities, while simultaneously trapping Black Americans in impoverished urban spaces. 

Leti Volpp, professor of law and director of the Center for Race & Gender, explained that the legacy of these discriminatory practices is visible in the city of Berkeley, pointing to restrictive covenants that segregated it.

Even as many forms of legalized racism were undone in the 1960s with the civil rights era, the contours of inequality had already been cemented into enduring forms of systemic, de facto oppression.

“The reality is that our institutions that control land and that allocate opportunity spatially have not changed much,” said Jason Corburn, professor of public health and of city and regional planning. 

Michael Omi, professor of ethnic studies, explained that “particular nodes,” such as housing, determine distribution and access to a host of life-giving resources including health care, education and food. These factors shape who is — and who isn’t — able to live a healthy life.

Corburn added that racial segregation amplifies exposure to risks, such as environmental pollution, as well as increased policing and criminalization, pointing to the killing of Eric Garner. 

“The violence of the state and structural violence turns into neighborhood violence and gun violence,” he said.

The solutions are already there, Corburn continued, but we need to listen to people who speak from firsthand experiences of racism. He added that the work of healing people and communities is both urgent and necessary. 

“We’ve got to change institutions,” he said, challenging the audience to think imaginatively about solutions, such as cities divesting from policing and redirecting funds to agencies for “peace-making.” 

Omi observed that the debates in this country — which today is at a critical inflection point — reached a colorblind consensus following civil rights era reforms. But structural racism has become highly visible again under the Trump administration, he added, accompanied by waves of police violence and rising white nationalism. 

Volpp drew comparisons to the racial violence following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but emphasized the novelty of our present moment. Trump is “engaged in naked racism as a means of trying to get the electorate to vote for him,” she said.

Omi connected this to an international resurgence of right-wing nationalism that is “creating situations in which people are being marginalized, or othered or seen as the problem for national decline.” 

“At any juncture, we can leap back, we can go back to a place we thought we wouldn’t go back to,” Omi said, recalling when vitriolic, open racism and eugenic science dominated the political landscape of the U.S. in centuries past. He urged us to be careful of such a “slip back.” 

All the panelists agreed that education and reflection are crucial to overcoming structural racism. 

“As we argue and teach about our past,” powell said, in closing, “we’re really arguing and teaching about our future.”

To read about and watch the first two installments of the Race — The Power of an Illusion event series, you can check out “How ‘race’ came into being” and “Race, the power of an illusion.” To learn more about the docuseries, you can also visit its website here. There, you can find more resources about the documentary and racial education, as well as transcripts from previous panels.