Election 2020: A referendum on racial justice in America

a headshot collage of the nine UC Berkeley leaders interviewed on the election, plus the Racial Justice in America logo

On the eve of a historical presidential election, leaders from UC Berkeley’s communities of color offer a mosaic of personal reflections that explore the political and human stakes of this extraordinary time. (Graphic by Hulda Nelson, UC Berkeley)

This has been a year of historic turmoil in America: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse, police violence and urgent protests, systematic vote suppression, a rising movement of anti-democratic militias. But one thread weaves through all of these crises.

Race.

Today, we are confronted by racially divisive political rhetoric and threats to racial justice that are more open and acute than at any time since the 1960s. Inevitably, such threats challenge the ideals on which the nation is founded.

a logo reading "racial justice in America"

Berkeley News will examine race justice in America in a new series of stories.

In the final days of the presidential campaign, near the end of this profoundly difficult year, Berkeley News conducted interviews with faculty and staff from UC Berkeley’s communities of color — whose influence extends from campus classrooms across the nation and around the world.

Each is working to understand this moment in history, embodied by the contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Each feels deep frustration, worry and often anger, but also stubborn hope that some essential lesson — and some on-the-ground progress — can come from it. Each is providing leadership in their communities, while drawing inspiration from students and other young people coming of age in a time of trial.

headshot of Khiara M. Bridges, law professor

Khiara M. Bridges, law professor (Photo courtesy of the UC Berkeley School of Law)

After the police killing of George Floyd in May and the global protests that followed, “there was such an openness to talking about racial justice with a capital J,” said law professor Khiara M. Bridges. “We were talking beyond individual bias, beyond individual bigots. We were talking about systemic, structural issues that have worked to kill people of color in this country and to diminish the quality of our lives. That conversation started — I never thought that I would see that moment.”

Berkeley News presents their thoughts here, in a Q&A format. Excerpts from each interview form a mosaic of deeply felt personal reflections that, on the eve of Election 2020, explore the political and human stakes of this extraordinary time.

[The excerpted comments have been lightly edited for clarity.]

Berkeley News: Tell us a little bit about your story. Where did you grow up? How did you arrive at Berkeley?

informal portrait of Patrick Naranjo, executive director of the American Indian Graduate Program

Patrick Naranjo, executive director of the American Indian Graduate Program (UC Berkeley photo)

Patrick Naranjo, executive director of the American Indian Graduate Program: I grew up within the Santa Clara Pueblo Reservation (in New Mexico). But I’m also half Latino. I am very much aligned with my Tewa side of cultural practice. I grew up in the Kiva.

In second grade, my mother decided to transition me from the Santa Clara Day School into the Holy Cross Catholic School, which was 15 minutes outside of the rez. I went from being made fun of in second grade as the half-Latino kid on the rez to going to Holy Cross and being the half-Native kid.

Now, I’m at Berkeley, and I have matriculated through the Western education side of things. So, I’ve always had a dual view on things. I like to think of myself as an intersectional person.

informal portrait of Charles Henry, professor emeritus of African American studies

Charles Henry, professor emeritus of African American studies (Photo courtesy of Charles Henry)

Charles Henry, professor emeritus of African American studies: An academic emailed me a couple of months ago, and she said, ‘I’m researching a lynching in Coshocton, Ohio, in 1884. Did you know that your great-uncle was threatened with lynching and told he should leave town in 30 days?’ And she sent me a piece from Coshocton newspaper talking about this lynching.

Apparently, my uncle and some others protested and said something should be done. He was threatened and told, ‘All the N-word people need to get out of town in 30 days, or they’ll suffer the same consequences.’ I had never heard that story in my family.

Catherine Ceniza Choy, associate dean of the College of Letters and Science’s Division of Undergraduate Studies and professor of ethnic studies: I am the daughter of Filipino immigrants. I was born and raised in New York City. My parents divorced when I was a young child, and I have a younger sister, so I grew up in a Filipino immigrant, women-centered household.

My mom was highly educated. She received her college degree from the University of the Philippines, which is a prestigious public university, and she was a certified public accountant there. But when she immigrated to the United States, her licensure was not reciprocal, so she lost her CPA title. She was able to continue working as an accountant, but also worked on the side, being a single mom. We lived a working class existence.

In your childhood, was there a moment or an experience in which you were treated with hostility, or “othered,” because of your race, ethnicity or immigrant status?

informal portrait of Laura Elisa Pérez, chair of the Latinx Research Center, coordinator of the Chicano Studies program and professor of ethnic studies

Laura Elisa Pérez, chair of the Latinx Research Center, coordinator of the Chicano Studies program and professor of ethnic studies (Photo courtesy of Laura Elisa Pérez)

Laura Elisa Pérez, chair of the new Latinx Research Center, coordinator of the Chicano Studies program and professor of ethnic studies: I was born in the early 1960s in Chicago. It was a really interesting time, because I had very progressive teachers, and I lived in a neighborhood that was pretty mixed. And so, we grew up with friendships from kids of different ethnicities.

But Chicago was still a very segregated place. There was a lot of racism. I was very aware that crossing certain neighborhoods, or certain parts of the city, was not a good idea.

I saw my parents experience a great deal of racial hostility, and I experienced it, too — people just staring at you with, with hatred. You know, ‘Why are you here? What kind of people are you?’ My mother and father always thought that that kind of behavior was ignorance.

informal headshot of Russell Robinson, professor of law and faculty director of the Center on Race, Sexuality and Culture

Russell Robinson, professor of law and faculty director of the Center on Race, Sexuality and Culture (Photo courtesy of the UC Berkeley School of Law)

Russell Robinson, professor of law and faculty director of the Center on Race, Sexuality and Culture: I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and Ohio is very different than California. You just become accustomed to being surrounded by very conservative and often racist white people.

I went to an evangelical Christian school that was 95% white. From a very early age, I had white kids touching my hair, asking questions about my nose, about my lips. They regarded me as bizarre. That sort of curiosity about my very being as a Black person was normal.

I was the child of parents who were Democrats at a staunchly Republican, far-right school. Kids would tell me things like, ‘You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat.’ So, I had to argue with them about that and say, ‘That’s not true.’ I was constantly debating people about race, about the Black community, about my right to be respected.

headshot of Hatem Bazian, founder, UC Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project; lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies

Hatem Bazian, founder, UC Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project; lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies (UC Berkeley photo)

Hatem Bazian, founder of the UC Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project and lecturer in the departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora studies: I was born in Amman, Jordan, and I came to the U.S. for my education. I’ve been in the Bay Area for 35 years, since the 1980s. So, the trend began early — hearing the epithets that are often directed at Arabs. A few times, we had death threats, letters in my mailbox. You have hate mail coming in almost on a regular basis.

If Trump says something, or there’s a debate that has nothing to do with myself, I expect to get a few e-mails, Islamophobic in nature. This has become almost the norm.

How would you characterize the current U.S. environment in terms of racial injustice and the harmony or disharmony among different racial or ethnic groups?

headshot of Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of Ethnic Studies and Associate Dean of the College of Letters and Science Division of Undergraduate Studies

Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of Ethnic Studies and associate dean of the College of Letters and Science Division of Undergraduate Studies (Photo courtesy of Catherine Ceniza Choy)

Catherine Ceniza Choy: Filipino nurses were the focus of my first book, Empire of Care. Today, we hear these incredible statistics: Over 30% of the registered nurses (RNs) in the United States who have died from COVID-19 are Filipino American nurses, even though they comprise only 4% of the RN workforce.

Alongside these numbers are the incredible number of news stories and stories about Filipino nurses I hear from family and friends, such as Filipino nurses who contracted COVID-19 after they came out of retirement to fight the virus. These nurses have literally died trying to save us.

And all of this intersects with the anti-Asian racism that is fueled by this pandemic and the divisive rhetoric around it.

Raka Ray, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and South Asian studies: Much of the disharmony stems from a particular group of people who were once better off and more powerful and who are now feeling disenfranchised. I’m speaking of course about white working-class men.

The organization of the economy that marked much of 20th century America was one that privileged white workers. The disintegration of that economy, which also reified male earners, has resulted in a loss of self for many white, working-class men, and this has been fed and turned into a politics of resentment and, in some cases, into a surging politics of vengeance.

headshot of Fabrizio Mejia, assistant vice chancellor in the Division of Equity & Inclusion

Fabrizio Mejia, assistant vice chancellor in the Division of Equity and Inclusion (UC Berkeley photo)

Fabrizio Mejia, assistant vice chancellor in the Division of Equity and Inclusion: Everything feels heightened, on many levels. Whether that’s the compounding of daily things over almost four years or whether it’s the effect of social media and misinformation — we’re not listening to each other.

So, when you think about the concept of institutional racism or the cumulative effect of being excluded from systems, it gets complicated — nobody wants to feel like they’re to blame. I get that.

It’s always been an issue, but I think even more so now. People are deeply entrenched in their views. When you point out contradictions, it doesn’t even matter anymore. Facts and evidence are constantly in question. … I think people are drained.

Khiara M. Bridges, professor at UC Berkeley School of Law: When I think of this moment, I think of opportunity. But the word that also comes to mind is precipice.

Either we take advantage of the opportunity this moment has presented us and do something with regard to racial justice, or we’re going to fall off the cliff. That’s for racial justice, but also democracy.

Either we get it right, or we lose everything.

This year, and the past four years, have featured veiled — and often open — attacks on communities of color and immigrants. Can you recall an election for which the environment was similar?

Charles Henry: This is as unstable a time as I can remember. The only comparable time, in terms of race in the larger political picture, would be 1968. We had a series of riots. We had the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. We had the Democratic National Convention and the Chicago Seven trial.

portrait of Raka Ray, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and South Asian studies

Raka Ray, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and South Asian studies (UC Berkeley photo)

Raka Ray: It differs from other elections in two ways. With such polarization, more is automatically at stake. So, from one perspective, at stake here are reproductive freedoms, civil liberties, growing inequality, the role and credibility of science, and life and death from a pandemic. From another, at stake is the threat of the end of a way of life.

The second is the advent of the unregulated social media and the huge increase in right-wing media activity. This has made debating about issues almost impossible, because no one trusts the other side’s facts. Simple social civility has been a major casualty.

Khiara M. Bridges: In this election, Trump has decided to attack Black people directly. He has decided to deploy the military in response to a movement that is expressing grievances about historical and present anti-Black racism. He has tried to win over white voters by claiming that Black people are going to take over the suburbs.

This is Anthropology 101, right? The suggestion that blackness is going to invade something that has figured in the cultural imagination as white.

He is doing the same thing that his attacks on Mexican people did in 2016, the same thing that his attacks on Muslim people did in 2016. He is attempting to exclude from the body politic — exclude from what is imagined as American —all things that are not white.

Hatem Bazian: Having witnessed elections from Reagan all the way to Trump, I cannot point to any instance where you have such a total collapse of civil society and the sense of decency and basic respect on a normal difference of opinion.

Political difference now is represented by arms, meaning that people are carrying weapons as a sign of the expression of political difference. The only thing I could compare it to is to some period in the Arab world where civil war is about to erupt, where people begin to walk in the streets and begin to show weapons, as a sign of their territory and control of their territory, and also to present discourse of threat and fear to the other.

Dar Leaf, front right, sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, speaks next to militia members in May 2020 during a May 2020 protest of Whitmer's stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dar Leaf, front right, sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, speaks next to militia members during a May 2020 protest of Michigan’s stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Cory Morse/Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Once arms are present in civil society spaces — in streets, in cafes, in movie theaters, in churches, the state assembly and city halls — that means that we have crossed the threshold that really is a very thin line, and that might push the society into an actual civil war.

How has this environment — the demeaning remarks, these attacks — affected you personally?

Catherine Ceniza Choy: I have experienced grief and loss and felt a deep sense of anger about so many different levels of injustice that are happening today.

I’m also just struck by the bold nature of some of the rhetoric — some of the presidential rhetoric. When you’re using divisive and outdated rhetoric about ‘China Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu,’ it’s not a joke that can just get tossed aside. It impacts people’s lives. It actually furthers the effectiveness of the pandemic by making people afraid to go out, afraid to seek care. It disrupts a communal response to this disease.

That intersects with the incredible xenophobia that we have witnessed through the White House administration’s rhetoric, but also the many stories of deportations or the separation of migrant parents and their children at the southern border. This is intersecting with the Black Lives Matter and police violence against people of color and immigrant communities.

When you’re using divisive and outdated rhetoric about ‘China Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu,’ it’s not a joke that can just get tossed aside. It impacts people’s lives.”

– Catherine Ceniza Choy

Fabrizio Mejia: I’m hyperconscious of what I represent, racially. I’m a darker-skinned Latino male with a bald head and a goatee. The last couple years before the pandemic, when I traveled outside the United States, I had some anxiety coming back in: Am I going to be allowed to come in? Am I going to get hassled?

These concerns, these microaggressions — what does it mean to be American? What does it mean to ‘Make America Great Again’? There is an inherent, racialized romanticization of who is American — and what does it mean to go back to that?

I’m not part of that, in some ways, and never have been.

Hatem Bazian: My safety and security are something that I am more aware of. After the 2016 election, my classes were targeted partly by right-wing groups. And so, we actually had to remove the location from the scheduling. I don’t post my office hours. I put security cameras on my house. I try to take different routes to the campus as often as I can.

In your role as a teacher, or as an administrator, you work with young people. How has the campaign, and the past four years, affected them?

Russell Robinson: I have family in Chicago, and we all went to Ohio a couple weeks ago to see my parents and connect with other family — we had an outdoor event. On the way down, we drove through a rural area for about 45 minutes where we were just surrounded by Trump signs and all sorts of variations like Women for Trump, or messages that combined God and Trump.

It really was terrifying, especially to my nephew, who is 11. He was literally terrorized. I had to try to soothe him and calm him down, because there was just sign after sign after sign. He was afraid that we would be attacked. It was a fear that our lives were at stake.

Donald Trump walking with his fist up

Several Berkeley scholars suggested that U.S. President Donald Trump has worked to stoke division and unrest through racialized messages to voters. (White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Raka Ray: In 2016, I was teaching a huge class, the Introduction to Sociology. The day after the election, a quarter of the students had disappeared — by and large my Latinx students. They had gone home out of fear that they or those they loved were going to be deported.

But slowly, they all emerged, determined to fight.

The current environment has created another polarization, in a way: those who are concerned for others and for the world, but know that they are relatively safe, and those who are afraid for themselves. These students, as they go into the world, depending on where they come from, will also carry that with them.

Fabrizio Mejia: All of us, to a certain extent, are dealing with existential questions about the meaning of this pandemic. Many of us are dealing with the questions of climate change.

And then, you put on top of that our racial identity, or the experience of somebody from an LGBTQ or trans background. It’s just layers upon layers that folks are dealing with.

And so, what I’ve seen is a lot more anxiety, a lot more depression, a lot more where students are not able to answer the questions: Where is this leading me? Is this worth it?

What’s at stake in this election?

Laura Elisa Pérez: In my opinion, it is really important that we vote Trump and his enablers out of office, because I think that he is a very corrupt human being. I think that the president or the head of any country should be, as much as possible, an exemplary person. It should be someone who is well educated for the job they are going to do.

Many people close to him have indicated that he has very little knowledge of things like the Constitution and of our values. He definitely signals his interest in authoritarianism. And so democracy itself is at stake. And I think that once the country takes that turn, we’re in incredible trouble.

Khiara M. Bridges: I think the stakes are so much higher than they were in 2016. In 2020, what I see on the table are safe and secure elections — do we want those, or do we not want those? Progress toward racial equality — do we want that, or don’t we want that?

I also feel like there’s a question of life on the table: People are going to die — more people are going to die — without a competent government to handle this pandemic and whatever comes next.

Female protesters chant with their hands at raised at their mouths

In New York, protesters demonstrate against the the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis on May 29. (AP photo by Mary Altaffer)

Russell Robinson: We’re at a turning point, and the hope that I have and the people in my community have, which includes anti-racist white folks and anti-racists who are Latinx and Asian American, and of course, Black folks, is that the country will repudiate Trump and his white nationalist project. That it will be a landslide, that it will not need to be resolved by the courts.

And the Republican Party will pay a price for inflicting this upon the country — four years of just extreme suffering imposed on so many marginalized people, based on race, based on gender, based on sexual orientation, gender identity, class, undocumented folks.

I’m hoping, … but I just don’t know.

Are you optimistic about the months ahead? Or more pessimistic?

Laura Elisa Pérez: It’s very unfortunate that there is this unapologetic racism and white supremacism and white terrorism — the Texas Rangers, the Ku Klux Klan. It’s very unfortunate that they have reared their heads, feeling like they can do that underneath this president and his administration. However, there is something that we can take from that: We can really think about and analyze how unfinished this project is, of teaching each other about the benefits of greater democratization, of what cultural diversity means.

Russell Robinson: I really draw on my faith, which has sustained the African American community for so many years and, of course, galvanized the civil rights movement. So, I’m choosing hope. I’m choosing to believe that the country will make the right choice. But there are so many forces of evil that are arrayed against justice in this election.

I really draw on my faith … So, I’m choosing hope. I’m choosing to believe that the country will make the right choice.”

– Russell Robinson

Patrick Naranjo: It’s going to be a difficult process, but I actually feel that we are at that moment where folks want to see change. A lot of people are tired of having to navigate or interpret that specific history that was created from some of these institutional, or colonial — maybe just, say, old procedures and processes that have brought us to this moment of frustration. … These are some of the common conversations that we’re having with things like native identity, immigration, social justice, unrest from Black Lives Matter.

Slow progress in these areas, I think, is what makes us feel better. This may seem like a horrible answer, because I’m just being realistic. But, given all of the work and all of the stress and how that informs our accountability, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to this end-all happy place where we’re just completely comfortable. And I don’t even know if I’d like that.

Fabrizio Mejia: Do I get angry? Yes. Do I allow myself once in a while to get angry and hopeless? Yes, because I’m a human being. I don’t have the luxury to stay angry about it, because being angry, in my mind, takes my focus off what needs to happen.

Being angry and hopeless has an impact on those around me — it impacts my 6-year-old daughter. I have to figure out a way to channel that in a healthy manner so that I can get to the business of the work that we need to do for justice and equity.

Khiara M. Bridges: The fact is that more people are talking about systemic racism. More people are familiar with what that is. More people are comfortable with talking about white supremacy — that there are systems in place that function to ensure that white people are the dominant racial group in this country.

These concepts have percolated into the general consciousness. That is incredibly helpful, and I remain hopeful. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the election will not dash those hopes.