The American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director, Jeffery Robinson, came to UCI last Monday to address how America’s historical racial inequality affects contemporary culture and politics. The event, “Racial Bias in America: How Did We Get Here and Why Are We Stuck?” was hosted by UCI’s Office of Inclusive Excellence as part of an ongoing lecture series called Contemporary Perspectives on Bias, Prejudice and Bigotry.
Jeffery Robinson is the deputy legal director of the ACLU and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality. UCI Law dean L. Song Richardson called him “one of the nation’s top experts on implicit and unconscious biases.” A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Robinson’s work over the past several decades has centered on criminal defense, civil rights and the manifestation of implicit biases — the “not easy stuff” on which his talk focused.
Robinson explained that, growing up in the South at the time Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and schools were beginning to integrate, “the civil rights movement was not something I read about in a book; it was happening right outside my window.”
He discussed the lasting effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and argued that the most dangerous way to perpetuate racial inequality today is to practice “erasure,” denying the severity of America’s violent past toward black and brown people.
“Slavery is not our fault,” he said, referring to the audience of about 150 people, “but it is a part of our shared history. When we deny that, we are in trouble.”
Robinson played a clip of Trump Cabinet member Ben Carson referring to slaves as “immigrants” to “a land of dreams and opportunity” in his first speech as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Robinson noted another Cabinet member, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who called historically black colleges and universities, which admitted black students before desegregation became law, “pioneers of school choice.” Republican pundit Bill O’Reilly, he mentions, argued that the slaves who built the White House were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore, who lost the election in December but won nearly half the vote, stated that the last time America was “great” was during “slavery.”
These comments, Robinson argued, minimize the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow and attempt to discredit activists seeking equity and reparations today. Erasing history — “forgetting that American slave patrols were the predecessors of modern police forces,” and omitting the third verse of Key’s National Anthem, which celebrates the deaths of slaves — seeks to invalidate activism like Black Lives Matter and the wave of kneeling for the National Anthem started by NFL player Colin Kaepernick.
“Our past is being erased in front of our eyes, and our history is being stolen from us,” Robinson said. “But it’s hiding in plain sight. Go to the original documents and see what they’re saying.”
Robinson suggested that Americans conduct their own historical research, educate themselves on the roots of modern civil rights movements, and “not shrink away” from difficult topics.
“These conversations will be messy,” Robinson said. “But what leads you to believe that we can solve the problems of race in America in a nice, neat and comfortable way? Just because it’s messy doesn’t mean we can ignore it.”
“There is a current and present danger in America in terms of race relations,” Robinson said. “We are at a tipping point in this country in terms of race and equity, but each of us has an opportunity to decide where we’re going to end up.”