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UT Professor: Stark Look At Nation's Past Would Help U.S. Wrestle With Impacts Of Racism

Julia Reihs
Joe Biden called out white supremacy and systemic racism in his inauguration speech. Peniel Joseph says the only way to grapple with the problems of today is to acknowledge the ugly parts of the past.

January 2021 was a tumultuous and tragic month in the United States. The country experienced an insurrectionat the U.S. Capitol, the second impeachment of an outgoing president, tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 and the inauguration of a new president amid calls for unity and racial justice.

So, where does the U.S. go from here?

Peniel Joseph, director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at UT Austin, believes the U.S. can move forward together from the pandemic, racial injustice and the insurrection at the Capitol by taking some concrete steps.

First, Joseph thinks President Biden should establish a "racial truth, justice and healing commission" so that everyone can have a shared understanding of the country's history of racism and slavery.

Second, Joseph says the nation needs to confront that history and "look inward to shine a light on the problems that far too long we failed to wrestle with."

Third, he says people need to come together and mold a true consensus, understanding that democracy does not require agreement among all, but "we can't violently disagree with one another."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Joseph, including why he says telling people what they don't want to hear but need to hear might be the best thing a leader can do in troubled times.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What advice do you have for President Biden at this moment in history?

Peniel Joseph: My advice is to, by executive order, organize a national racial truth, justice and healing commission to really bring us on the road to ... reconciliation ... Truth would be a uniform understanding of our history. That we can disagree on how to interpret factual events but have an understanding of racial slavery, have an understanding of Jim Crow segregation. The understanding of the history behind the wealth gap, COVID-19 disparities, criminal justice and police brutality is imperative.

And then the truth part of that is really, how do we go even beyond just anti-racist policies but centering racial justice policies at the national level? And then finally, the healing is the reconciliation. How do we come together as a nation?

You wrote in a recent column for CNN that Martin Luther King Jr. "demanded a maturity of Americans that we have yet to embrace." Do you think that we’re mature enough to take on this work?

We're going to have to be, Jennifer. That would be my response. When we think about where we've been with the assault on the U.S. Capitol, Black Lives Matter marches last year, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic fallout of that and then the most racially divisive presidential election in history, we have to be mature enough to confront these issues.

I think that listening to President Biden's inaugural speech, he used words like "white supremacy" and "systemic racism" in a way that no other president ever has. So there's this acknowledgment of both white supremacy being something that is the greatest domestic threat in terms of racial terror, but also the ideology and the culture of white supremacy and how it's created this caste system, this racial caste system that marginalizes so many different groups.

He said it's time to end this uncivil war. There's all this talk of domestic warfare here. We are going to have to be mature enough to confront these things.

If you think back in history and think back to times when the U.S. or another country has had to confront something about itself, what tends to motivate or actually get a country or a people to do that?

Historically, it has taken a crisis. A civil war led to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The Great Depression led to the biggest social welfare state in American history, and social safety net. We are still in the midst, but we are slowly crawling out of, this crisis that's connected to race and democracy. But really, that's rooted in our long, long history of failing to grapple with white supremacy and anti-Black racism in all aspects of our society. The assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 put it in global stark relief. We just couldn't turn away from it anymore.

And right now, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests and the economic fallout from the pandemic and the violent assault against the U.S. Capitol has all precipitated this crisis where we're looking inward. And that's what the speech talked about. President Biden’s (inauguration) speech challenged us to look inward to shine a light on the problems that for too long we failed to wrestle with, and that includes especially the problem of racial injustice in the United States.

To really transform itself, it really needs a crisis to reconsider the status quo. And then from that crisis, for people to get together to say, how could we reimagine this society yet still think of ourselves as good people, still be hopeful and optimistic for our children?

You said that to reimagine our society, to move forward, we really need to get together. Is it possible to move forward as a society, especially after the insurrection at the Capitol?

Yes, I do believe it's possible, but I think we're going to have to mold consensus and not just try to gather a cheap consensus. The boldest leaders are going to be the molders of consensus. And not everyone will agree. And that's OK, because that's democracy. It's just that we can't violently disagree with one another.

Do you see in President Biden the bold kind of leader who can mold that consensus?

You know, I do. I think that when we think about Biden, I see Biden in the same mold of (Franklin) Roosevelt and LBJ right here in Texas when he talked about a war on poverty, building a great society and support for civil rights. He told the nation things that at times they didn't want to hear but they needed to hear.

President Biden has a chance to achieve that same mantle of telling us all not what we want to hear. It’s easy to tell people what they want to hear. It’s harder to tell people what they need to hear. But if you tell them in an honest way, if you tell them with deep empathy and you have a vision for how we can get from here to there, people appreciate you. And then what you've done is mold consensus. And we treat each other with the deep empathy that we expect ourselves to receive.

Once we do that, we're going to be fine. But that's going to take a lot because we're not there right now.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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