The easiest thing to say about Who we are is that it should be part of the standard curriculum in every school in America. Given the reactionary backlash against the 1619 Project and critical race theory, this is likely to be a tall order.
As the film’s screenwriter and presenter Jeffery Robinson notes, the best schools (including his own, via Marquette University, Harvard Law, and decades as a trial lawyer) effectively ignored the history of slavery. and its continuing legacy of white supremacy and institutionalized racism. Robinson, the ACLU’s deputy general counsel, decided to learn about the subject and winner of South by Southwest’s 2021 Documentary Spotlight Audience Award Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is the characteristic consequence of this process.
Over the past 10 years, Robinson has presented this story to various audiences, and the film records a presentation at New York City Hall on June 19 (Juneteenth), 2018. But this is not a static lecture – the directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler use Robinson’s commentary. as an anchor for an in-depth examination of the larger context of the story, using Robinson’s filmed interactions with a variety of people with illuminating experiences of fighting for racial justice. “Ignorance is not bliss,” says Robinson, “because it allows a false story to thrive.”
A partial list of topics Robinson manages to cover in two hours is staggering: the roots of chattel slavery from 1619, its constitutional preservation, its economic importance, the tortuous legal history, the financing of the North, the Confederate foundations of white supremacy, betrayal and its defenders. , Reconstruction and Reaction, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the lost promise of the civil rights movement, its rebirth with Black Lives Matter…and what must happen next.
All of this is intertwined with Robinson’s evocative memories of growing up in segregated Memphis. In 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated there, he was 11 years old. He calls this moment a crucial “tipping point,” as the end of reconstruction — a rollback of racial justice just when it seemed the country had begun to come to terms with its shameful racial history. Faced with this repeated backtracking, he reiterates a passage from Orwell 1984“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
Robinson never explicitly calls the reflexive American bromide that follows every gory outrage – “That’s Not Who We Are” – but the film’s title recalls this self-delusion. He emphasizes that countries, like people, are never one thing – but echoes MLK’s exhortation: “We must give ourselves to this fight until the end. His conversations with activists, and in particular with people who have lost family members to racial oppression, are both harrowing and inspiring.
The film is one aspect of a larger “Who We Are Project” founded by Robinson that intends to “correct the American narrative about our history of racism”, defined as “prejudice plus social power plus legal authority”. The project will indeed produce materials for schools and other institutions, with the ultimate goal of “getting America to fight racial inequality.” Much more information is available at Project website Who we are. Watch the film, visit the site, learn and be inspired.