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Who We Are Project CEO Discusses History of Social Justice and Racism in America

We all must understand the history of racial inequality in America to bring about racial equity, according to Jeffery Robinson, founder and CEO of The Who We Are Project. 

“We need to go back 150 years and understand everything that went into creating this problem,” Robinson said. “If you don’t understand what created the problem, by definition, you will never solve it.”

Robinson spoke to members of the Boston College Law School after a screening of his documentary on Thursday. His documentary, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, connects historical and present-day footage exploring the legacy of white supremacy.

Aside from creating the documentary, Robinson worked as a defense attorney for 34 years before becoming the deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice & Equality at the American Civil Liberties Union. He later founded The Who We Are Project to address the underlying effects racism has on the judicial process.  

 “We could let virtually everyone out of prison tomorrow,” Robinson said. “But if we do nothing about racism in this country, we will fill those prisons back up with the exact same people in a very short period of time.”

According to Robinson, there are patterns of surges toward social reform and equality in history, but such surges always faded shortly before reaching the “tipping point” of enacting permanent social justice. He said efforts should be made by the current generation of Americans toward enacting racial justice permanently.

“I think of those women that walked in Birmingham during the Bus Boycott,” Robinson said. “And that was part of the movement that allowed me to go to a school that got me a good education. … We have a responsibility to the people that came before us and the people that are coming after us, and it’s something we can accomplish.”

Voting is key in this responsibility, according to Robinson, due to its massive effect on social justice throughout history. For example, Robinson mentioned the 1876 presidential election, asserting the close election led to a century of separate-but-equal and legal racism in the United States.

Robinson also explained the importance of effectively educating children about the racial justice issues prevalent in the United States today and that a comprehensive school curriculum is essential for fostering a culture that strives to achieve social justice. 

“In 1837, John C. Calhoun, one of the most belligerent racists in American history, wrote this paper,” Robinson said. “He said, ‘We have got to stop letting teachers teach about abolition in schools, because if these kids get abolition in their heads, slavery is done for and this country is going to face a war that’s going to drench us in blood.’ And he was absolutely right.”  

Robinson ended his talk with a word of advice for the students in attendance, encouraging them to get involved with social justice organizations and make a difference. 

“Think about where you’re going to spend your career as a lawyer, think about the candidates who run for things, not just president and senator, but district attorney, and school board member,” Robinson said. “These are the kinds of things that are going to make a difference.”

September 11, 2022

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