.Let’s Face It: America is racist to its core, explains the blistering new documentary ‘Who We Are’

Why do police in the U.S. kill so many unarmed Black people? Why are some states openly trying to suppress the vote in neighborhoods of color? How can someone demonstrate against the removal of Confederate monuments, while carrying a sign declaring that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War? 

Jeffery Robinson, a legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, has thought long and hard on questions like these, ever since he was an African-American child growing up in the Civil Rights era in Memphis. And now Robinson is the writer, producer and director of the remarkable new documentary, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, based on a series of lectures he delivered in auditoriums before the pandemic. Of course, racial inequality has not disappeared during the Covid time. In some ways relations are worse than ever—witness the fear-mongering backlash over the 1619 Project, reparations and “critical race theory.” But the historical truth will not hide. With the theatrical release of Who We Are, Robinson lays the disgusting facts on the table for all to see.

As the bespectacled, prosecutorial Robinson prowls the stage addressing his audience, the visual component of his talk appears on-screen behind him to emphasize his message: that America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the Earth. Legally. During its two-hour running time the film states its case calmly yet convincingly.

We’re confronted with statistics most Americans are never asked to consider. In front of the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s revealed that the human “property” of slave owners was worth more than everything else they owned, more than the plantation, the land, the goods—usually cotton, grown by slave labor—and their house. From the very beginning, this country was founded on white supremacy and brutal bondage. Racism was embedded in the law, and 12 U.S. presidents owned enslaved people. It may come as a surprise to modern audiences that New York, by virtue of its banking and insurance dealings with Southern cotton growers, was once a pro-slavery state.

The faces of lynch victims Elmore Bolling and Emmett Till arise again to haunt us, as does the news that the post-Civil War Reconstruction was successful—at least until President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South in 1877. After that, “separate but equal” became the law of the land, ushering in Jim Crow, the resurgent Klan and Confederate monuments—most of them built in the 20th century to honor the defenders of slavery. In the words of Thurgood Marshall, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the meaning of separate but equal is the “inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible.”

The documentary’s most moving personal testimony comes from Tami Sawyer, a county commissioner from Memphis instrumental in the removal of the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867. To Sawyer, Forrest’s legacy was one of hatred and misery. “I see our Black kids, their lights go out in their eyes at three, four, five years old,” he said. “They believe they’re lesser than [other children] by the time they reach kindergarten. And if we could change anything, I believe we could change the landscape of our city so they didn’t have to be reminded on a daily basis that they are considered second-class citizens by many people in this country.”

Robinson’s film, based on his personal experiences as well as extensive scholarship, is one of the most powerful examinations of our country’s national curse. As such, it’s a useful companion piece to another bare-knuckle anti-racism documentary, Raoul Peck’s excellent Exterminate All the Brutes (2021). The argument can never be made too often.

In theaters beginning Feb. 4.
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