Thanksgiving isn’t going to be the same this year. We’ll have to trade our raucous, jam-packed gatherings at grandma’s house for a cozier celebration at home—but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have meaningful debates about racial justice and current events! Whether you’re exchanging words with close family at the dining table or inviting relatives and friends into the fray via video, you’ll want to come prepared this year with some relatively unknown but indisputably true facts to help them understand why there continue to be systems of oppression in America.
“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is the new podcast we launched this year in partnership with Vox Media and our friend, Jeffery Robinson, ACLU deputy legal director. There are six amazing episodes, all inspired by the idea that we can’t change our future if we don’t understand our past. We pulled critical points from each one that will help everyone at your table, or on your screen, understand the roots of racism.
Item number 1
Selling Human Beings Made Our Country Rich
Episode 1: Despite what we may have read in textbooks, slavery wasn’t just an unfortunate thing that happened in America a long time ago: America was built on slavery, on purpose—America depended on slavery. We became one of the richest nations in the history of the world because of it. We’re not taught in school that there were breeding farms for enslaved people in the South. We’re not taught that Virginia’s main export wasn’t tobacco, but human beings. Let that sink in: Selling people, enslaved human beings, was the pillar of its economy. Then consider that four out of the first five presidents of the United States came from… Virginia.
Item number 2
Our Election System Was Built to Maintain White Supremacy
Episode 2: The Electoral College was devised by the Founding Fathers to maintain white supremacy. Southern states were prosperous and powerful thanks to the unpaid labor of a huge population of enslaved people. After the Revolutionary War, they wanted to stay powerful and prosperous, which meant making sure they could benefit politically from enslaved people without having to give them any rights. The solution? The three-fifths compromise. With 93% of the country’s enslaved population located in just five Southern states, this approach increased the representation of the South by 42%. The Electoral College was built upon this racist foundation, ensuring that a small number of wealthy white men would hold and wield power over the majority of the country. It still operates in much the same way.
Item number 3
The Land of the Enslaved and the Home of the Not-So Brave
Episode 3: Raise your hand if you know the third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” No one? That’s understandable. It’s not usually sung before sporting events, and this might be why:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
And the star spangled banner in triumph, doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Those words were written during the War of 1812. At the time, the British were offering freedom to any enslaved people who would join them and fight against the United States. So this verse was very clearly a warning that the United States, as a matter of law enforcement, would hunt down any enslaved person who tried to escape. But there’s something more going on here. Controlling Black bodies has been part of the American project from the very beginning, not just in wartime, but all the time. Here in “the land of the free,” the very first police forces were slave patrols, rooted in “slave catching and union busting,” as they put it in the episode. The police, from their founding, have always been the enforcers of American white supremacy. We can see that right in the national anthem.
Item number 4
When Black People Prosper, White People Riot
Episode 4: In America, it’s all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, making your own way—and making money. Unless you’re Black. Do all that while Black, and white people will resent you. Maybe even kill you. Ever hear of the 1919 Elaine, Arkansas, massacre? Black sharecroppers organizing for better pay were killed by a white mob—and, true story, while the perpetrators went unpunished, the victims were put on trial. That wasn’t the first or last time white violence erupted in this country—the Tulsa, OK, race massacre, where white mobs burned down a prosperous Black district known as “Black Wall Street” and killed 300 people, happened only two years later. Barriers to Black wealth-building remain in place to this very day.
Item number 5
Our Racist Healthcare System Fails Black People Starting at Birth
• Black women in America are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.
• In New York, they’re eight times more likely.
What is causing this huge and letal racial disparity? A study recently done in Florida provides some insight: Black newborns are more likely to survive birth if they’re cared for by Black doctors. As of 2018, only 5% of all active physicians identify as Black. Sounds to us like the lack of Black doctors is putting Black people at risk.
Item number 6
Mass Incarceration: The Continuation of Slavery by Another Name
Episode 6: We all know that slavery ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment, right? Wrong. The 13th abolished slavery... “except as a punishment for crime.” That led to the passage of a slew of racist laws throughout the South, known as “Black codes,” that locked up Black people and allowed for the continuation of slavery by another name. To this very day America’s criminal justice system incarcerates Black people at alarmingly disproportionate rates, ensuring that they and their families and communities cannot build wealth, and denying them full citizenship when they return from prison. Is that evidence of a broken system? No, it’s working as intended. It’s written right into the Constitution.
It’s worth thinking about all of this, and talking about it open and honestly. In fact, we highly recommend listening to “Who We Are” in its entirety. It’ll change how you think about our country, which is what has to happen if we want to make progress. And making progress starts at the dinner table, it starts with these conversations we have with family. It’s not easy, but the more we learn about who we are as a nation, the more it becomes clear that every one of us must do the work to dismantle racism and white supremacy. It’s not enough to just be against racism—we must become anti-racist. That’s the only way we’ll secure equality and justice for all. And that would be something to truly give thanks for.