Above, author and professor Jeff Chang discusses racial equity in the United States with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart.
Reading the news from across the United States over the last few years has made it abundantly clear that racial tensions in the US are reaching new highs. With many cities gripped by protests as people react to issues of police brutality and violence in their communities, people in Washington, D.C. and cities across the country are trying to figure out how to make a change.
Jeff Chang, who recently published “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” provides an in-depth look at the intersection of arts, culture, race, and politics — from the protests in Ferguson to the Black Lives Matter movement messages embedded in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” visual album — and how the country can continue to move forward.
Ferguson and Beyond — a Cycle of Crisis
We are currently at the breaking point of a “cycle of crisis” in race relations in the United States, said Chang. The peak of the Civil Rights movement, in 1965, was the last time that the nation agreed as a whole that attention should be paid to racial equity. Legislation was pushed through Congress, and infrastructure to move toward equality was created. However, after passing these laws, Chang says, there was a backlash which culminated in a boiling point in 1992, with the Los Angeles riots that occurred surrounding the death of Rodney King.
“The riots crystallized this moment. We have to look back and say, we have crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency and back to crisis,” Chang said.
Since the LA riots, we have mostly been in a stage of complacency, Chang said. However, with the last few years marked by altercations between police and black communities, Chang says that all signs point to another stage of crisis – and a reaction is imminent.
“We’ve seen the dismantling and reversal of the infrastructure that we created to move us toward equity and justice. What’s really happening is resegregation.”
The Responsibilities of an “In-Between”
Though the issue of race is often discussed in black and white terms across the United States, Chang said the experience of other races needs to be amplified and discussed more in the public sphere. Personally, Chang frequently examines the racial tensions inherent in his own identity. Raised in Hawaii, he labeled himself as an “in-between” — an identity which is often difficult to navigate for Pacific Islanders and Asian-Americans like himself. When he first came to the mainland United States, Chang was forced to confront microagressions and racist incidents far more than in the community where he grew up — and to analyze what his role is in confronting racism.
“There are these little moments where you’re made brutally aware of your racial position in the social hierarchy,” Chang said.
He sees the role of Pacific Islanders and Asian-Americans in confronting racism as complex, and pointed toward an incident when an older Chinese woman came up to talk with him after a book reading, asking, “What is really wrong with wanting to protect our people?” — meaning to fight for the rights of Asian-Americans to the potential exclusion of other minority groups.
According to Chang, it is crucial to set aside this “us-against-them” mindset, which benefits no one.
“We can choose to sit on the fence — decide not to take a stand, while the battle rages all around. I think that’s why I write … I don’t want to see, seven generations from now, a situation in which color, class, and caste are much more divided.”
Black Lives Matter and Making Lemonade
As a harbinger of culture, art plays a huge role in pushing forward new ideas, and in the United States, one can see examples of cultural progress even by looking at top 40 hits.
“Cultural change always precedes political change,” Chang said. “You have to have the imagination for change before you can even think about policy.”
He cited Beyonce’s visual album, “Lemonade,” as paralleling the themes that are imbued in the Black Lives Matter movement — particularly transformational justice. The album, ostensibly about a woman whose husband has committed infidelity, encapsulated the cultural spirit and also lifted up voices in the black community that are often marginalized — particularly black women.
Much of the record, he said, is about working through anger and depression, but it reaches a note of grace and redemption at the end.
“It’s this notion of transformational justice,” he said. “Not only do we have to get justice for those who have been harmed, but also redemption for those who have done the harming.”
Jeff Chang, director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford, recently sat down with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart to discuss his new book “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” as part of the Washington Ideas Roundtables series with the Aspen Institute Arts Program.