Two extraordinary voices, Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative and a Children’s Defense Fund board member, recently conducted a public conversation called “This Defining Moment.” As Ifill said: “I think it goes without saying that this is one of the most difficult moments that we have faced in this country, certainly in the context of civil rights and racial justice. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that this is one of the most challenging periods of many generations and that what hangs in the balance is the very integrity of our democracy at this moment.” Both agreed the political implications of the moment are linked to a long overdue national reckoning with our nation’s roots in genocide, White supremacy, and false narratives of racial difference.
Ifill asked Stevenson how he is diagnosing this moment: “Some people say we’ve entered the nadir; some people say this is the last gasp of White supremacy. How are you describing it?” He answered: “I think we are finally recognizing that the issues we have in this country are deep, and complex, and that the kind of superficial solutions that people have been proposing for a really long time are going to be inadequate. I think our long history of racial inequality has created a kind of smog that has polluted the environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you live in California, or Mississippi, or Minnesota, New Hampshire—we’re all burdened by this toxic environment created by this long history of racial inequality. And Sherrilyn, you and I have heard for most of our lives that that stuff will just dissipate; if we just wait long enough, it will eventually go away. And I think what we now realize is that the kind of toxins we are dealing with are not going to disappear. We’re actually going to have to do some things to clean this environment, to clean this air.”
He continued: “We’re going to have to do really difficult things over the next couple of decades. This is a 400-year problem. It’s not just a moment. We can’t just pass one law, just elect one person. Twelve years ago, you and I were constantly being asked, ‘Aren’t we postracial now in America?’ It was frustrating to both of us because it seemed so disconnected from this long history. And I think the encouraging thing about this moment is that many more people are now reckoning that we have a cancer, and this cancer will not go away without a very invasive, important treatment. We’re going to have to go through the chemotherapy of truth telling. We’re going to have to go through the really difficult process of dealing with this long history and the multiple manifestations of it. And that means that our work is just beginning.”
Ifill agreed: “You describe this as a cancer that requires the chemotherapy of truth telling…I often talk about it as rot at the foundation, and how we have to put our hard hats on. That’s how I talk about civil rights work: that we’re democracy maintenance workers, and we put our hard hats on, and we have to dig out, and sometimes there’s real rot in the foundation. And when you find rot in the foundation, you have to dig it all out. You can’t just paper it over and spackle it. You have to get in there, and get it all out.”
So much of the rot in our national foundation was exposed over the last four years of Trumpism. Are we finally ready to do the difficult work required to fix it and lay a new foundation for the nation we say we want to become? Can we heal the preexisting unequal conditions exacerbated by the pandemic? Will we finally build the just, safe, strong, nurturing nation all of our children need and deserve?
Sherilynn Ifill warned: “I think that this moment where what we’re seeing is just an effort to create an infrastructure of minority rule, racial minority rule that would carry on in perpetuity, is really the alarm bell that we needed.” That alarm is sounding louder every passing day as the unsuccessful illegal efforts to overturn the election and lies being set in place to justify future voter suppression are supported and condoned by those who would benefit from the infrastructure of minority rule. The integrity of our democracy remains under vicious attack. We must all keep our hard hats on and rise together to meet this moment.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund