This week I had the conversation that most African-American parents at some point or another have to have with their child. No, not the birds and the bees; the talk regarding race in America, his place in it, and how to interact with police officers. It’s a talk I was given as a preteen and now, over 20 years later, I’m forced to have it with my 12-year-old son. It is indescribable the emotions that an African-American parent goes through during this talk. While it is a necessity for survival, it breaks your heart when you see the evaporation of innocence from your child’s countenance as they attempt to rationalize the irrational concept of racism.
How long will discussions like this be a tradition? This is an onerous time in our history. It just so happens that this week in history the Dred Scott decision (March 5, 1857) was issued. In that case, Chief Justice Taney stated that blacks “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States … and had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Almost 60 years later, the movie “The Birth of a Nation” opened (March 3, 1915) in New York. The film, which was originally entitled “The Clansman,” opened to rave reviews as it demonized African-Americans and launched a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. This film, despite the fact that it incited violence against African-Americans, was proudly shown at a private White House screening by President Woodrow Wilson wherein he allegedly proclaimed: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
To this day, this film is still honored by the Library of Congress, which states that regardless of its “portrayal of African Americans as sex-crazed animals” the director’s “great artistry [cannot] be denied.” Conversely, this same acclaim was not bestowed onto the film “Jud Sub,” which was an anti-Semitic blockbuster movie in the 1940s. In fact, the director of that film as well as the leading actors were put on trial after World War II as part of a denazification effort (an attempt to rid Germany and Austria society of remnants of Nazism), and the director received a light sentence.
Over 100 years after the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” we as a society are still dealing with the irrational fears created by propagandists in our politics, films, news, and other media platforms. President Trump’s and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ agenda to support for-profit prisons and renewed “war on drugs,” coupled with their stated policy to have the Justice Department withdraw their investigations into police departments’ violations of civil rights, produces an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. This was on display during my address at the Joint Collegiate Black Student Summit held at the University of Rochester on March 3.
These future leaders expressed genuine concern with respect to their safety, outlook, and place in America under President Trump’s administration. As Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “The 13th,” and Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” explain, since the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s, very rarely is a law racist on its face. However, the discretionary way in which it is implemented and policed allows the civil and human rights of members of the historically discriminated to be victimized, often times without recourse.
How do we continue the work of moving forward? As a good friend once told old me, we must engage and stay engaged. Currently, in New York, there is a proposal to raise the age for a juvenile to be tried as an adult from 16 to 18. It has passed the Assembly and is sitting in a Senate Committee. While it lingers, approximately 28,000 16- and 17-year-olds per year are still being treated as adults, some faced with the potential ramification of being the next Kalief Browder.
Our representatives need to hear that we are in favor of our youth being treated as juveniles rather than adults. In addition, in order to end conversations like the one I had with my son, it’s time to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation about race in America. In that vein, we invite you to come out on March 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the Monroe County Bar Association to join the Greater Rochester Association of Women Attorneys, the Rochester Black Bar Association, and the Monroe County Bar Association for an evening of film and a facilitated discussion regarding the documentary, “I’m Not Racist … Am I?”
Duwaine T. Bascoe, Esq., is president of the Rochester Black Bar Association and an associate in the Litigation Department at Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP.