Racial Justice Beyond Trump: Confronting an American Legacy
Too many injustices in U.S. history have remained unaddressed and unhealed. During the four years under the Trump administration, this tension has blatantly emerged in the forms of white supremacy, political polarization, and a monumental economic divide. But this moment in time has not been without mass resistance. Historically marginalized people — especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color — are leading the movement toward a democracy that works for everyone.
To exceptionalize the violence endured by black and brown people as unique to the Trump administration is to erase the historical and economic development of America as a nation. The struggle for racial justice has predated this moment in history and will continue beyond Trump. His loss in the 2020 election does not confront the systems that led more than 70 million Americans to vote for him. Understanding this is essential to critically disentangle the monolithic mythos that leads many to absolve us from facing our legacy as a nation.
The following conversation is an edited and condensed version of the Bioneers 2020 panel, “Racial Justice Beyond Trump.” Hosted by Bakari Kitwana, Executive Director of Rap Sessions and internationally known cultural critic, journalist, activist and thought leader; with: LaTosha Brown, Mutale Nkonde, and Greisa Martínez Rosas.
BAKARI KITWANA: Our topic is Racial Justice Beyond Trump, and we’ve brought together three amazing women leaders at the frontlines of some of the major struggles of our time: Greisa Martinez of United We Dream, LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, and Mutale Nkonde, of AI for the People. Let’s start with Greisa, who has some recent groundbreaking news.
GREISA MARTINEZ ROSAS: My name is Greisa Martinez Rosas. I’m undocumented and unafraid, queer and unashamed, and I have the honor of leading United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigrant youth-led network in the country that fights for justice for undocumented people in the U.S. And just last night a district court judge in New York ruled in favor of DACA (Deferred Action with Childhood Arrivals), the program that protects me and close to one million other undocumented young people from deportation. It gives me the ability to work in this country that I have called my home, and allows me to be with all of you today.
This is a celebration for us all because for the last four years we have withstood attacks from the Trump administration. He vowed to kill the DACA program on day one, and it is because of a black-led cross movement space that we’re in that we have been able to defend the program, and I’m honored to be on this panel with this group of tremendous black women leaders, but I know deep in my bones that immigration justice and the defense of DACA is just the floor. Immigrant justice and the fact that there are 11 million undocumented people in this country and many more refugees coming to our shores is a racial justice issue, and until we’re able to see that all our movements are interconnected, we will not be able to solve the issue, so I’m excited about the work that we’re doing together.
BAKARI: Greisa, where should folks who want to support your work and your movement be focusing our attention?
GREISA: Only when we fully understand the connections between racial justice, economic justice, and migrant justice will we be able to solve our problems, but in this moment we are celebrating how the movement really delivered and protected and defended our democracy this November when black women, Latinos, and young people showed up to vote in record-breaking numbers and ousted Donald Trump from the White House. The Biden administration owes it to us now to ensure that undocumented young people are protected permanently from deportation and that we abolish ICE and TVP, the agency responsible for the deaths of children in detention camps and the forced sterilization of women, and, on a personal note, for having deported my father 10 years ago, so that I have not been able to see him since. People have to be free to move, to work where they want to, and to breathe.
BAKARI: Greisa, you have mentioned that one reason for the resistance to change is that there are people who profit from the status quo. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GREISA: I come to this work as a daughter of Luis and Elia Martinez. They were undocumented migrants who came here looking for an opportunity, a chance. And I remember how hard it was for my dad to be able to hold a steady job because he didn’t have papers. I remember the mistreatment that my mother had when she was cleaning houses because people thought that she didn’t have any recourse or didn’t have the ability to speak up or demand her wages when they were stolen because she was undocumented. And that’s completely typical. People can exploit immigrants’ labor because they aren’t in a position to demand justice.
But I bring you good tidings from the young people of the United We Dream and the immigrant youth-led movement: we have joined forces with the Sunrise movement, with the movement for black lives, with many other folks that are ensuring that we are talking about a broader future that makes place for all of us, that ensures workers are able to live and work with dignity and be paid fair wages, where we are all able to breathe clean air and drink clean water and walk down the street without fear.
During this pandemic it has become obvious that the undocumented folks stocking our grocery stores, doing home healthcare and domestic work and farm and agricultural work, are essential workers, but they are also underpaid, disposable, and unprotected. In the emergency Covid relief acts passed by Congress, undocumented people were explicitly excluded from additional economic support or healthcare access. I believe that we can birth a new country, but we have to be really honest about where we are.
BAKARI: Thanks, Greisa. Let’s turn our attention now to LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter. LaTosha works nationally, but is based out of Atlanta and has been intensely involved in both the national election campaign and now on the Georgia senatorial races. LaTosha, tell us what’s happening on the ground.
LATOSHA BROWN: Well, this has really been a never-ending campaign; it seems like four years straight with no stop. But to frame what’s happening in Georgia I need to back up and explain some history. The whole foundation of the run-off system in the state of Georgia is rooted in structural racism. It was specifically designed to give the white ruling class an advantage in elections, because almost always there’s a severe drop-off of participation after a national election. Only well-funded establishment candidates have in the past had any resources left to continue a campaign into a runoff election.
But this year, it’s different: as we speak, over a million applications for absentee ballots have already gone into the secretary of state’s office. I need people to understand that this is truly extraordinary. One thing that’s changed is that that we’ve started looking at black voters not just in terms of participation but in a context of power. We have to recognize that structural racism has been equally distributed across this country and not just in the Republican Party. The Democratic party has been interested in getting black votes, but when you start looking at policy priorities and appointments to positions of power, our communities don’t get their fair share.
But this time in Georgia I want to let folks know that we are ready. We are working. We were back on the ground immediately after the national election. There are many organizations. What you saw happen in Georgia in November was not a fluke, and it wasn’t just about Trump, though Trump certainly added fuel to the fire. It’s the result of deep organizing we’ve done for the last decade. It was a multi-cultural response, which made the difference, but it’s a black-led pro-democracy movement, led by black women in particular that has been working the last 10 years to lay the foundation and shift the paradigm so that elections are not just about candidates but about people really building power. That’s the work Black Voters Matter is doing, and that’s the work that many of us have been doing in the state.
This whole notion that the South is red is no longer reflective of who lives in the South, at the changing demographics. Several of the fastest-growing cities in America, Atlanta being one of them, are more and more diverse, but we have to be innovative and proactive.
BAKARI: LaTosha, you’ve been fighting for voting rights for years, and you were very close with the late John Lewis. Can you talk about how the Trump presidency has deepened the crisis of, and fight for, voting rights and where we need to go from here?
LATOSHA: Let’s be honest. Voter suppression didn’t start with Trump, and it’s not going to end when Trump leaves. I have been working to end voter suppression for over 20 years. In 1998/’99 I was a young candidate running for statewide office in Alabama, and I was victimized by voter suppression. The day after the election was certified, the sheriff “found” 800 ballots from a county that I had carried overwhelmingly. They were never counted. Nobody ever did anything about it. I just lost the race. The sting of that really helped sharpen my commitment to work on voter suppression.
The key issue is structural racism. We look at anti-black racism as only impacting black people, but its harms go far beyond affecting us. What’s really ironic is that the very place that was ground zero for voter suppression just two years ago, Georgia, is now the very place that the trajectory of where democracy will go in the next four years that impacts all of us will be made; in the state where there were 200,000 voters intentionally dropped from the rolls on spurious grounds. We filed a lawsuit about that this past Wednesday. We’ve been working hard to get them re-registered, but it’s another added barrier. Dr. King used to say that when there’s a threat to justice anywhere, there’s a threat to justice everywhere. People say it but too often they act like they don’t really believe it.
White America has not appreciated fully that racism has undermined democracy in this country in a way that hurts us all. It’s a leading reason why, for example, the wealthiest country in the world has a weakened healthcare system that could be far, far stronger than it is. That impacts all of us, and all of us are impacted when we don’t have a solid criminal justice system, when the Department of Justice can basically become the president’s personal law firm. Whenever there is a threat to justice or a threat to democracy for some of us, it makes all of us vulnerable, so I’m hoping that in this moment especially as COVID-19 has revealed so harshly the inequities in our society, we realize how deeply we’re all interconnected as human beings; that if you want to advance democracy in this country, you can’t do it if you don’t deal with ground zero where it unravels first—structural racism.
BAKARI: LaTosha, you had a vision that you’ve been writing about called a U.S. Department of Democracy so we don’t have to keep fighting these same fights over and over again every election year. Can you explain that?
LATOSHA: Part of the reason why I think voter suppression continues to happen is because no one is ever held accountable, especially when the Department of Justice is not functioning (as we have experienced these last four years) and when the Supreme Court becomes politicized. What I want is there to be the creation of a Department of Democracy that would protect everyone’s right to vote in the same way the Department of Homeland Security was created after 9/11. I’m raising this because I have a fear that unless we have a department to focus on the defense of democracy in this country, I think we’re going to continue to see the unraveling or our democracy. I don’t think that Trump is the last of it. I think you will see it become more sophisticated and pervasive. It will continue. We have to strengthen this democracy so that it’s not just aspirational but becomes achievable.
BAKARI: Mutale Nkonde, we want to get you involved in the conversation. Please tell us what’s happening with your work around the intersection of technology, racial justice, disinformation, and our technological future.
MUTALE NKONDE: Basically, what we’ve been doing at AI for the People is looking at the intersection of technology and racial justice. In this last election-year we looked at the fact that black people are often the most targeted and impacted by dis- and misinformation but that there are very few black thought leaders, black technologists and black analysts ready to respond to the toxic lies that affect us so negatively. So, in this last election cycle we followed domestic campaigns that were specifically targeting black voters. A best practice in this field is to not repeat the name of these pernicious efforts because we don’t want to amplify them, but, in this case, I want to illustrate what we’re fighting. We found a hashtag called #votedownballot that was telling black voters that they should not vote at the presidential level unless the parties met certain demands, and this was getting a lot of exposure on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube: they were really gaining a lot of steam.
So we looked at a dataset of about 3.5 million tweets where we identified this hashtag, and we decided we had to offer a counter-narrative. Feeding off the energy of Black Voters Matter but most specifically in an ongoing conversation with the New Georgia Project led by my dear friend Nsé Ufot, (and this was before knowing that Georgia was about to become the center of the U.S. political world very soon after), we started to think about what communications tools we could use to challenge “votedownballot.” We were able to create an alternative, domestic campaign called “Vote Down COVID” that we released the week before the election, and, to make a long story short, we were ultimately successful, getting millions of impressions and a lot of retweets from celebrities.
We showed that when you have black people leading technology campaigns aimed at black voters, they know how to communicate far more effectively with their own communities. Our message was far more sophisticated than just “Vote for Joe and Kamala.” We acknowledged that this may not be the ticket that you dreamed of, but we encouraged people to move from just supporting candidates to understanding that voting is a part of a larger effort to build power, and we feel we now have a working model that we can now roll out with other black movement leaders and campaigns.
We also want to do some of deep digital ethnographic work to figure out what messages were sent to black men, because black male support for Trump grew by 6 percent, and we don’t understand that yet, but if we can start to understand it, then we can build models and tools to counteract those messages. We’re actually sharing ideas with the transition team that we’ve been blessed to be able to be in touch with.
Prior to this project, I had done AI policy work in which I had looked at algorithm accountability in the criminal justice and social service systems, looking at such issues as how biometric algorithms used by police wind up criminalizing black bodies. One thing we’re doing is teaming up with Amnesty International (and Bakari’s actually a partner on that project) to look at how we can divest from these systems of technological oppression and racism as well as advocating for the protection of black folks both in the flesh and online. A very important area is the exposure of and challenge to algorithms used to purge voter rolls that are intentionally designed to exclude black voters. Our ultimate goal is to create what we call a just technological future for all, in solidarity with our Latinx, Native and trans brothers and sisters, but this helps progressive white people to. The online suppression efforts spearheaded by groups such as Cambridge Analytica, which brought us Trump, hurt all of us. I’m coming from a racial justice activist place, but my work is to let us all know when our digital systems are being sabotaged or manipulated, and then figuring out how to counteract those efforts.
BAKARI: Mutale, can you talk more about how your work intersects with policing and holding officers accountable and what folks and the Bioneers community can do to help you and your team in your work?
MUTALE: Yes, we’ve been studying how the NYPD, ICE and the FBI use biometric technology, and we’re finding that facial recognition software systems consistently misidentify black and brown folks 40% of the time. And these flawed systems were the primary way that protestors were identified and targeted after the George Floyd uprisings in NYC and across the country. It’s also one of the primary tools used in identifying targets for deportations. We’re producing a movie about this issue and engaging in mass political education as well as working with some big partnering organizations (including Amnesty International) and the Public Advocate’s office here in New York City. We have to stop governments from spending billions on these racist surveillance and tracking technologies, and that has to be part of a larger effort to redefine security and public safety in a way that doesn’t oppress people of color.
In terms of what people can do, join our campaign. It’s called “Ban the Scan,” and we are launching it through Amnesty International around mid-January. You can go online to get information. Also, come out and support our film and come to our political education summits. Yes, we’re coming at this from a racial and economic justice angle, but algorithmic scanning is an issue that will affect all of us, and we’re working internationally as well. We have research projects in the West Bank, New Delhi, Mongolia, etc. And we engage a lot with storytelling through art, with film, video, photography exhibits, dance, etc. Especially when you’re dealing with black and brown people, change has to come through culture and through joy.
BAKARI: An audience question is asking if we could talk more about the intersectionality of racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice.
GREISA: As Audrey Lorde taught us, we do not live single-issued lives. I don’t get to decide at what point I am queer, at what point I am undocumented, at what point I am a woman. I am all of those things all at the same time. When we think about environmental, racial, economic and migrant justice, one key to achieving breakthroughs is ensuring that those people most directly impacted are leading in those spaces. Another crucial thing is to invest in young people’s leadership. They are the ones who can create conditions in which the impossible becomes possible. We worked together, the Sunrise movement, March for Our Lives, Dream Defenders and many other young people to put forth a policy vision that brings together racial justice, migrant justice, and environmental justice.
I think that we are birthing a new movement, and we stood up to Trump, but just because we got rid of Trump in this election does not make the 70+ million US citizens who voted for him go away, so we will have to continue to work hard to birth a new America, and that will require a broad intersectional movement that understands we’re all in this together, and it will require that black and brown organizations working at the frontlines start to receive much more funding than they’ve historically gotten. One reason we did so well in Georgia is because that began to happen a little more than in the past. But it’s also important when we do cross-racial, cross-movement work together to understand that although our destinies and our futures are intertwined, our lives and the issues that we face are different. When we respect that and try to understand each other in that way, that’s when we can thrive. Finally, unless the work is grounded in mutual joy, in the ability to have a vision beyond the mess around us to a new tomorrow for the generations of people to come, it won’t succeed, but the great women on this panel and so many of the folks who have come together these past few years give me the hope that we will succeed.
Bakari Kitwana, an internationally known cultural critic, journalist, activist, and thought leader in the area of hip-hop and Black youth political engagement, is Executive Director of Rap Sessions, which conducts town hall meetings around the nation on difficult dialogues facing millennials. A Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, Kitwana co-founded the 2004 National Hip-Hop Political Convention and is co-editor of the new book Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government For the People.
LaTosha Brown, an Atlanta-based award-winning organizer, philanthropic consultant, political strategist (and jazz singer) with 20+ years’ experience in the non-profit and philanthropy sectors, co-founded Black Voters Matter Fund, a power-building Southern based civic engagement organization; is principal owner of TruthSpeaks Consulting, Inc., a philanthropy advisory consulting firm; and is the founding Project Director of Grantmakers for Southern Progress.
Mutale Nkonde is an AI Policy advisor to the UN, member of the Tik Tok Advisory Board and CEO of AI for the People, a non-profit communications firm that seeks to change tech neutrality narratives. Previously Nkonde worked in AI Governance and was part of the team that introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act, the DEEP FAKES Accountability Act, and the No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act to the US House of Representatives. Nkonde holds fellowships at the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford and the Institute of Advanced Study at Notre Dame and is an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.
Greisa Martinez Rosas is the Executive Director at United We Dream, a national nonpartisan, membership-based organization of immigrant youth and allies that advocates for the dignity and fair treatment of undocumented immigrant youth and their families. The co-founder of the Texas Dream Alliance, she has been a Fellow with the League of Young Voters, a 2018 Fellow with the Opportunity Agenda Communications Institutes, and has organized immigrant youth, students and workers for the passage of pro-immigrant policies at the local, state and national level for the past decade.