Never underestimate people’s ability to rationalize. To paraphrase Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” our minds find ways to make sense of the nonsensical, not merely as stories but in order to move forward. It’s human nature, or as close to an understanding thereof that I can muster. Our capacity to rationalize is how we get up in the morning. It’s how the adulterer looks himself in the mirror, how the victim moves on from his trauma, how we as a country — how “we the people” — reconcile within ourselves a past we aren’t necessarily ready or willing to reconcile with publicly.
Jeffery Robinson has spent the past decade attempting to deprogram his fellow Americans. A civil rights advocate and deputy legal director for the ACLU, he has traveled the country giving an earnest, essential lecture about the United States’ complicated history of white supremacy — a history that many reject outright, or else have long ago spun in a more flattering light. Remedial in its intentions, surprisingly nonconfrontational for such a subject, Robinson’s presentation serves as the backbone of co-directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” an engaging and essential essay film that makes its points clearly, backed by evidence, for those open-minded enough to consider their education incomplete.
The bulk of “Who We Are” was recorded on Juneteenth 2018 before a pre-pandemic packed house at New York’s Town Hall Theater. But there’s far more to it than just Robinson standing on a stage, delivering a TED Talk on America’s original sin and how to reckon with it going forward. (Mind you, that format can sometimes be plenty effective, à la Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”) “Who We Are” accompanies Robinson to Charleston, S.C., where he engages with demonstrators fighting to protect a Confederate monument. Robinson rides the bus across town to the Old Slave Mart Museum, where he observes fingerprints in the bricks, hidden — like so much of Black history — in plain sight, a lasting trace of the enslaved people who built so much of the city.
The film also follows Robinson to his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where he visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Robinson shares a memory of having attended a public demonstration to support striking sanitation workers in the city one week earlier, a demonstration where Black 16-year-old Larry Payne was fatally shot by police. “It’s just one of those events in my childhood that made me realize how lucky I was,” says the Harvard-educated lawyer, reminding listeners of the many ways that Black Americans are shown their place. Every time such a murder goes unpunished, it sends a message.
That message, Robinson argues, suggests that we are a society that values Black lives less than white lives, today as at the time of the country’s inception — a society that bristles at virtually any attempt to expose or rectify that discrepancy. Robinson rightly considers the issue too important to ignore, doing the work to fill in the gaps deliberately omitted from our schools — like the many photographs of publicly sanctioned lynchings. He points out the language written into our laws that demonstrates, time and again, that our Founding Fathers had a very limited understanding of the words “all men are created equal.” Every American knows that phrase, and every American has been asked to accept that it was never meant to apply to all men, much less a single one of their sisters, mothers or wives. If swallowing that is not a way of rationalizing our problematic past, what is?
In his capacity as re-educator, Robinson interviews Mother Lessie Benningfield Randle, who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. For nearly a century, that tragedy — in which white forces attacked the thriving Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., burning it to the ground — failed to receive the attention it deserved. It’s hard to ignore the cost as the camera tracks along the “steps of no return”: abandoned cement staircases leading to empty lots where affluent Black homes once stood. In the same city, he speaks with Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was killed by police in 2016, reminding that the problem is far from solved.
Throughout his presentation, Robinson refers to the “tipping point” — all those times in American history when the country gathered momentum for racial justice, only to roll back again. For this idea, he supplies a visual aid: a heavy boulder atop a hill, poised on the brink of irreversible progress. Are we so close? Is it so simple? Probably not, but it’s not impossible either.
Robinson doesn’t spend a lot of time telling audiences what they must do. He’s too busy convincing them that there’s a problem. This would seem self-evident, but there can’t be enough reminders, not while segregation, discrimination and certain forms of slavery (such as mass incarceration) continue to exist. We can go on trying to rationalize it away, or we can engage, which is really all that Robinson is asking. In the end, there’s “Who We Are” and who we can still hope to be.