Re-Imagination Nation, We Imagine US

Episode 5: David Williams and John A. Powell

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Published on: April 5, 2023

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In this episode, we look for examples of repairing from racial harm as members of SCoRE (Solidarity Council on Racial Equity) describe action plans communities have used to tackle inequality. Public health scholar David Williams has measured how racism makes people physically sick and explains how access to opportunity leads to thriving communities. Plus, law professor John a. Powell says that when it comes to belonging, our choices will determine the society that we all must share.

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Maria Hinojosa: [00:00:05] Welcome to Re – Imagination Nation. I’m Maria Hinojosa. For many years, sociology professor David Williams has been working on ways to actually measure racism’s impact on our physical health. So we’re going to hear about what he’s learned and how that has shaped his vision for creating a better world in the future. And Berkeley law professor John Powell is the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute, and he has a lot to say about racial healing and belonging. Sociologist David Williams has been traveling the world researching and talking about race and how race influences people’s health. He currently chairs the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. He sat down with me to talk about how racism, inequality and stress can actually make us sick and what we as a society should do to begin healing. Is there a moment or a person that kind of inspired you to allow yourself to dream these biggest dreams? 

David Williams: [00:01:31] That’s a really good question, I think, along the way. I have been inspired by so many. I want to talk about one of them. He died last year. He was a mentor to me when I was already a tenured professor. And his name is Professor James S. Jackson. He was a psychologist at the University of Michigan. He started a program for research on black Americans back in the late 1970s and led that that has provided training to so many minority scholars in the United States. And I was still relatively early in my career as a faculty member. More work needed to be done by researchers like myself on measuring and quantifying the effects of racism and health. And I remember speaking at a conference in Washington, DC in the early 1990s where there was the panel at the end with the Latinx person, an African-American person, an Asian person, the Native American person. And each of us was to comment on what we saw as the priorities for the future. And I said one of the key priorities is we need to document empirically the negative effects of racism and health. And I remember one man in the audience stood up and said that racism was important. But what I was asking to do was impossible because we could never measure racism. And I remember saying to him, why do you say we can never measure racism? He said to me today, do we have good measures? I would say no. But I said, we haven’t put our minds to it. I said we measure self-esteem if we can measure self-esteem. Why do you think we can’t measure racism? And I went back to the University of Michigan and where I was a faculty at the time, and I started reading qualitative descriptions of experiences of racism by Philomena Essed by Joe Feagin and others. And I developed this desire that, yes, I was going to go and work on developing these skills to capture at least the experience of interpersonal discrimination. And I shared my dream with James Jackson, and he was a senior figure. He was the leading African-American scholar on the campus of the University of Michigan. And when I shared it with him, he responded with such enthusiastic support, he says, yes, let’s do it, let’s do it. And he started to think of, yes, we can use this mechanism and we can get extra funding. We can make this a lot to study. And he was like my the wind beneath my wings for the work that I did on the development of these measures of discrimination. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:04:23] So even though, David, you talk about being an example of the American dream, your work kind of focuses on the critique of American society also. I’m wondering if you can put those two things together. 

David Williams: [00:04:37] Sure. America is a land of opportunity. It is not now a land of opportunity for all. But there is the potential there. And for me, I want to see that potential realize. Yes, my work has looked at the barriers that exist, looking at the barriers of racism, looking at residential segregation that determines where people can live based on their race. And the evidence is so overwhelming that the absence of opportunity at the level of the neighborhood is a driver of the income differences and the educational differences and outcomes that we see in our society. And so, yes, we can create what I was calling these communities of opportunity where people have access to opportunity. In addition to that, there is the interpersonal discrimination. It’s not just that there are these structural, systemic forces that are holding people back and blocking opportunity for young individuals of color. But you are treated differently in my everyday discrimination scale captures items like you treated with less courtesy and respect than others. You receive poorer service than others at restaurants or stores. People act as if they are afraid of you. People act as if you are dishonest. And even though I developed the measure, I have been surprised by how powerfully the measure predicts poor health people who score high on the scale of everyday discrimination not only have worse mental health, they have worse physical health. When we look at the level of inflammation in their blood and if you have high levels of inflammation, you are at risk for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension. You have high rates of high blood pressure. You have poorer quality sleep, quality and quantity. You have a number of biomarkers of preclinical indicators of poor health you’re doing worse on. So, yes, the data is saying that racism is literally killing our populations prematurely. That is a sense in which America is not living up to its potential. And so when I still see the potential in America is the opportunities are there, how can we remove the barriers? How can we dismantle those structures of racism that are holding our children back so that they can experience what is potentially available to them, through this country. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:07:23] In this future world, this re-imagined world, how does solidarity, forgiveness, healing. What does it look like? 

David Williams: [00:07:31] I think we need to create the conditions that foster the solidarity, the reconciliation, the healing, the population space. We talked a minute ago about the pain and burden that discrimination places on populations of color. And it’s not just the actual exposure of discrimination, but it’s the threat of discrimination. The fact that when I step out of my home, I realize that I am a black male. And because of that, they are ways in which society will see me and categorize. So I begin to act in certain ways to minimize the likelihood of these things happening. So that is a strain and stress and a heightened sense of I call it hightended vigilance, a heightened sense of awareness that we have to engage in to protect ourselves because our environment, we are an endangered species within our environment. So there is a sense in which both physically, mentally, psychologically, we need to experience some healing we need to experience some reconciliation so that we are whole and we are not defined simply by the negative exposures and stressors that we have had to bear. I see the racial healing and transformation and reconciliation as central to what is necessary to restore for all of us, our full humanity. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:09:10] David Williams is a sociologist and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And like me. He’s a member of SCoRE the Solidarity Council on Racial Equity. All right, we’re going to go deeper now into the importance of racial healing with law and African-American studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, John Powell. So what would be something that you would do that you can imagine changing in terms of racial justice, 

John Powell: [00:10:07] In a sense, when we talk about the racial stratification in our country and in our country, our country has been building around that. This was founded in a sense, there’s a reason that there are probably three clauses in the Constitution that protect slavery. And the word slavery is not mentioned. The drafters of the Constitution was embarrassed. So it’s not anachronistic to say, well, yeah, we believe in equality. They believe in slavery. No, they believe in equality, too, and they believed in slavery. And so part of it is realizing how deeply this affect our institution, our norms, our practices, and then start trying to imagine something different, which is what you’re doing, where everyone’s included, everyone is included. So I think it’s counterproductive to see this only in terms of whites versus blacks or one group or another it’s true that there’s a stratification in our country, but it’s more complicated than what we normally talk about. For example, if you think about the white black wealth gap it’s huge by some accounts, 10-1 when you look at the bottom 50 percentile of whites and blacks, that gap is substantially smaller, which means not only do poor blacks not have enough wealth, but neither to poor whites. Well, that’s a possibility for common cause. So I think we have to create space where people actually come together, institutions that hold them with goals that are really clear. And it has to be something that we do affirmatively it’s not simply removing barriers. It’s not simply stopping discrimination. It’s affirmatively organizing our culture, our rules, our norms, our laws to promote the kind of world we want to live in. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:11:55] So what do you see as one of the problems, like one of the essential problems rooted in racial inequity? 

John Powell: [00:12:03] Well, first off all, race and racism, as a concept in modern terms is really only a few hundred years old. It’s actually taken on a pernicious modern definition since World War Two. So since we talk about race being socially constructed, which it is, we’re constantly reconstructing it. It’s not one thing. It’s many things. When you think about the events of January six, you have people literally claiming to be Americans storming the Capitol, with a Confederate flag. They were traitors. So has does the traitor make you American? It makes you just the opposite. Black lives matter. Both are patriots. They are fighting for the ideal that America has been fighting for since its inception. The idea that all lives in fact matter, but all lives matter can’t until black lives matter and that all people deserve equal dignity. I think it’s really important for us to hold on to that sometime when we engage in these struggles that we lose that. And so we think just our group is the ones that we’re most concerned about, whether it’s blacks, or Latinos or Native Americans or gay. There are all these structures and things in place that are our background. But also when we step into it often times, we do it in a way that continue to animate some of the very divisions we’re trying to resolve. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:13:37] I’m wondering, John, do you have a personal story from your own life or someone who you beyond your father who kind of encapsulates for you, like the possibility, the liberation dreamer, the Harriet Tubman in us, that makes us think and imagine the impossible? 

John Powell: [00:13:56] My family is from the South, my grandfather, used to always say, I’m glad to be from Mississippi I was a sixth of nine children. We piled in a car and I don’t even know how we did it, but we literally piled in one car and drove down. We got down south and apparently there had been a lynching. And I was I think 10 or 11 and I was really upset. And my grandfather, I remember him saying better leave those white people alone, they don’t play. And it just struck me how sad that was. He was in his 80s and he had lived his whole life and complete terror of white people and for safety reasons. He was trying to pass that on to me and I wasn’t particularly afraid. But I was sad that he lived his life that way. And I was determined not to live my life that way. We talk a lot about bridging, connecting people who are apparently different and not everyone’s going to do that. Some people are too hurt. Some people are too scared. Some people are just ideologically opposed to it. So don’t try to convince people. But I do say for us to one, really exercise and hold on to our humanity requires that we hold onto everyone’s humanity. It’s not an option. And two we talk a lot about building power, especially in organizing community and activist community. We can’t build enough power by ourselves. People can approach me about helping to bridge with Black and Latinos. And I said, look, you’ve got to really do the work. We can do it, but it takes time. Bridging does not mean that you get all the black folks to actually get on board for supporting comprehensive immigration. Bridging doesn’t mean that you get all White folks for Latinos to support police reform, bridging actually means you come together and you sort of each other, you see each other, you listen to each other, you sort of understand each other’s pain. And out of that, something can happen. And when something happens, you realize your lives are interconnected. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:15:55] John Powell is a professor of law, African-American and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and he’s also a member of SCoRE, the Solidarity Council on Racial Equity. Re-Imagination Nation was produced by Futuro Unidad Hinojosa and PRX part of the We Imagine US project executive producers are Diane Sylvester and me. Our senior supervising producer is Gregory Branch. Our podcast producer is Andres Caballero, Project editor Khaliff Watkins, our engineer is Leah Shaw, production manager William Oak’s IV production coordinator, Jessica Ellis, assistant project manager Raul Perez, post-production supervising producer is Tanya Bustos. New media manager is Alexander Garcia. Our music was composed by Michael Ramos. Re – Imagination nation, is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first. I’m Maria Hinojosa. Join us for the next episode of Re-Imagination Nation. You can find us online at We Imagine, PRX or wherever you get your podcasts on. And well, don’t forget to check out our companion fiction series. Yeah, a dramatic series. It’s called The Long Way Around. Next time on Re – Imagination nation, yes, John Legend and Michelle Alexander both imagining a world free of police abuse and incarceration.

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