Courtesy of Cornell University

As the latest event in the “Racism in America” series, Wednesday’s panelists discussed widespread and multinational activism.

February 26, 2021

Professors Survey History of Civil Disobedience and Protests in Latest ‘Racism in America’ Event

Print More

In a year filled with protests for racial justice, experts on the history of civil disobedience and protest movements joined up over Zoom to make sense of this historic moment.

As the latest event in the “Racism in America” series, Wednesday’s panelists discussed widespread and multinational activism — putting the most recent wave of protest movements and racial injustice in context. The panel — moderated by Kat Stafford, a national investigative reporter for The Associated Press — offered interdisciplinary perspectives from history to art. 

The panelists included Prof. Margaret Washington, history; Prof. Russell Rickford, history; Prof. Christine Balance, Asian American studies and performing and media arts; Prof. Ella Diaz, literatures in English and Latina/o studies; and Prof. Aziz Rana, law. 

Throughout the event, the professors moved from the founding of the country through 2020s Black Lives Matter protests to unearth the roots of white supremacy and efforts against it.  

“The Declaration of Independence’s wording has always provided a loophole and an opportunity to challenge the white supremacy of this nation’s core founding,” Washington said. “The Declaration became the caveat to a constitution protecting Black slavery and making white homogeneity the law of the land.”

Washington discussed the barriers to change, guiding listeners through the history of struggles for racial equity in the United States, from the country’s origins through the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and the impact of former President Donald Trump’s term. She was particularly concerned by the rise of white nationalism, once thought to rest on the fringes of society, to the forefront of politics in the United States.

“We saw it in action on Jan. 6. The nation has struggled with white supremacy since its inception,” Washington said. “But for the first time in our history, in my opinion, we had a white nationalist president.” 

According to Rana, the constitutional system has long stacked the decks against racial equity through mechanisms including gerrymandering and the electoral college that overrepresent white rural populations — and that had been given amplified voice during Trump’s presidency. 

Balance continued on the exploration of American identity and history, adding that the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans is not particularly new. She referenced Japanese internment camps during World War II and the United States’ highly destructive wars in southeast Asian countries like Laos and Cambodia. She also highlighted the precedents of past organizers, and emphasized the need for solidarity with other groups.

“For every one of these violent acts, there has been equal resistance and protests from we who call ourselves Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi Americans,” Balance said. “Since the late 1960s, Asian Americans have taken to the streets to fight for Black Power, Native American sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence, the farmworkers movement and so forth.”  

Diaz and Rickford debated the importance and limitations of symbolism as informing these protest movements and a national identity; Diaz explored the power of representation to “disrupt the commonplace,” citing the history of protest art throughout the 20th century.

“This art and the history it tells beyond the surface level of the symbols is important,” Diaz said. “It tells stories about who we are as a people coming together to share ideas and solve our shared problems.”

“I think that the key distinction here is the question of control,” Rickford responded. “Who is controlling the images and the imagery? And the representation for what purpose?”

Through the reflections, the professors moved toward a note of cautious optimism, naming changes they considered essential to creating a more equitable future while encouraging the audience to continue to learn more about inequity and to act on what they learn. 

“One of the most extraordinary things that I’ve seen in the last couple of years is the breadth and the diversity in the scope of people taking to the streets to protect one another and to stand in solidarity against state violence,” Balance said. “I think that the hope of the future is understanding our interdependency and the history of our interdependency.”

Clarification, March 1, 9:17 a.m.: The webinar discussed the history of protest art throughout the 20th century, not just in the 1930s and 40s. This post has since been updated.