Special: America Faces Its History of Race Violence

May. 28, 2021 AT 9:14 p.m. EDT

Next week marks the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre that ravaged a community known as “Black Wall Street.” The panel also discussed the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre, the gaps in our education, & what the major political and culture changes seen in the country over the past year.

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YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

Next week marks the 100-year anniversary of the deadly Tulsa race massacre. In 1921, a White mob left hundreds of Black families dead and others homeless and fighting for survival. The mob also destroyed what was known as Black Wall Street. The event is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in this country’s history.

Joining me tonight to talk about this and the legacy of racial violence and so much else is Trymaine Lee, correspondent for MSNBC and host of the Into America podcast; Sara Sidner, senior national correspondent for CNN; and joining us in studio, Wesley Lowery, correspondent for 60 Minutes+; and Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here.

Trymaine, you’re in Tulsa. You’ll be anchoring a special at 10 p.m. on MSNBC. I’ve already set my DVR and told my whole family to watch. (Laughs.) This massacre, though, of course, wiped out so many lives, generational wealth as well. What sticks with you when you think about all that was lost culturally and financially?

TRYMAINE LEE: You know, there’s so much, and where do we begin? It’s one of those stories where if we didn’t know it to be true it would seem too fantastical even by American standards that American citizens, White American citizens, would drop bombs on their Black neighbors and shoot people in the streets and set fire to businesses and homes. It’s almost too outstanding to believe, but it’s all true. There was a 12-mile stretch of Greenwood Avenue where there were literally hundreds of Black-owned businesses, from theaters and barbershops and beauty salons, and now there are less than two dozen. And we know that homeownership and land ownership is wealth in this country, and it’s the prime – not just a driver of the wealth; again, it is the wealth. And so when Black folks had that stripped in this community, they lost the ability to pass down that wealth. And we see today that the typical Black family has just a tenth of the wealth of the typical White family. And we see not just that moment when, you know, their businesses and home went up in a snap; after that, we saw Jim Crow laws and redlining and other barriers to prevent that accumulation of wealth. And in this country, every time whether it’s Tulsa or anywhere – a number of other places across this country where Black folks began to taste a little success and, you know, recognize themselves as full American citizens and all the agency and right that that comes with, they saw a violent backlash. And so there is no disconnect between the kind of violent economic dispossession that we saw here in Tulsa and what we find today.

MS. ALCINDOR: And when you think about the racial violence – I want to stick with you, Trymaine – when you think about the racial violence, it’s not in just the past. The Department of Justice, the department – yeah, the Department of Homeland Security, rather, issued a bulletin saying that events commemorating – marking the 100-year anniversary in Tulsa, that they could be the target of racial violence. Trymaine, how is this impacting people there on the ground? Is anything being canceled, changed?

MR. LEE: The one thing that I did notice down on Greenwood Avenue today – and I was down there, you know, all morning into the early – the late afternoon – is that you saw armed – heavily-armed police officers in front of Vernon AME Church, one of the few, you know, Black-owned buildings that survived – the facade survived. I haven’t felt any tension, necessarily, but when you really think about the insult to injury that after such a horrendous stain, shameful stain, violent stain on American history, that now there’s another threat that White supremacists might want to take an opportunity to target these same people. But let’s not get it twisted for one single second: There are a lot of people in this country today who are proud of what happened. And when you think about the – what happened to Emmett Till, the gruesome murder, and then you think about to this day they have to put plexiglass around the marker because people keep coming and shooting it up; you think about the White supremacists rearing their head right now – and I heard a quote a couple weeks ago that someone asked a White supremacist about the race war. He said the race war already started; we just haven’t started shooting yet. And so when you think about where we actually are and the tinderbox that we continue to live in, it’s no surprise, Yamiche.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Sara, Trymaine just talked about the tinderbox that we’re still living in. Talk to me a bit about your reporting talking about QAnon and there’s these kind of far-right incidents and how all of this is impacting the issues that we’re living with today.

SARA SIDNER: Yeah, I mean, there are – I want to just touch quickly on Tulsa because when I was there when a police officer shot and killed Terence Crutcher, we told the story, as well, of Tulsa, and I felt extremely guilty because I had never heard of Black Wall Street until that day. That’s where the education had fallen off in my world, that I had not heard of it. And so when I did and I heard what happened, I actually thought, all right, is this like a rumor, like, this can’t be true that I don’t know this and it’s part of our history. So, to Trymaine’s point, some of that has been stripped out of the history of this country because it is so uncomfortable. It breaks apart this idea of the American Dream. And I think that’s where we’re having another reckoning, if you will, that if you really examine the country there are people who are winners and losers, and Black people on so many things have been put in this position where they are unable to win. It’s not that everyone is; it’s that as a whole they have been put in a position not to be able to get the American Dream. And I think that is hard for people to swallow, White folks particularly, because they want to see this country as a country that – many of them – embraces everyone. And so what we’re seeing in the streets is a reaction to something that is part of the fabric of this country, and that is racism. And so you’re seeing people trying to understand what that is, and that’s the beautiful part of this. That is the part that I think George Floyd’s death has brought forth this realization in some folks, and particularly White folks, that maybe I haven’t been listening and maybe I don’t really understand, even though I’m not racist – everyone, that’s the first reaction: I’m not racist. But the truth is, is that we have all been fed these ideas about people that have skin color that happen to have more melanin, and those ideas are seeped deep into our souls and deep into the fabric of this country, and it is time to clean it out. But that is going to be painful and a lot of people don’t want to go through that pain, but in the streets Black folks are demanding it. And I think that is something that has changed and we are now seeing Black folks joined by White folks, by Asian folks, by Latinx folks. You are seeing people from all different walks of life look at this issue and go: If we don’t fix this, we will forever be broken.

MS. ALCINDOR: Sara, you put it in a way that I think is so important, and Ayesha, I want to come to you because what Sara’s talking about is this racism that is baked into the fabric of America. In my reporting I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it also when I think about – when I’ve gone to places that are dedicated to our founders, frankly, seeing this. But of course, one of the presidents, President Biden, is heading to Tulsa. He’s going to be there to mark this anniversary. What do we think is going to come of that? What does it symbolize? He said he wants to heal the soul of the nation. Does this trip get at that?

AYESHA RASCOE: Well, that’s a part of what he has tried to do, and I think this is a part of him trying to address – he said in his inauguration that he wanted to bring racial justice, that this had been a long time coming, this had been a dream deferred; it could no longer wait. Now, what this administration has done when it comes to these issues, he did issue an executive order on equity. He wants the federal government to be looking into, you know, how to deal with issues like this, what systematic issues have kept Black people and other, you know, marginalized communities from being able to get grants, being able to get loans, being able to participate in government programs, so they are looking into that. But other than that, there has not been a lot of concrete action. So there has been a lot of rhetoric, and I think what you will see in Tulsa is you will absolutely see Biden, who is known for being empathetic – he is able to, you know, talk to people who have been through horrific things because he has been through horrific things, he’s able to relate to them. But what we have not seen is that concrete action and those concrete changes. Now, change is going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. But there are ways – you know, when you look at the policing bill that has not been passed, what do they have to point to to say that they have really delivered? It’s early days, but at some point they are going to have to start saying what have we actually done to bring about racial justice. They’re going to have to have some answers for that.

Oh, I do want to point out the Justice Department is looking into the Minneapolis Police Department, civil rights – doing a civil rights investigation, so that is something. But they’re going to have to have answers to those questions.

MS. ALCINDOR: Wesley, talk to me a bit about President Biden’s agenda and this bill that is possibly making its way through Congress, and the gap that exists between what they’re talking about in D.C. and what people and activists on the ground want to see happen. Because we know policing is so local, and some of the systemic issues that we’re talking about – housing, education – local issues.

WESLEY LOWERY: Correct, these are not issues where a president or a Congress can wave a wand and suddenly they’re fixed. Policing, for instance, we have 18,000 police departments in the United States of America. The federal government isn’t in charge of them. They are run locally by their municipalities, their city councils, their mayors, their states, and their state laws. And so it’s one of the – the things that make some of the issues within policing remarkably intractable is that you have to learn the same lesson 18,000 individual times, you have to win the same battle 18,000 times. And so what’s going to be interesting is, you know, as has been noted, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is still pending. There’s still debate and negotiations happening between Tim Scott and the Republicans and the Democratic caucus, Cory Booker and Karen Bass. But one thing I think it’s important to look at and to be aware of is that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would not have saved George Floyd’s life. It seems very unlikely that it would have, right? A ban on chokeholds for federal officers? Well, Derek Chauvin wasn’t a federal officer. A database of officers who have committed misconduct previously? Well, that seems very unlikely that that would have impacted this incident. And so this becomes another space where people have the desire to do something – we talk about this a lot when we talk about the gun control debate, for example. People want to do something after the latest mass shooting, but – and it certainly can be true, and I think Jim Clyburn and others have argued, that it’s important to do something even if it’s not everything you want to do – but when we look at this legislation, it will not solve a lot of – it will not solve the root causes of so many of these problems. It will not necessarily prevent the next George Floyd. And so to the extent to which it moves things forward, I think a lot of the activists who I talk to are excited about that, but there is not going to be this kind of triumphant moment the day after this passes – well, yes, Congress has fixed policing, and thank you, Biden administration – because the reality is that very day the police are very likely to kill two to three people somewhere in the country. That’s what our statistics tell us, right, that the next George Floyd video could come the very next day. And so these are really deep, intractable issues that go well beyond policing, as others have noted, to housing, to economics, access to opportunity, education. And unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more than a single bill passing through the Senate to address those issues and to address that history.

MS. ALCINDOR: And you talked about root causes in all of the things that are happening. I want to in some ways point to this issue and then really this moment in history that in some ways surprised me, and I’ve spent a lot of time in St. Louis. One incident that is overlooked in history was the 1917 East St. Louis race massacre. It was a three-day spree of violence in Illinois that left dozens of Black people dead. I spoke to Dhati Kennedy, whose grandfather died in the massacre. Here’s what he told me.

MS. ALCINDOR: (From video.) Why do you think it’s so important to keep that history alive when we think about what happened in Ferguson, what happened to George Floyd, what’s happening to African Americans and Black people all over this country?

DHATI KENNEDY: (From video.) Well, the massacre itself was fueled by a trope about Black men – they are rapists, they are thieves, they are murderers, they lie, they cheat, and they’re lazy. That idea in many, many different forms still exists today.

MS. ALCINDOR: Sara, how do these events – when you think about the fact that both of us were learning about these cities that we covered so closely, how do – these events and the fact that we don’t learn about them in school, how does that impact what we’re talking about when we think of police violence and systemic racism in that fabric of America?

MS. SIDNER: I think – and if I recall correctly because I have some family in St. Louis – that that all came from the – the reason for that violence against Black folks was because a factory that had government contracts, if I’m not mistaken, had employed Black people.

MS. ALCINDOR: That’s right.

MS. SIDNER: So what does that tell you? That their – at that that time they did not want to see Black people employed by somebody who was getting money from the government. I mean, you were literally taking food out of Americans’ mouths, and you’re so angry about them having a chance at having a better life that you try and hurt, kill, maim them. I mean, if that doesn’t tell you something about the mentality of racism, I don’t what will.

And what disturbs me is there are so many of these that are simply stripped out of our history books. They’re just not there. When you are a child and you are learning about American history, isn’t it better to examine the country and the realities that happened and then try to reckon with it and then try and look at, oh, how do we solve this?

You know, reconciliation – we saw it happen in South Africa, right? We saw that happen – the truth and reconciliation. We saw people saying, I did this to you; I am sorry. That would be a great step. But for some reason, in this country, we have decided – in some corners of this country that we’re just going to put a blanket over it, and we’re just not going to mention it because you don’t need to know about that because it doesn’t affect you. Well, of course it does. It’s part of our country. And if we can examine the problem and know what it is, then we can find a solution and work on it together.

So it disturbs me to no end that, as educated as you may be, there is going to be gaps, especially if you did not go to an HBCU, for example. You are going to have gaps. I did not, so I have some really big gaps that I have missed that I feel terrible about because I should know this about my country. It doesn’t make me hate my country; it makes me want to try and make the country better knowing where it has been.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Trymaine, I want to put the last question to you. We’ve seen this cultural shift – sort of cultural shift where we’ve seen companies, sports, entertainment industry talk about Black Lives Matter. I think as someone – and I think all of us who have covered Black Lives Matter – my big question to them is always what do you mean when you say Black Lives Matter. When you think about the way that corporations have kind of embraced this and what we’ve seen in companies, are there limits to this, are there dangers to this, or is this a sign that things could change and that there could be a big shift because companies are embracing?

MR. LEE: Yamiche, I don’t think we can ad-buy our way out of issues that we face as Americans. I don’t think we can even necessarily policy our way out of our issues because the root of our issue is White supremacy. And I think until we – to Sara’s point – reframe our education about who we are and who we aspire to be, but also what we’ve shown ourselves to be, we’re never going to get to the root of our actual problem, especially as it pertains to Black life in America.

And so as long as we silo out the Black experience from the American experience then there will be huge gaps in our actual collective history and our story. And so when it comes to these – the corporations, everyone was tripping over themselves after George Floyd was murdered to find a way to tap into the energy that was spilling into the streets all across this country. And then we saw that recede a little bit.

But the co-opting of movements built around the sanctity and value and beauty of Black life is as shameful as the initial impulse to devalue the Black life. But again, we are in America, and so many people have been miseducated; not just about the past, but who we are as Black people. How many lynchings happened because they viewed Black men as hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized kind of beasts, right? And so until we get to the root of that, the commercials aren’t going to do it.

But again, here we are at a moment where every bit does help in terms of trying to shift the narrative and shift America, you know, inch by inch. But again, we’ve seen a lot of these corporations kind of fall back as the, you know, acceptance of Black Lives Matter and support for Black Lives Matter has kind of diminished. So have some of those very visible supporters on the corporate side.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, this has been just another crucial conversation. We’re going to have to leave it there tonight. Thank you so much to Trymaine, Sara, Wesley, and Ayesha for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We’ll give you the behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.

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