Is the American identity undergoing a transformation?

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George Floyd protests in Oakland, CA. Photo by Daniel Arauz/Wikicommons.

Solidarity demonstrations continue across the U.S.protesting police violence and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer.  Diverse groups demand police reform now. The message has reached the White House, and President Trump has signed an executive order promoting what he called “the highest and strongest standards in the world.” 

California Democrat Karen Bass, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus  is the lead author of police reforms designed by the majority party. She told KCRW’s Warren Olney that “what the president and my Republican colleagues have done is to take our bill, incorporate some major categories in it but they've taken the teeth out. And I think that the hundreds of thousands of people on the street are looking for teeth. They're looking for substance, they're looking for significant, transformative change.” 

Also on the podcast Olney talks to two professors about Black history, racial misconceptions, and Black female leadership.  Duchess Harris teaches American Studies at Macalester College, and is the author of “Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels and Transformations of American Identity.” Kimberle Crenshaw  teaches law at UCLA and Columbia and is co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.

Warren Olney: What are some of the other things that white people very specifically need to learn about the black experience? 

Duchess Harris: White people need to learn that as much as you want to say that you do not see color, you must see color in terms of what your behavior is around all public policy issues. The late, great novelist James Baldwin said: I'm not sure if you're a racist, but I'm confident that I'm not in your unions, and not on your school boards. And he goes on down a list of all the spaces where people would have influence in society and those spaces lack Black leadership. 

We have fundamentally different histories and we have different backgrounds. People are afraid to see that there's actually a culture and for Black Americans, there is a culture to celebrate, we need to celebrate being Black. People think that Blackness only has a deficit, without history but there’s actually culture to celebrate. Just an acknowledgment of achievement. 

Warren: Are we seeing a “transformation of American identity?”

Kimberle Crenshaw: This is the story that's yet to be written. We've had other times in history where it appeared as though some found fundamental change and we've been disappointed. I think the civil rights movement is an example in which there was a lot of hope, a possibility that America will respond to the speech that Martin Luther King gave. Part of his speech that really circulates in our consciousness, is the idea that we should be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. 

But his deeper challenge to the American consciousness was whether they would look at American race relations, look at hierarchies in America and understand that those deficits were products of promises that were never fulfilled. So the most important part of the speech, in my view, was when King said we're coming to the capital to cash a promissory note; a commitment that has been stamped insufficient funds. 

So literally, he was articulating this idea about structural disrepair, all of the ways that the history of white supremacy of slavery and then segregation actually were material dimensions of life. We needed an intervention that went beyond the idea that the problem was prejudice or the problem was we don't know each other well. He was demanding something far more transformative. 

So I think we're in this moment where we're using the language of structural reform. But do people really have a sense of what that entails? Are we going to sort of just fall back on old ideas about what race discrimination actually looks like? That is the fundamental question of the moment?

Beyond American Health Care

Later Olney talks with Ezekiel Emanuel, former health care advisor to President Obama and now a member of Joe Biden's Public Health Advisory Committee about his new book “Which Country has the World’s Best Health Care.” 

Olney and Emanuel talk about what the US can learn from other countries when it comes to insurance companies, universal health care, and the high cost of drugs.

Warren Olney: What ideas from other countries could we adopt and should insurance companies be involved in the healthcare process or do you favor a single payer system? 

Zeke Emanuel: Inevitably, insurance companies are going to be involved because they pay so much money to doctors, hospitals, home health care agencies, laboratories. One of the important results of my book is that with single payer, we understand this to mean the government pays hospitals, the government pays doctors. But there's also single payer where people pay into the government and then the government pays the private insurance companies. People get to choose their private insurance company and then that private insurance company is responsible for coordinating and organizing the care. That latter model where you have a choice of private insurance company exists in the Netherlands and in Germany and I think that kind of model could be well adapted to the United States. 




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody