This past June 19, 2020, Solid Ground’s Black Affinity Group* presented a discussion on Black Liberation with Dr. Alexes Harris, a live conversation supported by Solid Ground’s Anti-Racism Initiative. Presented to Solid Ground employees, the discussion explored the longstanding implications of Juneteenth as a celebration of the US emancipation of enslaved Black people – but were they truly emancipated? Dr. Harris engages unflinchingly in a conversation on what this critical point in history can teach us about our contemporary culture, institutions, systems, and interpersonal relationships. The following is Part 1 of a two-part, condensed transcription of these reflections with correlating referrals to further education and resources. (Continued on Black Liberation, Part 2: The question of reform.)
Questions for this section of the discussion were posed by Black Affinity Group members. Topics include:
A brief history of Juneteenth
Ellena Floyd: We are so pleased to have Dr. Alexes Harris with us here today from the University of Washington Department of Sociology. Her extensive and distinguished teaching career at the University of Washington challenges students to discuss racial equity, criminal justice, and social problems. Her research is fundamentally centered on issues of inequality, poverty, and race in the United States’ systems of justice. Her book A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor details the ways in which sentences, fines, and fees often put an undue burden on disadvantaged populations and places them under even greater supervision of the criminal justice system.
Neo Mazur: I’m just going to give a brief history of Juneteenth: the oldest nationally celebrated acknowledgement of the abolition of slavery. To this day, it’s still a topic of confusion. We’re going to use it as an opportunity to share more information about the complex institution of slavery within the US.
This holiday is particularly important to Black people and African Americans specifically because they could not fully take part in July 4th and Independence Day celebrations. When the US declared independence from Britain, a lot of folks were still enslaved. Juneteenth is an example of the disconnect between creating policy and actually carrying out that policy, and as P.R. Lockhart wrote in their VOX article, “An example of how freedom and justice have always been delayed for Black people.”
While President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862, the proclamation took effect on January 1 of 1863. And the 13th Amendment was not ratified by Congress until December of 1865. Many Black people were not even told of these changes and honestly, this information was kept from them because people still wanted another harvest.
The origins of Juneteenth start in Texas. Many of the states’ 250,000 enslaved people had received the news from their masters or from a government agent. And this is why the holiday was started. Newly freed Black people used this incredibly limited aid of the Freedman’s Bureau to declare June 19 of 1866 the first official Juneteenth.
As quoted in an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner remembers a statement from an heir to the Juneteenth tradition: “The way it was described to me, the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day Black people were free, but that’s the day that they told them that they were free.”
The celebration of Juneteenth has waxed and waned over time, but saw particular reemergence during the Civil Rights Era in the wake of the turmoil brought on by segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of institutional racism and dehumanizing race relations. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, and today, 41 other states and the District of Columbia observe it as such. Many people use this holiday to speak out about how limiting the 13th Amendment actually is and more recently, Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th looks at the caveat of legalized slaveries within prison systems tying the disproportionate rate of Black and Brown people in the prison system to a widely overlooked enactment of slavery in the US.
This Juneteenth, we welcome Dr. Alexes Harris to speak about justice and inequality in the US, followed by a short Q&A. We hope that by shedding light on the connection between current systems of oppression and the so-called abolition of slavery, increasing awareness and opening spaces for gathering within our communities is how we can help celebrate Juneteenth this year.BACK TO TOP
Profiting off of poor people
Floyd: Good morning, Dr. Harris. How do you think your current research fits into the conversations we’re having and the actions that are taking place in our communities – and why did you choose those topics specifically to research?
Dr. Harris: My research is on something that’s called “monetary sanctions.” Not a lot of people know what they are, but these are the fines, the fees, the costs that people pay when they encounter the criminal justice system. For example, they could be all the way from traffic citations to prison fees for misdemeanor offenses to even serious felony offenses.
In Washington State, we have something that’s called a victim penalty assessment (VPA). That’s $500 per felony conviction regardless, $250 for a misdemeanor. So the average amount of monetary sanctions per felony conviction in WA is $1,200 plus 12% interest on the restitution and an annual $100 collection cost.
If you’re doing the math in your head, you can realize that when people make contact with our systems of justice today, they – particularly people who are poor and don’t have the ability to pay – have a huge amount of consequences. You remain on court supervision until all of the debt is paid. In Washington State, you have a provisional right to vote – that only came in 2009. So as long as you’re making consecutive payments on your legal financial obligations (LFOs), you’ll have that right to vote. But as we saw in Florida and other states nationally, people who have outstanding fines and fees do not have the right to vote until they’re fully paid. It’s essentially a poll tax. You can be reincarcerated for nonpayment. There are several counties in Washington State that issue summons for nonappearance in court, and then warrants for your pickup, and then you can go to jail for nonpayment.
So you can see this system of monetary sanctions is really a contemporary iteration of the different forms of social control that we’ve had in the US from enslavement. If we think about slavery being in the 1600s, we had the control of Black bodies in this country that allowed private people to make profit off their labor. We move to the 13th amendment, as it said in the documentary, enslavement is allowed for those who are duly convicted.
So what happened right at the ending of slavery is the issuance of Black Codes – the way that Black people were standing on the corner, interacting with white people, the manner by which they were walking in the street – a crucial one because that’s how Mike Brown was killed. He was literally stopped in Ferguson for the code “manner by which walking in the street.” We can see from the Black Codes that allowed people to be “duly” convicted.
We didn’t have a prison system at that time, so people we convicted were leased – just like slave leasing. Bodies were leased out to private owners of plantations, coal mines, railroads to use Black bodies again and re-enslave them. Particularly, the southern states found that it was offensive because people were dying and started prisons at that time. Where did they build the prisons? They built them on the plantations. You can think of all the people on the same plantations, people who were duly convicted and either had worked previously as slaves or their ancestors had worked as such.
We can see through every sort of moment in the history of the US, we have some form of social control from enslavement to mass incarceration and conviction, and then we have monetary sanctions. Not only is your labor in the moment forced to make profit for private people, but now your whole future is owed to private entities and the state in the form of debt. This is why I study it, to show that there is a structural failure that the criminal justice system was never built for equity. It’s working just how it’s supposed to be working. That’s why in this moment we need to dismantle it, defund it, and really think about what justice is and what do we want.BACK TO TOP
From good intentions to cultural change
Nadia Yeracaris: Thank you so much, Dr. Harris. You touched on this a little bit, but what do you think are some of the factors that have allowed this system of racial control to simply evolve and replicate itself since the 13th Amendment? And how do you think well-intentioned people can be more vigilant against institutional racism?
Dr. Harris: I think in terms of “why is this allowed to continue” it’s because of the profit it’s making off the individuals. We live in a capitalistic society with the intent of making profit and allowing people to make as much profit as they can, and we need a surplus of labor. That’s infused with racism as well. So across the world and definitely in the US, Black bodies have been racialized, subjugated, and marginalized to be that labor source either in slavery or through incarceration.
“What can people do? You’ll hear me say repeatedly, we need cultural change. We need to decrease the fear that this society has and the negative stereotypes of Black people in this society. We need to have these hard conversations. White people need to have these conversations on their own and educate themselves and then be able to have these conversations in non-white settings with people who don’t look like them.” ~Dr. Alexes Harris
What can people do? You’ll hear me say repeatedly, we need cultural change. We need to decrease the fear that this society has and the negative stereotypes of Black people in this society. We need to have these hard conversations. White people need to have these conversations on their own and educate themselves and then be able to have these conversations in non-white settings with people who don’t look like them.
But the biggest thing really is structural reform. I was on a talk, and we were talking about COVID-19 action and the pandemic asking, “What if we had a public health approach to everything that we did in terms of our institutions? What if we centered public health around criminal justice issues as we know and treat them today?” If we focused on people’s mental health and drug and alcohol addiction, we’d remove so many people from both our jails and prisons and really treat the source of the problem. Then, that would save us money on the criminal justice end and also actually save lives. Not just individuals that are hurting but their families and communities as well.
What about if in education, we centered mental, physical, and spiritual health of our kids? What would that in society look like in your imagination? I think we really need to have a dramatic rethinking of how our institutions are structured to move forward.BACK TO TOP
From hollow statements to real reform
Floyd: Thank you, Dr. Harris. Many politicians – including the Clintons, Newt Gingrich, and Charles Rangel – have apologized for their role in promoting devastating “tough on crime” legislation. Considering the billions of dollars made off the imprisonment of people, the ongoing practice of prison labor, and the cases of unjust imprisonment, how should our country go forward to repay these communities and families in a more material, restorative way? And what do you think the action of political figures should look like going forward?
Dr. Harris: I think these people should advocate. These people we have put in power and have put our faith in to represent us and helped facilitate this, they should act and have real substantive reform. Everyone’s just making these statements – from the NBA, NFL, to universities about Black Lives Matter – “We stand with you.”
Politicians are doing the same thing through social media. I’m really tired of these hollow statements without real reform behind them. Thank you very much for saying “Black Lives Matter” and saying all the names of the people who have been killed. But, structurally, what are you going to do?
We can think about reparations in terms of individual payments, but we can also think about what institutions can be restructured, centering the needs of the individual communities, and place those structures within our communities so that we can thrive.
I think for the form of reparations, it could be direct payment for the ancestors of people who were enslaved. This country did that for people who were interned in 1942 in the Japanese internment camps. There’s precedent for doing that. I also think that it could be done more structurally in communities of color, in creating opportunities for low-cost housing, in rebuilding schools that are centered on the needs and histories of Black people in this country – there are so many ways – in providing real healthcare access to everyone and putting those clinics in communities where they are needed.BACK TO TOP
Engaging with a diverse Black community
Mazur: Yes, absolutely. So, one thing that we’ve noticed is that in the current conversation there’s a lot of focus, specifically, around Black men being murdered. One thing we wanted to uplift is just the fact that trans Black women are actually murdered at the highest rates out of everyone. Why do you think this is and how do we shift the focus of these conversations? A thing that I’ve noticed is when people say “say their names,” oftentimes people can easily list a lot of Black men who have been murdered at the hands of the police but can maybe list the name of one Black woman and probably no Black trans women.
Dr. Harris: I think it’s powerful what you just said and it’s so true. Honestly, I don’t know why women are always left off the table in these conversations. Breonna Taylor’s killers have not even been charged. I don’t understand, honestly. I like to be transparent; I don’t have all the answers. I don’t understand why.
Patricia Hill Collins and a lot of other scholars talk about intersectionality. It started in the early- to mid-’90s writing about the concept of intersectionality and really thinking about what it means not just to be a Black person but a Black woman. These layers of our statuses either give us more privilege or take away privilege and make us more vulnerable in society. I think that’s what we’re seeing. I don’t know why it’s so much easier for people to advocate for men and forget about the harm that’s being done to women in our societies. I think it’s definitely something that we need to push back on and continue to put on the table.
We shouldn’t pit people’s oppression, but we should understand the unique positioning of Black women in this society. Higher rates of single-parent households mean higher rates of poverty. At the same time I study the criminal system, and you see that Black women tend to be the partners of people who are incarcerated and so are paying their fines and fees or putting money into their JPay accounts. So, we are in a very vulnerable position in society. A lot of our concerns and issues are low on the table even by Black men and other Black women in our communities. I do think we need to keep talking about it and try to understand the internalized ignorance of the pain that many Black women are feeling in this movement.BACK TO TOP
Leaning in to really hard conversations
Floyd: It seems there are a lot of well-intentioned non-Black people protesting and organizing, but then ignoring the Black people within their very own communities. What do you say to white and non-Black people protesting right now?
Dr. Harris: My husband’s Black, and we go on walks in the morning, and we’ve noticed so much more white people nodding to us. We wear masks – I’m immunosuppressed – so we wear masks when we’re walking even outside. And they’ll walk around us. My husband says, “When are they going to stop seeing me again? How long is this going to last for?” I think that for a lot of folks, it’s easy to put a Black Lives Matter sign in the window and say that you’re down. It’s even harder to really engage. And, what does that mean to really engage?
“One thing I like to talk to people about is the difference between being an accomplice versus being an ally. Allies have trainings, they get badges, they put the BLM sign in their window. For me, accomplices are a little different. They’re willing to give up their privilege in the moment and make real change.”~Dr. Alexes Harris
One thing I’ve been doing for different communities is to try to help people engage and find the right language to engage in really hard conversations. We need white people to engage in these hard conversations and put their fear aside. One thing I like to talk to people about is the difference between being an accomplice versus being an ally. Allies have trainings, they get badges, they put the BLM sign in their window. For me, accomplices are a little different. They’re willing to give up their privilege in the moment and make real change.
Many women probably feel this way and definitely people who are Black feel this way in meetings where you say something and it’s ignored/dismissed and then a white person says exactly what you said. No one’s validating what I said and someone else just said my idea.
Sometimes it’s a slight, a racial slight, in a conversation or side conversation that’s related to [this]. An ally will sit there and let it happen and afterwards maybe email you and say, “I’m sorry that happened.” But an accomplice will stop it in the moment and say that’s racist. So, accomplices are really different sorts of folks who are willing to make real change in the moment and advocate for real change even if it means giving up some of their privilege on the way.
I think accomplices also understand the difference between intent versus effect. So in [my work] I teach problems, and I as a straight Black woman married to a Black man; I’m real honest, I don’t speak every community’s language. Sometimes, I get concepts or words or themes around LGBTQIA communities wrong.
Once, several years ago, I was in a large lecture with 300 students and I said an example of something, and a student in the moment called me out. And she said that was hetero-normative. And honestly, I had to look it up to understand what I did. As a professor of 300 students, you can shut it down quickly and move on. I knew that I hurt her though. It wasn’t the intent that I’m good and down, you know, it was the effect of that comment that mattered, and I needed to take responsibility for that in the moment.
So I said “I’m sorry.” I went and learned and I didn’t have her educate me. Right, that’s not her responsibility. I figured out what I did wrong, and I apologized and engaged in a conversation with her, and then I took it back to the 300 students and I said, “My bad. I made a mistake. This is what the mistake was.” Again, that’s the difference between being an accomplice and an ally.
You will mess up in conversations – but have the confidence to be checked in that moment. And say you know that was offensive, and this is why it’s offensive. Don’t hide behind the intention of being good. You recognize the negative effect you’ve made. So again, just thinking about the differences between the labels we give people in terms of accomplices or allies.BACK TO TOP
Stereotypes & anti-blackness
Mazur: What are your thoughts on the argument or the idea that people have been subconsciously conditioned to fear Black men? You kind of spoke to that a little bit like when you said, “When will I become invisible to white people again?” Do you think this is changing in any way?
Dr. Harris: There’s research that shows that police officers will view the same aged Black child to be much older than their real age and think that the white child is at the age or younger. So, stereotypes for this interpretation of viewing Black people as older, as more violent – I think that is a lot of what white people actually believe and they’re scared. It’s not an excuse in anyway. It’s ignorance.
There’s a scholar named Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. He wrote a book called Racism Without Racists. And in it, he has a concept called “white habitists.” He points out a lot of sociologists tend to focus on what the consequences of residential segregation or isolation does for people who are isolated. What does it do for Black people? What does it do for poor people to be segregated? Well he flips it and he says, “Let’s think about the ‘white habitists,’” the white perspective lifestyle that’s created from that. What does racism and isolation do for white people? W.E.B Du Bois talks about this veil. It creates a veil for white people where they can’t see past their whiteness and their white world.
So we need to – through conversations and learning of history – break down that veil and sort of change the perspectives and the fear that people have of people from our communities. And that’s going to take a lot of education, a lot of time, but even if you think about – when you look at TV who do you see? Who do you see in your TV shows, and what are they doing? Who’s on your commercials? I mean if we think about gender norms, too, who’s on the commercials for the cleaning materials? Right. It’s women. So, you can think about the ways in which the stereotypes about men and women and who men and women should look like, and what are the categories we have, the identities that we have? That’s all reified over and over again when you’re watching TV. I think we are definitely taught stereotypes. There’s so much research in this realm, and it’s going to take a lot of work to break them down.BACK TO TOP
Staying focused on the current conversation
Floyd: Thank you. There’s still a great deal of anti-Blackness within the Black and POC communities. There’s still folks centering Black-on-Black crime in important dialogues. How do we acknowledge the intersections of oppression within our own community? And what do you think the importance of that acknowledgement is?
Dr. Harris: We have to talk about these issues. What we’re talking about now is the state-sponsored violence of killing Black people, either by police officers or armed citizens, who – you know – run down a Black man jogging. It’s okay to stay focused, but I do think we need to talk about Black-on-Black violence. Where I live, at my Safeway a couple weeks ago, there were shootings. We need to talk about that. We also need to recognize that it’s about culture. It’s about structure. It’s about the availability of guns in our communities. It’s about the availability of drugs in our community. It’s about some of the self-hate and the lack of community that people feel in our community. The failure of educational systems.
We need to sort of sit down and have complicated, hard conversations to really figure out what is going on. A lot of people right now want to bring up Black-on-Black crime, and I would just say “Hey, sit down. That’s not the conversation right now.” The conversation is this.
A lot of people say, “You know it’s just bad apples,” you know, police. And if it was about bad apples, those bad apples would be in prison for murdering people. That’s the systemic problem. Not only are they killing Black people, men and women in streets and trans people in the streets, they’re not being held accountable. They’re not even being charged or let go, or they’re being let go and rehired somewhere else. That’s the problem. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize on this moment. It’s about criminal justice reform. There’s a lot of other stuff we will talk about. Let’s stay focused on the current conversation.BACK TO TOP
Standing on the right side of history
Mazur: In planning this event, one quote that stuck out to us from the documentary 13th states that “History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of the history our ancestors chose, if we’re white. And if we are Black, we are products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet we are here all are together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it.”
What are your thoughts on understanding history and reckoning with it in this current moment and in these current conversations?
Dr. Harris: People don’t know our history. I’m on a college campus, I’ve been doing these different group setting conversations with students, and a lot of students say, “I just didn’t know the history.” I have a chart that shows this sort of timeline from 1600 to 2020, and how big of a chunk enslavement was in that timeline. They say, “We just didn’t know.”
When I teach race and ethnicity in the US, and I talk about the internment of Japanese American citizens in this country, that was found unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but yet people still were removed from their homes and lost their property in 1942. When I talk about the changing borders with Mexico, that the Mexico territory was all the way up through California. And people don’t know that. They don’t know that we’ve always had this relationship where we’d allow people who were Mexican to come up into the US and work using their labor. But then, there are moments when we push them back down with repatriation saying, “You need to go back to where you came from.” So there’s always been this push and pull around labor between the US and Mexico. The colonization of Native peoples – even our contemporary students don’t know that brutal history.
We need to have – in all our classes, K-12 and mandatory in college – a real historical sort of a people’s perspective on the history of the US and understanding that this country was born out of social control, mass killings, and enforced slavery for profit from anyone who at the time was considered non-white.
“We also need to understand that all of our contemporary institutions that we rely on – from the criminal justice system, healthcare, education, our income employment structure – were born out of that history. We don’t all start in the same spot, and we don’t all end at the same spot. We’re all at very different positions on that track. And some of us are forced to run a few times around that track before we can get to where we want to get.”~Dr. Alexes Harris
We also need to understand that all of our contemporary institutions that we rely on – from the criminal justice system, healthcare, education, our income employment structure – were born out of that history. We don’t all start in the same spot, and we don’t all end at the same spot. We’re all at very different positions on that track. And some of us are forced to run a few times around that track before we can get to where we want to get.
Recognizing that the contemporary criminal justice system, the police, was born out of slavery. The police as we know them today were once slave patrollers. The educational system. People who were of African descent weren’t even allowed to read – it wasn’t legal for them to read or teach other people. Native American children were forced into these sort of whitewashed schools and their language and culture were stripped. People need to understand the history and that this racism is embedded within the very institutions that we live work and breathe in today.BACK TO TOP
Centering a public health approach
Floyd: These demands that are being made right now have great potential for change. What do you think is the effectiveness of the demands to defund the SPD (Seattle Police Department)? And what do you think we can do to protect ourselves in our communities going forward.
Dr. Harris: This is a very, I’ll say, an exciting moment. I’m not super hopeful. We were here five years ago, but we have made steps forward from five years ago. The NFL is saying it’s okay for everyone to take a knee if they want to take a knee. We have statements now, and we have this platform around defunding the criminal justice system and police. That’s a step forward. We have institutions that are rethinking their relationships with the police department, that’s a major step forward.
I would advocate for a public health approach to everything we do. Who can we call in our community or centrally located within the city of Seattle? A few years ago up the street from my house – an elderly man who was African American, his family was getting ready to move him out of the house because he started having dementia. He got scared at night and he called the police. I think there was an indication on the call that he was scared. He thought he heard a noise. The police showed up, and he answered the door with a gun. And they shot and killed him. So in that instance, do we need police to show up? No. We don’t need to do that.
There are different things that can be done, we don’t have to have armed police officers to answer every call.
A known person, an example in Tacoma, was killed. He had a known mental health issue and drug addiction issues. We don’t have to constantly send the police to manage this. We could have real treatment programs that recognize if you’re drug addicted or alcohol addicted, you will relapse. And I’m not taking anybody’s, you know, faith and hope out of their progress, but particularly early on in the cycle of treating addiction, relapses happen. There are points where people can learn how to move forward. Let’s not be punitive about it and put it in a criminal court system where you make one dirty urinary analysis test and you go to jail.
How can we help people and not string them along – tethering them to the criminal justice system without really providing a safety net that everyone deserves? Not just if they have money. In thinking about transforming the way that we think about helping people in our communities, that might mean having a community patrol. When you get calls like this, where your neighbors will go and say, “It’s okay, it’s us. Don’t worry, you’re safe. You can sit in our house until your family can come get you.” Or something like that.
What are we willing to do to help our own lives – right? What resources do we need and what resources are we going to demand to be able to have that power and control? What do we want our kids to learn in our school systems – and go and advocate for that. There’s a lot that all of us have to do to make real reform. We have over 400 years that got us to this point. It’s going to take a number of years for real change.
Solid Ground Race-based Caucuses & Affinity Groups*
At Solid Ground, we believe that all people of color and white people are affected by racism and have to work together to end it – yet we recognize that how we are affected by racism and the work we have to do is different. Caucuses are spaces where people of color and white people within an organization meet separately in order to do our different work, so all groups have intentional space and time to focus on their respective work to dismantle racism and advance racial equity. Affinity groups like the Black Affinity Group are formed and maintained by Solid Ground staff members to allow deeper racial justice dialogue, build relationships, remove specific barriers, and create greater opportunities for racial equity.