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I Just Learned About the Equal Justice Initiative — If You Don’t Know About It, You Should

In “The Lines That Anti­semitism and Racism Draw,” a series of let­ters I com­posed dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016 that were pub­lished in Decem­ber of that year, I wrote about the stolper­steine, an art project start­ed by the Ger­man artist Gunter Dem­nig in 1992. Accord­ing to Wikipedia, the project “aims at com­mem­o­rat­ing indi­vid­ual per­sons at exact­ly the last place of residency—or, some­times, work—which was freely cho­sen by the per­son before he or she fell vic­tim to Nazi ter­ror, euthana­sia, eugen­ics, was deport­ed to a con­cen­tra­tion or exter­mi­na­tion camp, or escaped per­se­cu­tion by emi­gra­tion or sui­cide.” I was aston­ished to learn that more than 50,000 stolper­steine have been laid in 20 Euro­pean coun­tries. “I don’t want to roman­ti­cize what the stolper­steine rep­re­sent or over-cel­e­brate their scope,” I wrote, “but it speaks vol­umes to me that so many com­mu­ni­ties across Europe have agreed to bear wit­ness to, and in that way hold them­selves account­able for, what the Nazis did [pri­mar­i­ly to the Jews].” Then I won­dered about whether a sim­i­lar kind of project focused on slav­ery would even be pos­si­ble in the Unit­ed States:

Con­sid­er a white artist—as far as I know, Den­mig is not Jewish—trying to pur­sue a sim­i­lar project regard­ing slav­ery in the Unit­ed States. Even set­ting aside the dif­fer­ing cir­cum­stances and prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions that might make a project like that impos­si­ble, it’s hard for me to imag­ine white Amer­i­ca say­ing yes in the same way that those Euro­pean com­mu­ni­ties have. We are, after all, a nation in which some­one like Bill O’Reilly feels autho­rized to “fact check” on nation­al TV First Lady Michelle Obama’s state­ment about the White House hav­ing been built by slaves; in which it took the mass mur­der Dylan Roof com­mit­ted in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, with the explic­it inten­tion of start­ing a race war, for leg­is­la­tors final­ly to vote the Con­fed­er­ate flag off of South Carolina’s state house; in which far too many white peo­ple can­not accept the sim­ple asser­tion that Black lives mat­ter as any­thing oth­er than the at least implic­it claim that oth­er lives don’t.

In such a nation, how many com­mu­ni­ties would be will­ing to be remind­ed dai­ly, as they walked to work or school, or down the block for a quart of milk or a sand­wich from the deli, or to take out the garbage or go to the movies, or church, or shul, or to meet a lover for a date—how many com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States do you think would say yes to a memo­r­i­al that asked them to con­front not slav­ery in the aggre­gate, dif­fi­cult and mean­ing­ful and nec­es­sary as that is, but the names and dates, the lived lives of the par­tic­u­lar enslaved Black peo­ple who played a role in that community’s his­to­ry? There’s no way to answer this ques­tion, of course, but I can, as I am sure you can, pic­ture the kind of resis­tance such a project would run into across wide swaths of the coun­try, not to men­tion in the right wing media. To put it sim­ply, we are a nation in which white peo­ple tend to work very hard not only not to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the his­tor­i­cal fact of slav­ery, but also not to be held account­able for the ways in which we con­tin­ue to ben­e­fit from its after­math.

At the time I wrote those words, I did not know about Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive (EJI), an orga­ni­za­tion in Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma found­ed by Bryan Steven­son. In Feb­ru­ary 2015, as part of a project that resem­bles Demnig’s stolper­steine to a remark­able degree, EJI released a report on the his­to­ry of lynch­ings in the Unit­ed States. “Lynch­ing and the ter­ror era,” Steven­son is quot­ed in The New York Times as say­ing, “shaped the geog­ra­phy, pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics and social char­ac­ter­is­tics of being black in Amer­i­ca dur­ing the 20th cen­tu­ry.” The part of the project that most close­ly mir­rors the stolper­steine involves erect­ing mark­ers and memo­ri­als on spe­cif­ic lynch­ing sites “to force peo­ple to reck­on with the nar­ra­tive through-line of the country’s vicious racial his­to­ry, rather than think­ing of that his­to­ry in a short-range, piece­meal way.” Steven­son is expect­ing resis­tance and con­tro­ver­sy not unlike what he expe­ri­enced when his orga­ni­za­tion tried to place his­tor­i­cal mark­ers at the cites of the slave mar­kets in Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma, where, The Timessaid, in what feels like iron­ic under­state­ment, “city and state gov­ern­ments were not welcoming…despite the abun­dance of Civ­il War and civ­il rights move­ment memo­ri­als” in the city.

We need this kind of memo­r­i­al in the Unit­ed States. I plan to start fol­low­ing EJI’s work.

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