The documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America may be the most personal work Jeff Robinson has ever been a part of.
Originally premiering at SXSW, it is a film that draws on Robinson’s long history of studying law and racial justice in America. Until April of 2021, Robinson served as the director of the ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality and as the ACLU deputy legal director. After graduating from Harvard in 1981, he worked as a public defender in Seattle for several years. He then started a private practice in the city. He also was a part of the ACLU-established John Adams Project that defended those held at Guantanamo Bay following the 9/11 attacks.
Even as he uses that experience to inform the documentary's journey, it's interwoven with the texture of Robinson’s own life. We see how he remembers when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Robinson's hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. He remembers his parents faced racist discrimination when trying to buy a house yet still had to find a place to raise him and his siblings.
In 2011, Robinson began raising his then 13-year-old nephew as a child of his own. As a Black man now raising a Black son, Robinson started to think about what he would tell him about racism in America. It motivated Robinson to begin reading more, traveling to various parts of the country and speaking about his perspective on the future and how it connects to our past. This documentary is the product of that work, with a talk Robinson gave in 2018 in New York City at the Town Hall Theater intercut with his travels and various interviews he conducted along the way as part of the Who We Are Project.
Robinson sat down virtually with us for an interview to discuss the film and the country's direction.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HUTCHINSON: This film comes from a deeply personal place where you talk about being moved to take on this project for your son. I first wanted to ask if he had the chance to see it and have you two had the chance to talk about it?
ROBINSON: This is a family thing so he’s been here through the process. We’ve talked a lot about it and I don’t know that he’s going to go to a theater, but we’ve got all kinds of ways for him to look at it. I think he’s just very proud of the work that I’ve done. It has been both a personal process, if you will, but one that I think is the most powerful when you understand its lack of uniqueness.
If people see this film and see something about my life or things that I’ve done or things that have happened to me when I was growing up and think, "Oh my gosh, that was really powerful." I appreciate that and I think that’s why we put these things in the film, but I think it’s critically important to understand that it is not unique. The power, in my view, is the lack of uniqueness in that story. This is a story that’s repeated time and time and time again across the country.
In regards to telling that story, in an interview you did with Democracy Now!, you talked about the conservative moral panic about what they call ‘critical race theory.’ What do you think can be done to ensure an accurate accounting of America’s history of racism and where do you see this documentary fitting into that?
For one thing, people may think that "oh, in the state of Washington, we’d never have that problem because we’ll be able to teach." Well, there’s a bill, an anti-CRT bill, that was introduced right here in good ol’ Washington state.
One of the most important things, right now, is reclaiming our history. A history that has been stolen from all of us. The most ominous conversation about this is sparked by the George Orwell quote. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
I want to use Tulsa, Oklahoma as an example. If you knew nothing about the Tulsa Massacre, I’m 65-years-old now, but I was learning this in my fifties. So to the extent that you ain’t fifty yet, you’re so far ahead of where I was. How many years was it ago that you never had heard of the Tulsa Massacre?
I think I was part of the generation that, strangely enough, first learned of it through the Watchmen series. It was unfortunate that it took that, but it was a pretty big wake-up call for a lot of people.
The flip side of the coin, unfortunate that it took that, but people started to go "oh my god, this actually happened." If you know about the Tulsa Massacre and know about the 8.8 million dollars in 1921 in just insurance claims that were refused, nobody got paid anything. Those were just people that filed claims. When you understand that there were 4,000 people that couldn’t be accounted for, now you have a very different view of what happened and why Tulsa looks that way.
That’s what education is about. That’s why you need an educated population for a democracy to work. That should say something to folks. When people are trying to erase history, when they’re trying to restrict the education that the population can get, they are talking about something, but it ain't democracy.
This isn’t the first documentary you’ve been in, as you also showed up in the 2020 documentary The Fight. In that, there was a moment where you talked about how you disagreed with the ACLU supporting the free speech rights of those at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. What do you see as being the organization's future in addressing racist, potentially violent speech in this country?
It’s a very, very difficult area, and one of the things that I always chuckle at is there are people from what people call the "old school ACLU" that are very critical of the debate that’s been going on. "How dare they debate these things, we defended the Nazis in Skokie, Illinois." There were a dozen Nazis that were trying to get a permit to march. On the day they were going to march, they had about six or seven and nobody was armed. They didn’t even go to Skokie, they went somewhere else.
Don’t compare that with Charlottesville, number one. It’s not the same thing. If you can’t see that, part of my response is that you need to understand history. You need to understand what was going on then and what is going on now. Having said that, I’m not saying that right-wing people shouldn’t have representation on the first amendment because they should. They can say anything they want and there is then this issue on the line of violence.
What I think is significant is that the ACLU as an organization has to make decisions about how they use their resources. Those resources are vast, but they are limited. Where are we going to put those resources? If there is an issue of the right to demonstrate, how many cases come into our office where that right can be defended? What kind of resources do these right-wing groups have? As brilliant as the ACLU lawyers are, there are other brilliant lawyers out there too.
It is one thing to say, "Oh, you turned down this right-wing organization because you don’t agree with them." It’s another thing to say you turned down this right-wing organization because they have funding up one side and down the other to hire any law firm they want because there are plenty of law firms in America that are thrilled to get behind this stuff. It is not this kind of purity test, it’s a reality test of where we’re living now, what’s going on right now, and where you want to stand. I respect the ACLU. Let me be clear, I didn’t leave because of Charlottesville. I left because I felt like I had to start the Who We Are Project.
Since you gave the speech at the center of the project as well as this documentary, much has changed on a national and local level when it comes to policing. You were part of a committee that was called to help Seattle select a new police chief in 2017. Looking back, how did that experience influence your perspective on how and if police departments can change? What can or should change?
That is the question going forward. What I can say is this, there is a part in the film where I say that present-day police departments aren’t slave patrols and there are police officers fighting for constitutional policing, non-racist policing, decent policing. Some people have said, "How can you say that?" I say this because I know those police officers.
This is where it goes off the mark, in my view. When we start talking about individuals. This ain’t about individual police officers. This is about the institution of policing and the institution of policing is, in my view, irrevocably broken. What that means is that a complete reimagining of that has to occur.
In a society that is 400 years old and that has embraced policing as this society has, this ain't gonna happen in a year or five years. But the urgency in addressing it is now because right now there are conversations about this that were never occurring before. I ask you, how much money did the NYPD spend on policing in the year 2017? Just one year, twelve months, and let you think about it.
Then I say 4.75 billion dollars and you go, huh. Now you’re thinking, what if they took one of those billions, just one billion dollars, and said what could we do to make this neighborhood where they’re doing stop and frisk and aggressive policing, what would we do with a billion dollars? Wouldn’t that be interesting?
For me, the institution is broken and that means we have to, as the people at ACLU sometimes say, divest from that institution. We have to reinvest. As we are looking at homeless problems across the country and cities are going, "What do we do?" The answer is not more police because we tried that. It didn’t work and it’s not going to work this time.
Where do you see yourself fitting in with that work and what is coming next for you?
The Who We Are Project made this documentary with Off Center Media. Off Center Media is Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler. They are two sisters and the daughters of civil rights icon William Kunstler. The trust that we developed and the working relationship that we developed is ongoing. This movie is the first thing from The Who We Are Project. It is definitely not the last thing.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is now playing at Cinema 21.