Civil Rights Activist David Johns on Unrest: ‘We Can Rise to Meet This Moment'

David J. Johns serves as executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. The civil rights organization empowers Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, including those living with HIV/AIDS. Johns is a passionate advocate for youth, social justice and public policy. He is a former executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans during the President Barack Obama administration. He worked as a Senate staffer and for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and he’s a former Congressional Black Caucus Foundation fellow. Johns holds three bachelor’s and a master’s degrees from Columbia University and Teachers College, Columbia University, respectively. He is presently pursuing his Ph.D. in sociology and education policy at Columbia University. 

This is the 12th part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.

David J. Johns, Executive Director, National Black Justice Coalition

David Johns

It’s important to remember that our experiences are cumulative – to appreciate that this moment in the movement is tethered to both those moments that have come before as well as those that will follow.

David J. Johns

Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?

A: The United States is facing a long-delayed reckoning with the violence it has been inflicting on Black people since the introduction of transatlantic enslavement. The unrest we see today has echoes in the rebellions of enslaved people, the modern civil rights movement, and Pride, which were demonstrations against police brutality. Each of these moments in the movement for radically inclusive justice have been advanced by the efforts of diverse civil rights leaders across centuries. Remaining committed to the protracted struggle for radical, necessary and inclusive change is what the fight for social justice looks, feels and sounds like. It is not convenient, and it is not easy, but it is necessary.

Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?

A: Lasting change is always possible. The pandemic has shown deep cracks in the institutions that have upheld white supremacy, anti-Blackness, stigma, and bias and the decades of organizing done by abolitionists have facilitated meaningful and measurable changes in this particular moment in the movement. Historic numbers of people have risked their lives to protest and make change possible because they know that we can’t go back to “normal”--because “normal” didn’t work for so many of us. The time for the type of meaningful and measurable change that ensures all Black people are not victims of violence simply because of our genetic code is now.

Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?

A: It’s important to remember that our experiences are cumulative – to appreciate that this moment in the movement is tethered to both those moments that have come before as well as those that will follow. It would be difficult to engage in contemporary conversations about state sanctioned (read: police) violence without the work of critical race theorists, the Black Panther Party, the Congressional Black Caucus and so many other race warriors who have waged battles to ensure that we will one day soon win the war against white supremacy and anti-Blackness, in America.

A civil rights activist, attorney and writer explain race relations, societal change and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic death of George Floyd. When it comes to race, “systemic problems have plagued the nation for not only decades, but for centuries,” says Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The summer of 2020 is proving to be a moment for multiracial coalitions to come together, according to Fatima Goss Graves, TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund co-founder and National Women’s Law Center president and chief executive officer. Bestselling author George Johnson explains the revolution is being televised.

Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?

A: We need to see an even greater reckoning that addresses how systemic racism and anti-Blackness are baked into the foundation of every American institution—the signs, systems and symbols that we use to make sense of who we are and how we show up in the world. Before the most current period of national reckoning with the racist history of policing, Black people in the United States were dying in disproportionate numbers due to disparities in health care that have their own history in food apartheids, redlining, and employment discrimination. To ensure that all Black lives matter, in slogan and in reality, it’s important for everyone to recognize the beautiful diversity that has always existed within our community and to pursue changes in policy and practice that ensure we all thrive.  

Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?

A: The civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer reminded us that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Social justice is the ability for people to choose to participate in economic, political and social economies as they see fit. Social justice requires a fair and just relationships between all individuals and the society within which they live. Social justice is measured by the distribution of resources, privilege and opportunity and will not be achieved in the U.S. without a redistribution of the resources, privileges and opportunities that have been unfairly and unjustly hoarded by people with access to whiteness. Beyond the moral imperative, social justice, in the U.S. is required because the strength and stability of our country depends upon it.  

Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?

A: We’ve made strides in the court of public opinion, but in order to see lasting change, we need to cement the demands of this moment in the movement into law with clear and inclusive policy; policy that addresses cumulative inequities. We need policy that shows up for all Black people, including trans, queer and non-binary Black people, Black women, disabled Black people, sick Black people, Black immigrants, Black elders, Black children, Black people who have been incarcerated and convicted, Black people who use SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, and Black people who live in public housing. Anti-Blackness is insidious and racism (and its cousin homophobia) impacts every American institution, but we can rise to meet this moment.

Q: How do you feel about the future?

A: I am thankful for educators.  Educators do God’s work.

Aunt Nippy (Whitney Houston) taught us some time ago that when it comes to our future all we need to do is “teach them [children, youth, and young adults] well and let them lead the way.” As an educator, I’ve always believed that we must protect, listen to, and support our babies to ensure that they not only survive but thrive--in school and in life.  When I engage with young activists leading movements and witness the brilliance of the young people inspiring and facilitating meaningful and measurable change, I feel inspired and hopeful. The future is in capable, compassionate and beautifully diverse hands.

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