Quotations by Black and Brown

Americans on Their Situation

Collected by Cliff Williams

Contemporary (2000 – present)

Bryan Stevenson:

"Once I was preparing to do a hearing in a trial court in the Midwest and was sitting at counsel table in an empty courtroom before the hearing. I was wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. The judge and the prosecutor entered through a door in the back of the courtroom laughing about something.

"When the judge saw me sitting at the defense table, he said to me harshly, 'Hey, you shouldn't be in here without counsel. Go back outside and wait in the hallway until your lawyer arrives.' 

"I stood up and smiled broadly. I said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Your Honor, we haven't met. My name is Bryan Stevenson, I am the lawyer on the case set for hearing this morning.'     

"The judge laughed at his mistake, and the prosecutor joined in. I forced myself to laugh because I didn't want my young client, a white child who had been prosecuted as an adult, to be disadvantaged by a conflict I had created with the judge before the hearing. But I was disheartened by the experience. Of course innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by a people of color that can't be understood without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice."   –  Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), 300-301. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative.

Michelle Alexander:

"The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-called underclass is better understood as an undercaste—a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society. Although the new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race. . . . 

"Racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago."   – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 13, 14. Michelle Alexander teaches law at Ohio State University and is a civil rights activist and writer.

Rahiel Tesfamariam:

"Despite the fact that a black man has held the highest political seat in the world for five years, countless African Americans continue to be unjustly profiled daily. Whether it’s unwarranted stop-and-frisk incidents or deadly “mistaken identity” tragedies,  the price for racial bias and fear is paid seemingly everyday. And it goes beyond police brutality, reaching the porches of American homes." – Rahiel Tesfamariam, "Renisha McBride's Killing and Equal Opportunity Racial Hatred," RahielTesfamariam.com, November 13, 2013. Rahiel Tesfamariam is a social activist, public theologian, writer, and international speaker.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

"'White America' is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct *lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, 'white people' would cease to exist."   – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 42. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an American writer and journalist. Currently he is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

Cornel West:

"Black people in the United States differ from all other modern people owing to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence directed at them. No other people have been taught systematically to hate themselves—psychic violence—reinforced by the powers of state and civic coercion—physical violence—for the primary purpose of controlling their minds and exploiting their labor for nearly four hundred years.   – Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), xiii. Cornel West teaches philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of over twenty books and editor of thirteen.

Christopher J. Lebron:

"It is one thing to witness a black corpse hanging from a tree; it is another for black suffering to become less overtly corporeal and increasingly economically, politically, and sociologically systemic. Yet, while we no longer publicly hang blacks by the neck, the fact of systemic racial inequality poses an existential threat all the same for it indicates America's lack of consistency to the ideal of moral equality, which has real costs for black lives. Stated succinctly, systemic inequality consistently and persistently diminishes the ability of blacks to conceive and/or pursue a good life."   – Christopher J. Lebron, The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2. Christopher Lebron teaches philosophy and African American studies at Yale University.

George Yancy:

"'Look, a Negro!' The utterance grabs one's attention. It announces something to be seen, to be looked at, to be noticed, to be watched, and, in the end, to be controlled. . . . 'Look, a Negro!' elicits white fear and trembling, perhaps a prayer that one will not be accosted. In short, 'Look' has built in it—when followed by 'a Negro!'—a gestured warning against a possible threat, cautioning those whites within earshot to be on guard, to lock their car doors, to hold their wallets and purses for dear life, to gather their children together, to prepare to move house, and (in some cases) to protect the 'purity' of white women and to protect white men from the manipulating dark temptress."   – George Yancy, Look! A White (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), 1. George Yancy teaches philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

James Baldwin:

"This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry."   – James Baldwin, "A Letter to My Nephew," in James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: The Dial Press, 1963), first published in The Progressive (December 1962). James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, poet, and social critic.

Malcolm X:

"Brothers and sisters, the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We're worshiping a Jesus that doesn't even look like us! Oh, yes! . . . Now, just think of this. The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that's his God, the white man's God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we're dead, while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on this earth!"   – Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 230—a speech recounted by Malcolm X. Malcolm X (1825-1965) gave numerous speeches before his assassination at age 39.

Rosa Parks:

"I don't think any segregation law angered black people in Montgomery more than bus segregation. And that had been so since the laws about segregation on public transportation had been passed. That was back in 1900, and black people had boycotted Montgomery streetcars until the City Council changed its ordinance so that nobody would be forced to give up a seat unless there was another seat to move to. But over the years practices had changed, although the law had not. When I was put off the bus back in 1943, the bus driver was really against the law. In 1945, two years after that incident, the State of Alabama passed a law requiring that all bus companies under its jurisdiction enforce segregation. But that law did not spell out what bus drivers were supposed to do in a case like mine.

"Here it was, half a century after the first segregation law, and there were 50,000 African Americans in Montgomery. More of us rode the buses than Caucasians did, because more whites could afford cars. It was very humiliating having to suffer the indignity of riding segregated buses twice a day, five days a week, to go downtown and work for white people. . . .

"When I got off from work that evening of December 1, 1955, I went to Court Square as usual to catch the Cleveland Avenue bus home. I didn't look to see who was driving when I got on, and by the time I recognized him, I had already paid my fare. It was the same driver who had put me off the bus back in 1943, twelve years earlier. He was still tall and heavy, with red, rough-looking skin. And he was still mean-looking. I didn't know if he had been on that route before—they switched the drivers around sometimes. I do know that most of the time if I saw him on a bus, I wouldn't get on it. . .

"I was sitting in the front seat of the colored section. . . . The white people were sitting in the white section. More white people got on, and they filled up all the seats in the white section. When that happened, we black people were supposed to give up our seats to the whites. But I didn't move. The white driver said, 'Let me have those front seats.' I didn't get up. I was tired of giving in to white people.

"'I'm going to have you arrested,' the driver said.

"'You may do that,' I answered.

"Two white policemen came. I asked one of them, 'Why do you all push us around?'

"He answered, 'I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest.'"

     – Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story (New York: Puffin Books, 1992), 108-109, 113, 1. Rosa Parks (1913-2005)  was a Civil Rights activist whose act of defiance sparked a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Civil Rights Era: 1950s and 1960s

Martin Luther King Jr.:

"The system of slavery and segregation caused many Negroes to feel that perhaps they were inferior. This is the ultimate tragedy of segregation. It not only harms one physically, but it injures one spiritually. It scars the soul and distorts the personality. It inflicts the segregator with a false sense of superiority while inflicting the segregated with a false sense of inferiority."   –  Martin Luther King, "The Current Crisis in Race Relations." in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 85. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a prominent leader in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.:

"Too many Americans remain committed to white privilege and are willing to defend that privilege at whatever cost. They refuse to give up the idea that white lives matter more than others. That refusal, with all its damaging effects, requires a radical response. We cannot stick our heads in the sand with the hope that they will finally do the right thing. We have to be boldly black, in all the complex ways our lives suggest, in the name of democracy. We have to say, without qualification, BlackLivesMatter!     

"Obviously, we know we matter. The phrase isn't about asserting our humanity to folks who deny it. The voices of our mighty dead shout back that the price of that ticket has been paid already. No. BlackLivesMatter reminds white people that their lives do not matter more than others. It is a direct challenge to white supremacy."   – Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016), 204-5. Eddie Glaube is a professor at Princeton University, teaching in the religion department and the Department of African American Studies.

James Cone:

"White people have never regarded us as human beings. There is a deep fear in me still that when I walk out on the street I will end up dead."   – James Cone, in David Remnick, "Blood at the Root," The New Yorker (Sept. 28, 2015), 30-31. James Cone is an American theologian best known for his advocacy of Black Liberation Theology. He currently teaches at Union Theological Seminary.

Alicia Garza:

"What we are dealing with right now is a disease that has plagued America since its inception. Convicting a few cops isn't going to deal with that disease. We've been trying hard this year to be clear that state violence is bigger than police terrorism. Although police terrorism plays a specific role on behalf of the state, it is not the totality of what state violence looks like or feels like in our communities. We've been shifting the narrative to talk about state violence being structural racism. Given that, what we are lifting up here is that we need a bigger vision than just Band-Aid reforms—we need to move towards a transformative vision that touches on what's at the root of the problems we are facing."   – Alicia Garza, "A Q&A with Alicia Garza, a Co-Founder of #BlackLivesMatter," by Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation (March 24, 2015). Alicia Garza is one of the three founders in 2013 of Black Lives Matter, an international activist movement that campaigns against violence toward black people.

Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton:

"Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type. . . .      

"Institutional racism relies on the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices. A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are 'better' than blacks; therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. . . .

"'Respectable' individuals can absolve themselves from individual blame: they would never plant a bomb in a church; they would never stone a black family. But they continue to support political officials and institutions that would and do perpetuate institutionally racist policies."   – Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 4-5. Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998), whose picture appears above, was active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Other Eras

Sojourner Truth (1863):

"Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? Does it not cast reproach on our Maker to despise a part of his children, because he has been pleased to give them a black skin? Indeed, children, it does; and your teachers ought to tell you so, and root up, if possible, the great sin of prejudice against color from your minds. While Sabbath School Teachers know of this great sin, and not only do not teach their pupils that it is a sin, but too often indulge in it themselves, can they expect God to bless them or the children?     

"Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other? If so, white children must know that if they go to heaven, they must go there without their prejudice against color, for in heaven black and white are one in the love of Jesus. Now children, remember what Sojourner Truth has told you, and thus get rid of your prejudice, and learn to love colored children that you may be all the children of your Father who is in heaven."   – Sojourner Truth, from a speech to the state Sabbath School Convention, Battle Creek, Michigan, as reported in an unidentified newspaper, June 12, 1863 http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches/. Sojourner Truth (about 1797-1883) was born into slavery but escaped in 1826. Her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, delivered in 1851, became widely known during the Civil War.

James Cone:

"Many whites pretend that they do not understand what the black man is demanding. Theologians and churchmen have been of little help in this matter because much of their intellectualizing has gone into analyzing the idea of God's righteousness in a fashion far removed from the daily experiences of men. They fail to give proper emphasis to another equally  if not more important concern, namely, the biblical idea of God's righteousness as the divine decision to vindicate the poor, the needy, and the helpless in society. It seems that much of this abstract theological disputation and speculation—the favorite pastime for many theological societies—serves as a substitute for relevant involvement in a world where men die for lack of political justice. A black theologian wants to know what the gospel has to say to a man who is jobless and cannot get work to support his family because the society is unjust. He wants to know what is God's Word to the countless black boys and girls who are fatherless and motherless because white society decreed that blacks have no rights."   – James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Seabury Press, 1969), 43. James Cone (1938- ). Cone, an advocate of Black Liberation Theology, has taught theology and religion for many years.

W. E. B. DuBois (1903):

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.     

"And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow crept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil."   – W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903), reprinted in The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), 1-2. DuBois (1868-1963), a civil rights activist, taught history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University.

Assata Shakur (1987):

"One day a friend asked me why i didn’t wear my hair in an Afro, natural. The thought had honestly never occurred to me. In those days, there weren’t too many Afros on the set. But the more i thought about it, the better it sounded. I had always hated frying my hair—burnt ears, a smokey straightening, and the stink of your own hair burning. How many nights had i spent trying to sleep on curlers, bound with scarves that cut into my head like a tourniquet. Afraid to go to the beach, afraid to walk in the rain, afraid to make passionate love on hot summer nights if i had to get up and go to work in the morning. Afraid my hair would ‘go back.’ Back to where? Back to the devil or Africa. The permanent was even worse: trying to sit calmly while lye was eating its way into my brain. Clumps of hair falling out. The hair on your head feeling like someone else’s.     

"And then i became aware of a whole new generation of Black women hiding under wigs. Ashamed of their hair—if they had any left. It was sad and disgusting. At the time, my hair was conked, but the hairdresser said it was 'relaxed.' to make it natural, i literally had to cut the conk off. I cut it myself and then stood under the shower for hours melting the conk out. At last, my hair was free. On the subway the next day, people stared at me, but my friends at school were supportive and encouraging. People are right when they say it's not what you have on your head but what you have in it. You can be a revolutionary-thinking person and have your hair fried up. And you can have an Afro and be a traitor to Black people. But for me, how you dress and how you look have always reflected what you have to say about yourself. When you wear your hair a certain way or when you wear a certain type of clothes, you are making a statement about yourself. When you go through all your life processing and abusing your hair so it will look like the hair of another race of people, then you are making a statement and the statement is clear. I don't care if it's the curly conk, latex locks, or whatever, you're making a statement.     

"It was a matter of simple statement for me. This is who i am and this is how i like to look. This is what i think is beautiful. You can spend a lifetime discovering African-style hairdressers, there are so many of them, and so many creative, natural styles yet to be invented. For me, it was important not just because of how it made me feel but because of the world in which i lived. In a country that is trying to completely negate the image of Black people, that constantly tells us we are nothing, or culture is nothing, i felt and still feel that we have got to constantly make positive statements about ourselves. Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do. We have accepted too much of a negative lifestyle and a negative culture and have to consciously act to rid ourselves of that negative influence. Maybe in another time, when everybody is equal and free, it won't matter how anybody wears their hair or dresses or looks. Then there won't be any oppressors to mimic or avoid mimicking. But right now i think it's important for us to look and feel like strong, proud black men and women who are looking toward Africa for guidance."   – Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987) , 174-5. Shakur was an active member of the Black Panther Party during the 1960s.

Shirley Chisholm (1974):

"The black woman lives in a society that discriminates against her on two counts. The black woman cannot be discussed in the same context as her Caucasian counterpart because of the twin jeopardy of race and sex which operates against her, and the psychological and political consequences which attend them. Black women are crushed by the cultural restraints and abused by the legitimate power structure. To date, neither the black movement nor women's liberation succinctly addresses itself to the dilemma confronting the black who is female. . . .    

"Historically she has been discouraged from participating in politics. Thus she is trapped between the walls of the dominant white culture and her own subculture, both of which encourage deference to men. Both races of women have traditionally been limited to performing such tasks as opening envelopes, hanging up posters and giving teas. And the minimal involvement of black women exists because they have been systematically excluded from the political process and they are members of the politically dysfunctional black lower class. Thus, unlike white women, who escape the psychological and sociological handicaps of racism, the black woman's political involvement has been a most marginal role."   – Shirley Chisholm, "The Black Woman in Contemporary America," a speech given at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, June 17, 1974:  http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/schisholm.html. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was the first African American women elected to the United States Congress, where she served for seven terms, from 1969 to 1983.

Albert G. Mosley (1996):

"Many White males have developed expectations about the likelihood of their being selected for educational, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities that are realistic only because of the general exclusion of women and non-Whites as competitors for such positions. Individuals enjoying inflated odds of obtaining such opportunities because of racist and sexist practices are recipients of 'unjust enrichment.' . . . 

"The unjust appropriation of wealth from Blacks did not end with the abolishment of slavery. White immigrants benefited substantially from racism by being given preference for benefits over Blacks. The free White artisan and working class were especially hostile to Blacks because they viewed freed slaves as potential competitors. . . . In the economic struggle that capitalism encourages, racism became a formidable weapon used by the White working class in order to eliminate competition from Black workers. As a result, the status of Blacks after the abolishment of slavery was (with the exception of the radical reconstruction era) simply a continuation of conditions that had prevailed during slavery."   – Albert G. Mosley and Nicholas Capaldi, Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Unfair Preference? (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996), 26, 36. Albert G. Mosley teaches philosophy at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

                                                              From the Perspective of a Child

Martin Luther King, Jr. (six years old):

"From the age of three I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together. He did not live in our community, but he was usually around every day; his father owned a store across the street from our home. At the age of six we both entered school—separate schools, of course. I remember how our friendship began to break as soon as we entered school; this was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement.     

"We were at the dinner table when the situation was discussed, and here for the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem. I had never been conscious of it before. As my parents discussed some of the tragedies that had resulted from this problem and some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it, I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow.

"My parents would always tell me that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him. The question arose in my mind: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years."   – Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998), 7. This autobiography was complied by Clayborne Carson from the letters, speeches, and published writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).

Charlise Lyles (eleven years old):

"Bent on broadening our horizons still further, Momma had signed me and Tinky up for Friendly Town as soon as she found out about it from one of the local community centers. A one-sided socio-exchange program, Friendly Towers exported inner-city kids to white suburban households for one week. It was a benevolent-spirited effort put together by integration-minded blacks and whites. To Momma, Friendly Town was our chance to learn young the mechanics of dealing with white people, lessons she had learned late in life. Plus, we would get to see how nice they lived way out in the suburbs. Maybe we would hope to live that way too someday. And even though she was still mad at the whites for the riots and a whole lot of things, Momma believed in Friendly Town as yet another opportunity that her babies just couldn’t pass up.     

"The idea appealed to me, too. My bossy hallway playmates, Dee-Dee in particular, had grown boring. A week away from the project would do me good. Plus, Momma said that the Hedwicks would teach me how to swim and play new games. Still, there was nervousness. The Hedwicks were definitely white, and besides Mrs. Bryant, my kindergarten teacher, I hadn’t really gotten to know too many white people. The Panthers who marched through the project each Saturday had said it was better not to get to know them. But Momma said the Hedwicks were the nice kind of white people who were sorry for all the lowdown, dirty things their ancestors had done and were trying to make up for it by being in the Friendly Town program."   – Charlise Lyles, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? From the Projects to Prep School: A Memoir, Second Edition (Cleveland: Gray And Company, 2008), 93-94. Charlise Lyles is a journalist. She is the co-founding editor of Catalyst Cleveland, now Catalyst Ohio magazine, which analyzes urban school improvement issues.


List of articles by Cliff Williams on race


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