Dr. Daina Ramey Berry is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History and the incoming chairperson of the department at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s an author and a commentator for radio and television. Her latest book, "A Black Woman's History of the United States," was published in 2020 and co-authored by Kali Nicole Gross. Berry is passionate about bringing her historical knowledge to museums and historical societies across the United States as a consultant. In 2016, she provided historical input and served as a technical advisor for the A&E and History Channel remake of "Roots" by Alex Haley. Berry earned undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. degrees from UCLA.
This is the eleventh 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.
Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History, The University of Texas at Austin
Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?
A: We are witnessing a growing movement of civic unrest among people fed up with racial injustice that has plagued our nation since its founding. African Americans and allies are tired of seeing and learning about the violent deaths in our communities. People are being killed during daily activities: going on a run, shopping at a convenience store, watching television at home, hanging out in their backyards, playing in playgrounds and sleeping in their beds. Yet, law enforcement and ordinary citizens who committed these murders have not been brought to justice in a way that satisfies the masses.
Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?
A: This is an inflection point that has already resulted in changes, however, time will reveal whether these changes are long term. For example, in addition to initial endorsements, major corporations donated money to organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative, the National Urban League, the ACLU, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Colleges and Universities committed funding resources to students of color, announced special centers on race and justice, and developed recruitment and retention programs aimed to increase the number of Black faculty and students. All over the world, statues are coming down, building and street names are changing, but most important, conversations among diverse groups of people are happening in neighborhoods and communities.
Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?
A: There are obvious moments in the 20th century such as the Civil Rights Movement, the various prison riots in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the Los Angeles Riots in the 1990s, but people of African descent and allies have been demanding justice since their arrival. Enslaved people fought for freedom, free Blacks fought for equality, and contemporary Americans struggle for these same basic principles. To see hunger strikes at ICE detention centers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, one cannot help but recognize that oppressed people understand the desire for dignity and respect.
Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?
A: Simple answer: End racial discrimination by enacting systematic changes in all areas including housing, business, education, healthcare, employment, etc. by allocating resources to address disparities in these settings. Listen to Black people in the small corners of the world that you occupy. Be more inclusive and think about representation, not tokenism. Are there people of color on your boards, at your places of employment, in your neighborhood, at your schools? Finally, revise curriculum standards and textbooks to include the experiences of people of color.
Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?
A: To me, social justice means that all human beings are given equal opportunities that are evenly distributed and certain groups are not allowed privileges denied to others. Landmark cases in our history including Scott v. Sanford (1857); Plessy V. Ferguson (1896); and Brown v. Board (1954), as well as the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, addressed issues of inequality and access. And even though basic human rights are articulated in the founding documents of our country, they have not always been practiced. Thus, when wrongdoings occur, advocates for social justice demand an adjustment to account for and address it.
Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?
A: My basic message is healing through education because of where I sit professionally. However, disparities need to be addressed in other areas such as employment, housing, healthcare, legislation, and politics. In these settings, we need to raise awareness to disparities and administer forms of economic and social redress. We need to have serious conversations about voter suppression, food insecurity, and the legal rights of marginalized people. We need to adopt the anti-lynching bill, provide reparations for slavery, protect the trans-community, and offer expanded services to poor, disabled and incarcerated people.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
A: Optimistically stressed yet cautiously hopeful.