Justice

This Viral Video of James Baldwin on Racism Is Still Chillingly True

October 20th 2015

By:
Kyle Jaeger

In a 1968 interview with Dick Cavett, novelist and activist James Baldwin broke down institutional racism in America effectively and eloquently, arguing that it does not necessarily matter whether or not those in positions of power maintain racist convictions because evidence of racial prejudice can be clearly seen through laws and cultural norms.

A 60-second video from the interview has recently reemerged online, and one of the reasons it's going viral is that it reflects problems that continue to affect Black people in the U.S. nearly 50 years later.


"I don't know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions," Baldwin says. He went on to list several American institutions—churches, labor unions, the housing market, and schools—explaining how prejudicial policies are carried out, often behind closed doors. The division of races is most apparent, he argues, within these institutions.

"Now, this is the evidence," Baldwin declares. "You want me to make an act of faith—risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children—on some idealization which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen."

Though the country's laws have changed since 1968, many of the institutions charged with creating and enforcing those laws—especially in the criminal justice system—have been criticized for disproportionately penalizing Black Americans. According to the ACLU, one in three Black men can be expected to face incarceration in his lifetime; for white men, that rate is one in 17.

RELATED: This One Graphic Sums Up the Devastating Racial Disparities in Our Prisons

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken up many of the racial justice issues that Baldwin addressed, casting them in a modern light. In particular, Coates highlighted the impact of racist housing policies in America, making an argument for reparations.

"With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage," Coates wrote. "An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.

(h/t Shaun King)