Child Watch® Column:
Changing Our Racial Narrative

Release Date: August 5, 2016

Marian Wright Edelman

“There is a narrative that explains how we got here.”

Bryan Stevenson, the brilliant founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, believes it’s possible to change our nation and world despite the inequality and violence that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. He’s thought long and hard about the steps needed and believes a key to changing America’s future is changing the narrative we tell ourselves about our shared past. This is especially true about our legacy of Native American genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, and the injustices throughout our history that linger and simmer under the surface then boil over again and again. He speaks often about the urgent need to confront our historic narrative including recently to young servant leaders preparing to teach children in Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® programs across America.

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"There is a narrative that explains how we got here. Mass incarceration was created by policy decisions. We decided to deal with drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue . . . We didn’t do that for alcoholism. We said, ‘Alcoholism, that’s a disease,’ and now we don’t have a consciousness that when we see an alcoholic going into a bar that we have to call the police — but we didn’t do that for drug addiction. The reason why we didn’t do that was because of a narrative. And there’s a narrative of fear and anger out there.”

He continued: “You see, there’s a smog that’s hovering in the air. It’s a pollution created by our history of racial inequality . . . We’ve got to talk about the fact that we are a post-genocidal society. There was a genocide on this continent. When White settlers came, they killed millions of Native people. It was a genocide where famine and war and disease destroyed a whole culture, and there are things you have to do to recover from genocide that we haven’t done. And because we didn’t deal with that, we created this narrative of racial difference that allowed us to tolerate slavery.”

“And when we talk about slavery, we have to understand what we’re talking about. I don’t think the great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude and forced labor. I think the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it. The great evil of American slavery was the ideology of White supremacy that we made up to legitimate the way we treated people of color, and we didn’t deal with that . . . And because of that, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence. And we’ve got to deal with what it’s turned into.”

“From the end of Reconstruction until World War II, people of color were terrorized, pulled out of their homes, lynched, burned alive, taken from jails, hanged, shot. Older people of color come up to me sometimes and say, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I get angry when I hear somebody on TV talking about how we’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.’ They say, ‘We grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed and lynched every day of our lives,’ and we’ve got to tell that story.”

“When I look at this country, I look at a country whose demographic geography was shaped by terror. The Black people that are in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit — those of you who live in these cities in the North and West, you need to understand how you got there. The Black people in New York and Boston and Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland didn’t go to those communities as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South. And there are things you’re supposed to do for refugees that we didn’t do, and that turned into this era of segregation.”

“And I have to tell you, I think we have to change the narrative of how we think and talk about civil rights . . . I hear people talking about the Civil Rights Movement, and it sounds like a three-day carnival: On day one, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington, and on day three, we changed all the laws and racism was over. And we’ve got to change that narrative. Because the truth is that for decades in this country, we had segregation, and segregation was brutal. We told Black people that they couldn’t vote just because they’re Black. We told Black kids you couldn’t go to school because you’re Black. My parents were humiliated every day of their lives. Those signs that said ‘White’ and ‘colored’ weren’t directions. They were assaults. And we haven’t done the things you’re supposed to do to help recover from those assaults.”

“We should have committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation in the 1960s — but we didn’t do that. And because we didn’t do that, now we are suffering from a presumption of dangerousness and guilt, and we have to deal with it. Black and Brown people in this country are presumed dangerous. They’re presumed guilty. It is the reason why we’re having these issues with police on our streets, and we’ve got to change that narrative.” 

The events of this summer continue to prove that we must change our national racial narrative to keep moving forward together. When Bryan Stevenson spoke about the narrative of fear and anger, he added: “I will tell you that you can’t do justice rooted in fear and anger. To do justice, you’ve got to get past fear, past anger, and believe things you have not seen.” Those of us who have spent our entire lives fighting for freedom and justice understand. As a nation we are desperately overdue for truth and reconciliation. We need both to allow us to move past fear and anger and toward a country we have not yet seen but we must never stop believing in and building — an America finally ready to “do justice” for everyone.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by PF at: August 21, 2016
Thank you for breaking this down in reasonable and honest way. We sometimes know these things but the need to be put in a clear way we can make the connections.

Submitted by Loy Johnson at: August 20, 2016
I love this article. It is broad-sighted and succinct. A very palatable assessment of our current problems. We white folks need a new pair of glasses. Our vision has terribly distorted by the lies we have been told and continue to tell. Many are desperately afraid of losing their power over others, of being knocked off the top ladder of success and wealth. Are we too weak and horrified of our own level of culpability to take an honest look at what is really going on? Are we not strong enough to own up to what is going on? I for one, am attempting to stay woke so that I may be an agent of change. And I am attempting to be the change that takes us all toward a more equitable and sane way of living together on this earth. Gracious God, please help us all.

Submitted by Ken at: August 12, 2016
Great commentary

Submitted by Emma at: August 11, 2016
How we will get this information to our nation, a our neighbors and our allies. Perhaps one person at a time. We have lived with the lies. Do we have a nation ready to hear the truth? Will shifts begin that will save our youth ?

Submitted by Marilynn Ward at: August 11, 2016
I absolutely agree. As an educator, the root of fear is prevalent in our schools. It is necessary to believe that all children can learn and succeed in this great country. It sadden me to know that many children are seen incapable of performing because of their skin color our social economic status. There are too many children entering the criminal justice system because of the narrative that starts at birth. The time has come that we all must change the narrative and act diligently in truth, mercy, and justice.

Submitted by Dawn at: August 10, 2016
Loved it.

Submitted by Lester at: August 9, 2016
Terrorism, in America, is as older than this nation. Slavery, the Trail of Tears, biological warfare against Native Americans and so many people who just disappeared, into the night. All of these and so many more lie at the feet of America and her leaders, past and present.

Submitted by DD at: August 9, 2016
I shed tears...because I wake up daily and pray for strength and clarity as I work to provide hope and support to a community in crisis. Young mothers pregnant with no place to live, no food to feed themselves or their children, no money to buy diapers, and no vision of the future because they are struggling so desperately to make it through the day. Beautiful faces hardened by life. I shed tears when I go home so depleted of energy that I find myself too tired and too cranky to give my own children the attention they deserve. I shed tears because when I am at my breaking point, when I think I can't do it anymore, when I can't hold hope for my community because I'm drowning in a system that has more reasons why it can't than it has willingness to fight for policy change so that it can...just when I am there I get an email. Thank you for this article. God is good and right on time...I needed hope.

Submitted by Butch at: August 9, 2016
Brilliant. Thanks, Mr. Stevenson and Mrs. Edelman!

Submitted by Shan at: August 9, 2016
YES!!!!! Absolutely spot on!

Submitted by Jerene at: August 9, 2016
We need truth and reconciliation. How do we make this a reality?

Submitted by Donna Dee at: August 9, 2016
The truth shall set up free. The stories we must tell to lift the veil to discover our Glory.

Submitted by Tulasiram Thapa at: August 9, 2016
I am fully positive to this renounced organization and hope join with opening such kind of organization in my poor country where many people are under poverty abd have different cultural affairs. Thank you very much.

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 9, 2016
It is encouraging to hear younger folks acknowledging the historic truth, with strategies to move forward in strength. This article strengthens my resolve, to publish my book about the "Negro Migration" and the realities of the "crossing over" to the north. Thanks again.

Submitted by Bubba at: August 9, 2016
Care for the children. Thank you.

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 9, 2016
It is a great column. It is something that I have been saying for years, we must stop letting people define us and telling our story! Until we do this the lies will continue about our children being unable to learn, we are lazy, or that we are stupid.

Submitted by Mary Lou at: August 8, 2016
Amen! Our children cannot be raised on untrue myths. therefore we must face the truth, repent the pain we caused, and let our children grow strong in truth and help lead the way for us.

Submitted by liljohn at: August 8, 2016
This is the most cogent explanation I've seen about the problem - and it is a problem, not an issue.

Submitted by Ike at: August 8, 2016
This is conceptualized in a very thoughtful and intelligent way. My hope is that people will take the messages to heart and use them for a kinder relationships and society.

Submitted by underwriter505 at: August 6, 2016
This the best and most comprehensive explanation I have ever heard of why all the good intentions of those us of good will who worked so hard in the sixties and seventies for change ultimately have not succeeded. Thank you, Mrs. Edelman and Mr Stevenson.