Saying Goodbye To The Kojo Nnamdi Show
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The recent protests for Black lives have sparked conversations about race in America. Some have started difficult conversations with their colleagues, friends and families. Others have explored new ideas about racism and oppression through books. And some are investing in academic research about race.
D.C.’s public university is doing just that. In June, the University of the District of Columbia launched the Institute for the Study and Elimination of White Supremacy in America. UDC President Ronald Mason Jr. explains why he started the institute:
“George [Floyd] has opened the eyes of the world to the challenge before us: to confront white supremacy, the roadblock to a better America; to understand how it works and what it does; to dismantle it and to redesign the nation so that none of our human potential is wasted for the sake of the few.”
What role do academic institutions play in this moment of racial reckoning? And how does focusing on white supremacy help confront racism? Mason sits down with Kojo to talk about the new institute and this moment in history.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In this moment of racial reckoning, many have focused on race and racism, but some say you should focus instead on the phenomenon they stem from: white supremacy. That's what my guest today thinks, and he created a whole new institute to jumpstart the process. Joining me now, Ronald Mason, Jr., president of the University of the District of Columbia. President Mason, thank you for joining us.
RONALD MASONThank you for having me. Good to talk to you again.
NNAMDIWhat is the Institute for the Study and Elimination of White Supremacy in America? And when did you first get the idea to start it?
MASONLet me sort of walk you through it in a couple of minutes.
MASONYou know, I've been doing this kind of work for quite a while now. I've run three HBCUs, and I've worked in a co-op movement in public housing. And I sort of noticed that the needle really hasn't changed when you look at the numbers in terms of the wealth gap, the digital divide and economic, you know, differences between the black community and the white community.
MASONAnd then when we got here to UDC, you know, the work sort of took me to this point where we were looking at the need for talent and, you know, asked ourselves: Why can't America produce the talent that it needs? And then our equity imperative strategic plan here assumes that -- or rather the vision of the plan is that all of our students will be able to reach the highest levels of human potential.
MASONAnd it just sort of hit me that, you know, you can't talk about equity and racial justice as long as America is committed to this principle of white supremacy, which is part of the design of the nation. And we define it as sort of a three-legged stool. The power of wealth, where 70 percent of the wealth in this country is controlled by 10 percent of the population. And 90 percent of that 10 percent is white. The advantage of whiteness, which means that most white folks really aren't privileged or wealthy, but they do have the advantage of being the first ones in lines to get a job. And then the third leg is the oppression of people of color in America, that is a most extreme example is the oppression of black people.
MASONAnd so, when the nation is built with those systems in place and around that principle, you really can't produce the talent you need, because more talent is wasted and suppressed than is produced by our education system. And students can't reach their highest level of human potential, because the opportunity is clogged up at the top of the pipeline.
NNAMDIRonald Mason, most universities with similar institutes to this are focused on race and racism, like the Antiracism Research and Policy Center at American University. First, how are the goals of your institute different than those that are focused on issues of racism?
MASONSo, a couple of things. One, this really started out as a personal project, where I was going to start a separate 501C3 to take on this work, because I think part of the challenge is that no one's ever claimed the work. You know, racism is a tool of white supremacy, but the root cause of the inequities is white supremacy. And so, when you Google organizations that are in this space, you don't see any that claim the root cause, which is white supremacy.
MASONBut it's not -- we're not certain yet whether it's going to -- how it's going to relate to UDC. I want to make that clear. You know, the board is still -- and I'm still trying to work with the board to decide whether it's going to be an affiliate organization, part of the core of the institution. And we're still working on the website and those sorts of things.
MASONBut I think the difference is that, you know, you can work on undoing racism and never, ever get at this issue of white supremacy, because it's so engrained and so fully integrated into everything about America and everyday American life. And if you look at all of the institutes and centers over the years that have been focused on equity and focused on undoing racism and focused on microaggressions, you know, if you're at it long enough, you can sort of see the cycle.
MASONIn fact, I used to be a trainer in undoing racism years ago. You know, I've worked with civil rights folks who have been in the movement and have watched the cycle come and go. But at the end of the day, this system that is designed to benefit a very few, is part of the design of the country, is still doing what it does while everybody else is trying to figure out ways to address it obliquely without taking it on directly.
NNAMDIYou put together an audio piece that starts to get at the many ways white supremacy touches black people's lives. It's called "I Knew George." And I'd like to play the beginning of it for our listeners now. Here it is.
MASONI knew George. I grew up with him, except his name wasn't George. It was Adam and Joe and Lloyd. If you grew up where I grew up, he was just one of the crew. He was a big man at school, a star athlete, but when we hung out on the corner, he was just George or Adam or Joe or Lloyd. A regular guy. A really good dude.
MASONNow George is gone. It was a cop's knee on his neck that finally did him in. For Adam, it was suicide, Joe took a bullet in the back, and Lloyd, well, his heart just gave out. George was a bright light dimmed by poverty, unemployment, under education, racial profiling and the fight to survive. His light was snuffed out because he was black in America. The knee on his neck or the suicide or the bullet or the heart attack was simply the final puff of a lifetime. No generations of extinguishment.
NNAMDIThat was from an audio piece by UDC President Ronald Mason, Jr. called "I Knew George." Why did you decide to do that?
MASONWell, it actually grew out of a letter that I wrote to the community here when the unrest started after the murder of George Floyd. And then we decided to do a memorial on Juneteenth, and one thing led to another. And that ended up being us darkening the campus for eight minutes and 46 seconds eight nights in a row in commemoration of what was going on with George Floyd and the aftermath.
MASONAnd then on the ninth night, we decided to kneel that extra night to commemorate all of the George Floyds who, over the years, have succumbed to really the violence of white supremacy in America.
NNAMDIHere is Richard -- go ahead, please. Please, go ahead, Ronald Mason.
MASONNo, that was it. It was -- and then the other part was that, you know, there are a lot of young people out here now that are on the streets protesting, but some of us older folks, especially in this pandemic, wanted to show support. And so that was one way for us to do it without, you know, exposing ourselves to the virus.
NNAMDIHere's Richard in Silver Spring, Maryland. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDHi. Thanks very much for taking my call.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Go ahead.
RICHARDSo, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to speak with President Mason. As I was telling your colleague, Kojo, I'm an attorney in Maryland. And, on the side, I teach middle school and high school students. And a few years ago, I started an innovative curriculum on social entrepreneurship and advocacy, and it has its roots in fighting anti-Semitism, racism and all other forms of discrimination. And I would love to take President Mason out for a cup of coffee and see if we can partner, because I think we're fighting exactly the same battle.
NNAMDIWell, that's what we're here to clarify, so thank you very much for your call, Richard. President Mason, when you say white supremacy, a lot of people might think that only refers to, oh, fringe white nationalist organizations like Patriot Front or Vanguard America. Not a system under which we live. How do you respond to that characterization?
MASONWell, you know, most people -- that's why the institute is to study and eliminate, because most people don't really understand what it is. And, in understanding, we can see how it doesn't serve the interest of a nation that wants to be the light of the world. You know, 10 of the first 12 presidents owned slaves. Lincoln thought the best solution after freeing the slaves was to ship them all to Panama.
MASONIf you Google an organization today called The Council of Conservative Citizens and look at the principles of their foundation, you know, that is the national descendent of what used to be the White Citizens Council. There was the overtly violent component of the Ku Klux Klan, but there was always the CEOs and elected officials that were supporting the same agenda of white supremacy. And if you look at that Council of Conservative Citizens' agenda today, you can see that it's almost verbatim the agenda that is being implemented by the current administration in the White House.
MASONAnd so, sure, there's the obvious violence, but the fact is that even going back to slavery, white supremacy is a violent system, overall. And even the impact, for example, the disproportionate impact of the COVID pandemic on poor people and black people is a consequence of the impact of that overall system on poor people and black people in America.
NNAMDIBy the way, Richard, thank you for your call. We will take your number and pass it on to President Mason. But, President Mason, everyone is responding differently to the national focus on systemic racism. Some are trying to ignore or deny that there's a problem. Others are reading about issues and talking with family and friends. And still, others are marching in the streets or pushing for different laws like police reform. You said that you haven't yet decided whether this would be a UDC program, but what's the role, in your view, of academic institutions, like the one you're proposing, in addressing this moment?
MASONWell, you know, our role is to understand and disseminate knowledge. And if you serve the students correctly, properly, then you cannot explain America without explaining the role that the system of white supremacy has played historically and continues to play. If you're an institution like UDC, which has, as its strategic plan, the equity imperative, you know, part of the education process has to be to help our students understand not only the challenges that they face just because of who they are and where they come from and the nation they live in, but also a means of surviving it. And ultimately ways to dismantle it, so that, you know, we can achieve this idea that we call America, which is still really an experiment.
MASONYou know, the notion that all people are created equal and have inalienable rights, but, you know, we have to provide a complete understanding of who we are, what we are, what's necessary to survive where we are, but also what tools can we develop and understand in order to be able to achieve the goal that America claims it wants to be.
NNAMDIDo you think that it is a role of some part of universities to be inherently activist-oriented?
MASONI would say that it goes with the turf in the sense that, you know, we are in the business of educating young minds. And most activist movements, historically, have been with young people. I know that during the course of the recent civil unrest, we stayed in close contact with a lot of our students, many of whom were the leaders of some of the work that was going on out there.
MASONAnd, you know, it was an iterative process where, you know, we learn from each other. And if the ultimate goal is to create a better world, then it's hard for me to see how a university that is in the business of working with young people cannot at least touch on the role of activism in creating the world that we want to create.
NNAMDIHere's Jerry in McLean, Virginia. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYWell, I have to congratulate President Ronald Mason for the stance that he's taken and the goals that he's trying to reach. I agree, you can't deal with racial prejudices unless you tackle white supremacy. And as an older guy and the son of parents who went through the Great Depression and the Second World War, I've been raised, though, to take a larger view. And perhaps President Mason could, also. Why not raise your voice against economic injustice and exploitation? You raise your voice against criminal injustice. Cite the political disenfranchisement. In other words, we would like to hear your voice for national leadership. Your audience is not just the university and its students. Thank you so much.
MASONYeah, I actually agree with what the gentleman said. If you noticed, I said that there were three legs to the stool of white supremacy. And the first one is the power of wealth. And so that, you know, I'm very clear that the issue of race is one that ultimately serves to perpetuate the power of wealth. And, you know, America is a caste system. There's some work that's been done on that perspective lately, but it's a caste system based on race. And in America, where I am right now is that we have to get through the race in order to be able to get to the issue of economic disparity.
NNAMDIWhen you last joined the show in 2018, we were talking about the equity imperative. Can you remind us what that is?
MASONYes. That was -- that's our strategic plan that guides the work that we do to build the kind of institution that we think -- or really that the District has told us that it needs from its institution of higher education. It was a broad-based planning process with a lot of input from around the District. And it is our strategic plan that guides our work in progress over the course of the next few years.
MASONAs I mentioned earlier, the vision of the plan is that every one of our students will reach their highest level of human potential, which in my mind means that we have to take on the things that are in the way of them being able to achieve that potential. But, ultimately, we want to be a model of urban student success. And, you know, with the support of the mayor and the city council and the community at large, we've been making really good progress in that regard...
NNAMDI(overlapping) I was about to ask, because that was in 2018, how successful has the university been in trying to meet those equity-imperative goals?
MASONWell, you know, I'm going to use where we are now, with this pandemic, as a sign of the progress that we've made. We had great investment from the District to upgrade our technology. And so now, we're technologically ready to be able to respond in a technologically required environment. All of our faculty are trained in online instruction. We started doing that three years ago. Our courses are more and more pegged toward providing the workforce needs of the District and the DMV, and so our partnerships with corporations are growing.
MASONBut I did want to take a moment now to give a shout out to our land grant unit because, you know, we're the only exclusively urban land grant university in the country. And one of the things we've been able to do is provide food to Ward 7 and Ward 8 during this pandemic. And let me just name the name of the team that is working from our farm: Chae Axum, Matt Gardine, Brian Barnes, Victoria Morowski, Thomas Wheat and Patricia Vaughn.
MASONYou know, that team has been delivering weekly, food and has delivered over 8,000 pounds of fresh food in areas of high need during the pandemic. And I just wanted to give them a shout-out, because we're very proud of that work as well.
NNAMDIYes, because that's the college of agriculture, urban sustainability and environmental sciences, which has been helping to provide healthy produce to Wards 7 and 8 in D.C. Is that correct?
MASONThat is correct. And I might as well also mention that our engineering school has been 3D printing plastic faceguards for the District. And we provided several hundred of that to them, as well, so, you know, as the public university.
NNAMDIPresident Mason, how would the university's goals with the equity imperative intersect with the goals of the Institute for the Study and Elimination of White Supremacy?
MASONWell, again, as I mentioned, our vision is that our students will achieve their highest level of human potential. Sixty percent of our enrollment comes directly from D.C. public and public charter schools. Many of our students are first generation. And we know the challenges that they face before they even reach us.
MASONWe've started a partnership with D.C. Public Schools in Anacostia to try to reach further and further down into the pipeline so that we can identify talent earlier. We're developing an alternative way to the standardized tests which correlate to race and class in terms of their success rate. So, we're developing our own 360 assessment. We're developing, with the National Science Foundation, a math teacher training institute to train teachers to teach math specifically to students in the bottom half and bottom quartile of incomes, which is a different teaching need and responsibility there, you know.
MASONSo, we're trying to really think through, how do you design a system of public education that enables a student to be successful despite the challenges that the design of America puts in his or her way? And that is directly tied to our equity imperative strategic plan, because ultimately, we can't achieve the goals of the plan, which is to become a model of urban student success unless we take on the issues that are getting in the way of our students being successful. And when you cut to the chase, that is the root cause.
NNAMDIHere's Walker in Washington, D.C. Walker, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WALKERHow you doing, Kojo? I just had a question for the president. I consider myself moderate to middle-right. And as I hear him talk about the system and systemic racism and also, you know, white supremacy, my question is, while I agree that there certainly is racism and even systemic racism, when I think people that kind of see the world from my point of view hear that it's all a system based on white supremacy and based on slavery from the founding, is his answer to completely devolve the system and start afresh? In which case, I become very turned off to that idea. Or to work within the current social and economic, you know, American system to make it better for all people?
MASONYeah, I guess that depends on the intent of the question, but let me put it this way. I'm an educator. I work as president of a university. I understand -- and this is my third presidency. I've worked...
NNAMDIWe have about a minute left, Mr. President.
MASONOkay. I've worked at white schools, I've worked at black schools, so obviously my approach is to increase understanding and to enable people to make the world a better place. But the numbers don't lie. And when you look at the maldistribution of wealth and opportunity in this country, you can only explain it in one of two ways. You know, either something's wrong with America that needs to be fixed, or, you know, white people are born better equipped to succeed than anybody else. And there's no science to back that up.
MASONAnd so, if we all believe in the idea of America, then, yes, we have to start to think of ways to change the system that's in place and replace it with something better. And, you know, the only alternative we have is to do it within the means that America gives us to do that.
NNAMDIRonald Mason, Jr. is the president of the University of the District of Columbia. President Mason, thank you so much for joining us.
MASONI appreciate the opportunity. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIThis segment on a new antiracism institute at the University of the District of Columbia was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation about efforts to preserve Moses African Cemetery was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, recent incidents have residents worried their 911 emergency calls may be mishandled. We'll talk with Maryland State Senator Cheryl Kagan and watchdog Dave Statter about what went wrong and efforts to improve emergency responses in the region.
NNAMDIPlus, 40 years ago, the Washington Post published a blockbuster story that rocked the Washington region and beyond. It was about an eight-year-old heroin addict. The trouble was, it wasn't true. We look back at the scandal involving reporter Janet Cooke with Washington Post columnist Colbert King and NPR's Michel Martin. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
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