Juneteenth often serves as a time to discuss racism and how it continues to affect American society. This year, the holiday also almost aligns with the second anniversary of the start of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and the protests that followed served as catalysts for another great American confrontation with its racist past.
Timothy Welbeck, acting director of the Temple’s Center for Anti-racism Research, explained why the events of summer 2020 had such profound effects on Americans.
“By the time we reached May 25, 2020, there was already a sense of turmoil,” Welbeck said. “The name of Breonna Taylor was starting to spread. People knew the story of Ahmaud Arbery and the advocacy around him. Then video began circulating of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, and in many ways crystallized many of the arguments made around the reduction in police presence.
“In June 2020, we had protests in all 50 states,” he continued. “An estimated 15 million to 26 million people in the United States participated in these protests, and that’s what started to signal that this time was different in terms of the level of attention paid to a particular incident.”
Some of the reactions that rocked the country following the protests have been labeled by scholars as racial calculus. These reactions include conversations about police reform, the establishment of the Juneteenth as a federal holiday and its corresponding increased respect by corporations, and a greater willingness among Americans to educate themselves on the subject of race.
“Books like Stamped from the start, white fragility and How to be an anti-racist quickly became international bestsellers, and especially in the US they were starting to gain popularity,” Welbeck said. “We also started to see schools expressing at least one value in anti-racism work, education, curriculum – things of that nature.”
More recently, however, Welbeck has paid attention to a series of coordinated efforts to undo the progress and momentum achieved by racial reckoning. Some have called these efforts a “countdown,” and Welbeck and his colleague Gregory Urwin, a history professor at the College of Liberal Arts, have found that efforts to immediately undo racial progress are an American trademark.
“Every meaningful effort toward racial equality in the United States has been met with some kind of coordinated backlash,” Welbeck said. “In particular, the end of slavery and reconstruction are immediately followed by the era of Jim Crow, the black codes and the era of lynching. This post-Civil Rights era was followed by an increased sense of trying to forestall desegregation efforts. We’ve seen attempts to stifle the era of affirmative action, things like that.
A recent example of this coordinated response centers on the topic of critical race theory (CRT), which Welbeck says has been used to try to keep productive conversations about race out of American classrooms.
“This summer just before the start of the 2020 school year, we saw reports literally from across the country of parents screaming passionately about CRT. “Don’t bring it to our schools. It’s racism against white people. Don’t indoctrinate our children,” Welbeck said.
“It’s a very coordinated and deliberate campaign that’s being funded and organized to try to disarm any kind of assessment of racial inequality in the United States, which is why if you look at some of the laws in the 26 states that have declared having banned critical race theory, they don’t actually ban critical race theory, but they ban terms like diversity, equity and inclusion,” he continued. use of words like oppression.”
Confronting our nation’s racist history is something Urwin has been committed to doing throughout his career in history. In doing so, he faced attempts to disarm his own work in a reaction similar to the “not-counting” spoken of by Welbeck and other scholars.
“Like Martin Luther King Jr., I thought the arc of the universe inevitably bent toward justice,” Urwin said as he spoke of growing up watching racial protests, witnessing the passing of laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and voting rights. Act of 1965 and finally the election of a black president, Barack Obama. “But, you know, there was an attempt to roll back those gains.”
Gregory Urwin has been involved in projects like the feature film Glory and the recent History Channel special Black Patriots: Civil War Heroes for his expertise in military history. (Courtesy of Grégory Urwin)
Urwin has been called a “heritage violator” by sons of Confederate veterans for his work exposing war crimes committed by Confederate soldiers against wounded and captured members of United States colored troops.
“There are people who, either out of fear or for some other reason, try to erase the progress made by African Americans and other minorities. Many of these people have led grassroots campaigns not only to take the control of state legislatures, but also local school boards, so that you can be accused of teaching critical race theory, whatever it is, if you say that slavery was the most important cause of the civil war,” Urwin said. “But it has certainly inspired me to redouble my efforts in the type of work that I do, and I feel like other colleagues who work at the intersection of racial and military history they feel the same thing.”
Over the past decade, Urwin has refocused his work on African Americans who sought freedom during the American Revolution by aligning himself with the British. He is currently working on a book on the subject, titled When freedom wore a red coat.
Urwin also recently helped produce the permanent exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia titled find freedomwhich tells the true story of five African Americans involved in the Revolution, four of whom sought freedom by joining the British.
“When inner-city school groups come to the museum and see this, the kids are thrilled, because these are people who look like them,” Urwin said. “The African Americans who joined the British were trying to do what other Americans wanted to do, and that was to enjoy the fruits of freedom. So it makes those kids feel like they’re part of the whole of American history, and I hope it encourages them to look into their own family histories and find other people they can relate to.
Welbeck says he saw a cooling in energy that emerged in the wake of the 2020 protests, but experts like him and Urwin remained committed to their work. Urwin hopes to have When freedom wore a red coat published within five years, while Welbeck prepares the opening of the Center for Research on Anti-Racism.
“Even when it’s not the topic of the day, there still needs to be people committed to anti-racism work and equality and equity work in our country,” Welbeck said. “Temple’s Center for Anti-Racism Research is a great example. It was during this period that we had a racial calculation. We are due to have our grand opening in a few months, so there is a commitment from the university to this work.