National Press Club

Authors focus on racism in America during Book Rap

March 11, 2018 | By Mark Krikorian |

Anthony C. Thompson, director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University, told a National Press Club Book Rap March 6 that "racism is in the DNA of America."

He joined Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to discuss "A Perilous Path: Race, Inequality, and the Law," the book they co-authored with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson.

The book essentially records a conversation among the four at a conference launching the NYU center a few weeks after the inauguration of President Trump. In the words of Club Vice President Alison Kodjak, who moderated the Book Rap, the book addresses the "moral, economic, and human costs of racism, not only to minorities, who've borne the brunt of discrimination, but also to the nation as a whole."

"I think we were raw and honest about the challenges we're facing in this country," Ifill said of the discussion captured in the book,"but I think, in some ways, because we have been doing this work for a long time, we're the people that never thought we were out of the woods. While we were very disappointed [by Trump's election] and even angry in some ways, we weren't fully surprised and shocked." Trump's election, Ifill said, "in some ways was a confirmation for us."

Ifill said she's had two conflicting feelings over the past year. On the one hand, she said "this country has fallen, in some ways, deeper into the abyss, and...opened up boxes and bottles that cannot easily be closed, in terms of what we allow in this country." On the other hand, she said she's heartened that civil rights activists have done their job of, among other things, acting as a "private Department of Justice."

Both speakers were critical of the media's role. Thompson said of Trump's election, "This monster was created, in part, as an outgrowth of the media," in that his comments were good for business, and no one took seriously the possibility of his election. "Not being as harsh and as critical [of Trump] on issues of race helped create this monster," he said.

Ifill suggested that something like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission process is needed for the media. After the election, she said that there was, on the part of the media, "an eight-month-long insistence that ... support for the president was based solely in economic anxiety. There was a refusal [on the part of reporters] to accept the reality of racism in the American electorate and the way in which it drives politics in this country." The media, Ifill said, became "invested in the idea that America has changed, that we've transformed, that there's not really racism," which didn't end until the violence in Charlottesville.

"I do think we are in a fairly disastrous American moment," Ifill said, "and we'll probably make it out of it, but not necessarily, unless we really do our work and make sure we preserve the elements of our democracy that we can rebuild on the other side."