Oprah on Black Lives Matter and George Floyd: We Are at a ‘Tipping Point’ for Racism in America
In a town hall on the current state of America, Winfrey wonders if now is finally the moment when “people will recognize systemic racism for the problem and the evil that it is.”
“What matters now? What matters next? What do we want? What are our demands? Where do we go from here?”
These questions from Oprah Winfrey introduced OWN Spotlight: Where Do We Go From Here?, the unprecedented two-night town hall event that premiered Tuesday on OWN and across Discovery’s 18 other U.S. networks. Airing the same night as the funeral for George Floyd, the Minneapolis black man whose death at the hands of a white police officer has sparked global protests, part one launched Winfrey’s conversation with black thought leaders and activists including director Ava DuVernay and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams. Together, they discuss systemic racism and the current state of America.
Winfrey began the special by recalling her 35 years as a television personality interrogating these topics, beginning in 1985 when she interviewed diversity expert Jane Elliott and realized “how little so many white people understood about racism.”
“Over the years of the Oprah show, I did over 100 shows about racism,” she said, recounting famous examples like her town hall in Forsyth County, Georgia, where there was an attempt to ban black people entirely, and her spotlights on civil rights heroes like the Little Rock 9 and the Freedom Riders.
“In all of those experiences, though, I don’t recall a moment quite like this one,” she continued. “Because we find our nation on a precipice, a true tipping point, I believe. And just like all of you for the past few weeks, I’ve been talking and Zooming with friends, and the same question keeps popping up over and over: Is this the moment that will finally change our country, where people will recognize systemic racism for the problem and the evil that it is?”
The conversation that ensued was impressive, specific, emotional and educational. It gave space to her panel—which also included Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, actor David Oyelowo, and journalist Charles M. Blow—to express their grief, describe the effects of generations of trauma, articulate their exhaustion, and put America’s current, historic civil rights movement in context and lay out the path forward.
“We can’t move forward without calling out that pain,” Winfrey said. “Watching the life seep from George Floyd’s body caused a kind of universal shock and pain. For black people everywhere, we recognized that knee on the neck.”
Later, in a discussion of the societal numbness towards black violence, pain, and death, she returned to that idea.
“Isn’t it very much like in the days of Jim Crow when black men would be lynched and dragged through the town as an example for other people to see, watching black men be shot on camera and nothing happens is a triggering thing?” she said. “There’s this memory that we have of everything that’s gone in the past, so when this keeps occurring, it is re-traumatizing.”
Attempting to define the current moment while also informing and contextualizing what is happening is a tall order, even across two nights. The panel of guests were candid, diving quickly and deeply into topics ranging from systemic racism to the effects of racial economic inequality to the responsibility of white allies and how to harness the energy of the current moment.
“Where white Americans have often viewed these as individual incidents, black Americans understand that this is part of a collective history,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer prize-winning founder of the New York Times magazine’s “1619 Project” said. “The weariness that it has to take something so horrifying for white Americans to decide that they can’t tolerate it anymore… We’re just tired as black people of having to prove our humanity only when the most inhumane thing happens to us.”
One of the most moving moments came early, when Oyelowo talked about why watching the footage of Floyd’s death affected him to the point that he posted a video explaining his reaction.
“I had made the mistake of thinking that things would be different for my son,” he said. “I say mistake because I had watched things progress in some ways, but then the knee on the neck is so symbolic of so much. It’s something that I hadn’t realized that I had internalized in a way that makes it difficult for me to function. I hadn’t realized how deep the wounds were.”
As he went to go talk to his son about it, he was stalled by the fact that Floyd wasn’t resisting arrest. It’s not the same conversation he, and so many black parents, have had to have with their children. “Those conversations are already emasculating, to basically say, ‘Forget about justice in an interaction with police. Come home alive.’”
One point was driven home repeatedly: at the root of everything happening now—from the violence to the marches to the conversations—is a systemic issue of power.
“It’s not a broken system,” DuVernay stressed. “It was built this way. It was built to function exactly as it is. I feel it’s disingenuous as a society to act as if we’re suddenly horrified when everyone has participated in this and benefited from it not for years or decades, but centuries. Generations.”
The grief and the anger has been the same. The discussions have been the same. And the responsibility to guide white people through all of it has been the same. Part of where we go from here is to relieve that burden.
“So much of those conversations have centered on educating Caucasian people through the trauma, walking them through what it is, making sure they feel and sustain that outrage,” DuVernay said. While that has a place and is valuable, she’s realized that “my own work [is] to break out of a constant education of folks, and to really ask white folks who feel deeply about this issue to take on that labor for themselves.”
Of what to make of this moment, DuVernay warned against being sidetracked by the conflation of protesting, rioting, and looting in the media.
“If your concern with the murder of black people by police can be deterred or shifted because someone is taking a pair of jeans from a Target, then you’ve got to look at how much you cared about the murder of black people by police to begin with,” she said. “Watch yourself as you’re playing this game of respectability politics because you’re getting to a place that is really veering way off the path of what the point at hand is, which starts from a place of the murder of black people by police and really opens up to an interrogation of a whole system.”
The “whole system” is the point, participants repeatedly emphasized. It drove home why the question of “where do we go from here?” is such a lofty one. It’s not just about the police. It’s about the systems and institutions they subsist on.
“If we believe this is an inflection point, then we actually have to do things to upend these structures,” said Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, decrying that far too often we get to a place of news coverage, social activation, and cultural energy but don’t manifest anything from it. “We mistake all of that visibility for actually getting to the place where both the written and unwritten change.”
More footage and talking points from night one of Where Do We Go From Here?—and there’s so much more to unpack—is available to stream on the Watch OWN and Discovery Family’s TVE apps, as well as OWN’s Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube channels. Part two airs Wednesday at 9 pm ET/PT.