OPRAH’S WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE: BLACK THOUGHT LEADERS’ PLEA FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE

Screenshot from Where Do We Go From Here on YouTube, Courtesy of OWN

In the 1860’s, abolitionists fought for thirteenth amendment, in the 1960s, leaders marched for the Civil Rights Act, but now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a specific, singular demand has yet to arise from the discourse. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, Oprah Winfrey brought together ten black leaders, politicians, and intellectuals to talk about just that: Where Do We Go From Here? The spotlight event, which aired on OWN, Discovery, and social media streaming platforms, was a compelling and monumental collision of some of America’s most influential black voices.

Winfrey has long been praised for her career-wide efforts to have difficult discussions of race for the benefit of large audiences, so it’s fitting the she took up the task once more in the face of the current struggle. Where Do We Go From Here is a digital roundtable featuring some of the most prominent black leaders of our current era, including politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, and religious leader Reverend Dr. William Barber II. The goal was to have a public conversation about what being black in America feels like right now, and to identify the movement’s biggest, most pressing asks. In a press release, Winfrey stated, “I’ve been having private conversations with friends and thought leaders about what’s next and where we go from here. I thought it would be both of interest and service to bring their ideas, concerns, and comments into a national spotlight.”

One of the most remarkable facets of the special was its sense of urgency. The first installment aired on the night of George Floyd’s memorial service, giving the evening an air of painful timeliness. In recognition of this, the first topic Winfrey brought to the panelists was the question of grief. Columnist Charles Blow of the New York Times spoke of the casualness with which Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, and the resulting numbness it inspired in him. Selma star David Oyelowo put a personal spin on this sense of numbness, recounting, “I went to speak to my son and I didn’t have the words.”

A repeated phrase of the evening was “exhaustion”: exhaustion from living through murders like Floyd’s month after month and year after year, exhaustion from having to constantly educate white people when their energy could be directed elsewhere, and pure exhaustion from having to keep fighting this 400 year-long fight. But anger and outrage were also palpable on screen. DuVernay brought the conversation to a head with her assertion, “It’s not a broken system, it was built this way.” The statement pointed to the larger aims of the broadcast itself and the movement at large: to not only focus on cases of police violence, but to use it as an opportunity to critique the larger schemes in place that are built to maintain oppression.

Some of the most stirring moments of the evening, though, happened between segments, where producers aired musical clips and cell phone videos from protests. Seeing footage from the ground, from those who don’t have the large platforms of the panelists, brought the conversation back to the power of the ordinary but outspoken citizens that make up the movement.

Rashad Robinson of Color Of Change made a powerful call that cut through the current trend of seeing visibility as activism. He stressed, “We can’t ever mistake the presence or visibility of these moments for the power to actually change the rules.” In this movement and movements like it, it’s easy to conflate media attention with actual change, but Robinson pleaded viewers to leverage this current engagement to push for actual structural reform. This sentiment was echoed by other panelists, as everyone called for movement away from a system that was built on exploitation and fashioned to maintain the status quo of power.

Also on the table was the media’s coverage of the protests, which too often focuses on looting and destruction and can conflate genuine protestors with reckless actors, and helps misdirect anger. DuVernay expressed her disappointment in those who seemed to be more outraged about the destruction of buildings than the systematic murder of black people. In response to the question of property, Winfrey rolled a segment from a viral clip of Kimberly Jones, a protestor who made the compelling statement, “You’re lucky that what we’re looking for is equality and not revenge.”

Tuesday night came to a powerful close with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ rallying cry for economic reparations. She cautioned against “thinking too small”- keeping the conversation centered around police reform- when the real, structural, underlying condition of racial inequality in America is economic disparity. Putting wealth in the hands of the people that this country has exploited is the fundamental demand that lies behind all calls for racial justice.

On Wednesday night’s installment, the mood of the virtual room was markedly more heated, as frustration and anger ran higher. Stacey Abrams spoke of the realities of voter suppression, and urged voters to understand the weight of their participation, and David Oyelowo made a stirring case for spiritual repentance, urging white Americans to atone for the original sins that are baked into this country.

Winfrey closed out the special by asking each panelist what their biggest ask was. The answers ranged, but almost all centered around three tenants: economic redistribution, police accountability, and political reform. Charles Blow posited the idea of a Civil Rights Bill for 2020 that would encompass all these types of change, while Rev. Barber pointed to the Poor People’s Campaign, a digital gathering later this month that will addresses the poverty epidemic.

Ultimately, the special succeeded in bringing voices to the fore of people who have dedicated their lives and careers to fighting against systemic racism. The event helped mark the significance of the movement we’re currently living through, underscoring just the magnitude of precipice on which we currently stand. Winfrey’s audience is not only large but diverse, so hopefully leveraging it in such a remarkable way will spark personal revolutions in the hearts and minds of those who might not have paid attention otherwise.

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