The ‘Race to Justice’ Is On in Santa Barbara
UCSB Arts & Lectures Initiates Campus-Wide Program to Inform about Systemic Racism
By Charles Donelan | October 23, 2020
Midway through a recent phone conversation with Professor Jeffrey Stewart, winner of both the 2018 National Book Award and the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for biography for his book The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, he says something that’s at once so obvious and yet so remarkable that it stops me cold. We’d been discussing the agenda set forth by Race to Justice, the new season-length programming initiative from UCSB Arts & Lectures designed to promote and center conversations around social justice throughout this academic year, and Stewart observed that, generally speaking, “Americans don’t want to be made uncomfortable.”
Right. No doubt that’s how things have been for a long time, and it certainly remains as true as it ever was, but it’s 2020, and aggressively uncomfortable things happen every damn day. There’s the COVID-19 pandemic; we all know that’s been uncomfortable. And then there’s 2020’s other viral sensation, all eight minutes, 46 seconds of it — a video of a Black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, dying beneath the weight of a police officer’s knee on his neck.
Distressed by the former and compelled by the latter, many Americans have acted on their discomfort. Protesters have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the 1960s, another era in which this country felt the stern pinch of reality. Fanned by the warmth of two dangerous climates, one of opinion and the other of catastrophic meteorological fact, authoritarian violence has only escalated. Many Americans may want to look away, but comfort keeps getting harder to maintain. A frightening new heat is on.
Historically, the campuses of the University of California have been sites of student protest — the free speech movement at Berkeley, the burning of the Bank of America building in Isla Vista, among scores of other incidents. However, in recent years, it’s the professors who have mobilized the system’s vast resources in pursuit of what UCSB Dean of Social Sciences Charlie Hale describes as “the study of all forms of social inequality, both in our own society and globally.” In 2020, “looking particularly at race, racial justice, racial hierarchies, and racism is a big priority of many of our faculty” according to Hale, and as a result, teaching and research that examines “problems with policing and other forms of racially differentiated inequality” has moved to the center of the university’s mission.
With the Race to Justice initiative, organized by Arts & Lectures and extending through more than a dozen departments and programs, UCSB aims to amplify these scholarly voices. According to Professor Ingrid Banks, chair of the university’s Department of Black Studies, it’s time for more people “to see what we actually do in Black Studies” and to tell UCSB students that “those of us who aren’t in their generation still share just as much of their concern” about what’s happening to our country. Professor Banks also emphatically adds, “We also share their hope.”
What Hope Looks Like Now
With a clear focus on the pressing issues of mass incarceration and the legacy of slavery, Race to Justice will bring together a stellar lineup of contemporary scholars, artists, and activists, first through a series of virtual events hosted by members of the UCSB faculty, and then, if health and safety precautions permit, in person for several spectacular live events beginning in February of 2021. The series began on Monday, October 19, when Jeffrey Stewart hosted Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction. Like all the participants in the series, Dr. Kendi is meeting with UCSB students for a separate conversation in which they will have a chance to ask questions and interact directly with the man whose work has hovered at the top of the New York Times and Amazon.com best-seller lists ever since the murder of George Floyd put antiracism front and center in the national consciousness. Other bestselling authors in the series include Sister Helen Prejean, whose book Dead Man Walking went on to fame as a hit movie and an opera; Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
On Tuesday, December 8, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project for the New York Times will talk about what kind of reaction her work on the legacy of slavery in American history has provoked, and on Tuesday, January 12, Ta-Nehisi Coates arrives, virtually, with stories about what it’s like to win the National Book Award for an essay on race in America while steering not one but two of the most popular comic book titles in the world, Marvel’s Black Panther and Captain America series.
Speaking of hope, the Race to Justice series moves out of the virtual realm on February 3, when Arts & Lectures plans to welcome one of its dearest and most devoted friends, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who will take the Granada Theatre stage with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a night of live music — imagine that! Marsalis has reportedly been hard at work during the pandemic lockdown on what promises to be one of his most ambitious compositions, a piece called “The Democracy Suite.”
In April, the dancers of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater arrive for two nights at the Granada, April 13 and 14, and at the end of the month, the Race to Justice theme will rise to a glorious crescendo when attorney and human rights advocate Bryan Stevenson takes the stage to speak in person about “mercy, humanity, and making a difference.” On Saturday, May 22, the wildly popular Jon Batiste returns for an evening of music, community, and joy.
In addition to presenting the world’s most distinguished artists and intellectuals, Arts & Lectures continues to pave the way for rising stars, and the Race to Justice series has many stellar new faces. You may already know the music of Rhiannon Giddens, the stringed-instrument virtuoso who will perform on November 15 from her home in Ireland, and you have certainly heard of the late John Lewis, who is the subject of filmmaker Dawn Porter’s new documentary Good Trouble. Porter will take questions after a screening of the film on Tuesday, November 17. But you may not yet recognize the name of attorney and author Brittany K. Barnett; that is, unless you have been following the dramatic, heart-rending saga of presidential clemency decisions for people who have been sentenced to life in prison under the desperately unfair guidelines that dominated federal drug prosecutions in the 1990s.
Barnett, whose book A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom came out on September 8, 2020, grew up in rural Texas within an extended family that managed, despite bouts with poverty and substance abuse, to provide her with the love she needed to survive and prosper as a student, first of accounting at the University of Texas, Arlington, and then of law, in the prestigious Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
As a child, Barnett witnessed her mother’s deterioration under the effects of crack cocaine, as she rapidly got into trouble with the law, leading to time in rehab, then prison. Holding on hard to her high-school status as a top scholar and a star athlete, teenage Brittany learned the painful lessons of American incarceration up close and personal. Her account of driving a long distance with her sister, Jazz, to visit her mother only to have Jazz told that she must wait in the car because she forgot, this one time, to bring her ID, describes just one of the many ways the corrections system demeans an entire family.
Determined to use her talent for mathematics as a passport out of poverty, Barnett earned a coveted job at a top national accounting firm, but the work left her wanting more meaning in her life. Inspired by a fellow student who also had dreams of becoming a lawyer, Barnett scored with a buzzer-beating last-minute application to law school. That’s where the promise of combining her financial acumen with a taste for spirited and competitive negotiations led her to embrace the career of a high-stakes corporate attorney.
Before she even graduated from law school, however, some unexpected figures came along that complicated her ascension to the yuppie class. One is a teacher, Professor David Lacy, who accepted Barnett into his seminar at SMU on Critical Race Theory. Another is Barack Obama, who Barnett says taught her a simple truth on the first day of his first term: “We as a people can do anything.” The third was a stranger, Sharanda Jones, who Barnett found in the most post-modern way imaginable, by entering the following words into a Google search: “woman, life sentence, drugs.”
Like Barnett, Sharanda Jones grew up in Texas and faced strong challenges to her self-confidence as a child. When a car accident paralyzed Sharanda’s mother, Genice, from the neck down, Sharanda and her three siblings were all under 5 years old. Grandmother Pearlie cared for the quadriplegic woman and raised her four children, with Sharanda becoming the chief caretaker for her mother and the main cook for the whole clan. Graduating high school with her class in 1985 allowed Sharanda the freedom to leave Terrell, the small Texas town where she grew up, and visit Dallas, where she saved enough money to return home and open a beauty parlor.
As a businesswoman familiar with the scene in nearby Dallas, Sharanda got caught up in the drug trade, leading to catastrophe. Two of her acquaintances were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine; they decided to give the authorities Sharanda’s name in exchange for reduced sentences. Between their decision to give her up and her own decision not to roll over on anyone else, Sharanda ended up with the worst outcome possible: life without parole.
When 25-year-old Brittany K. Barnett met her in Fort Worth’s Carswell facility for women, Brittany had not yet graduated from law school or passed the bar. She also knew very little about the appeals process and even less about the presidential clemency program that would become her main tool as an advocate. But she had a purpose in life, and she shared it with Jones that very first day. Realizing how unfair what had happened to Sharanda Jones was, and recognizing in her a fate that could have been her mother’s, and for that matter, could have been hers, Barnett said the words that would determine the course of both women’s lives: “I will get you out, Sharanda. I will set you free.”
Recalled to Life
Since then, Brittany K. Barnett has gone on to win freedom not only for Sharanda Jones, but also for 16 other people who were serving what she describes as “fundamental death sentences” for nonviolent drug crimes. As the founder of the Buried Alive Project and Girls Embracing Mothers, among other advocacy organizations, Barnett has become a prominent leader in the movement to reconsider the legacy of the war on drugs as it has affected people of color generally and African-Americans in particular, and to reimagine American justice from the perspective of Critical Race Theory.
Speaking with her by phone from her home in Dallas a week ago, I was struck by the disparity between her extraordinary achievements — the book is full of moments when she literally saves someone’s life, or at least saves them from a life without hope of freedom — and her sense of the daunting task that lies ahead for all of us when it comes to winning the race to justice in this country. “How do we transform the system?” she asked. “How do we reimagine justice? Because that’s what it’s going to take. Even now, as we work on reform, we’re just tinkering with an already ill-designed system, one that’s actually doing what it was, you know, ill-designed to do. And that’s why I had to focus on a specific niche, on dismantling the system in one specific area where I felt I could be most effective, because if I looked at the whole problem at once, it would feel overwhelming.”
For the men and women that Barnett has freed, that one niche likely feels big enough to contain the whole world, but for the rest of us, there’s more work to do. Dean Hale worries that President Donald Trump’s recent executive order denying federal funding for racial sensitivity training and attacking critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and any form of teaching or scholarship that refuses to accept his notion that racism has been eradicated in this country will have a chilling effect on universities. He told me that he hopes this order “will not prosper, or will be effectively contested” because “a lot of the concepts that are key to thinking critically and expansively about the history of racism in this country … won’t be allowed if there’s federal funding involved.” It’s exactly this kind of polarization and censorship that the Race to Justice series is racing against.
When UCSB announced the appointment of Belinda Robnett as the school’s inaugural Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in August, Professor Robnett stepped into a situation fraught with tension and loaded with promise. No one knew at that time when students and faculty would be able to return to campus, and the details not only of that momentous shift, but also of even more momentous decisions about national leadership and responsibility during the pandemic remain undetermined or undisclosed. When she issued her first public statement in her role as VCDEI, Robnett asserted that “however noble our vision, mission, and professional commitments, the status quo remains unless we forge a strategic plan that alters our daily practices and creates sustained institutional transformation.”
With Race to Justice, we see what the future might be like in a community where the goal is, as Brittany Barnett said to me, “sustainable liberation.” When asked to define that concept, she offered a very personal observation, and one that I felt conveyed some of that same determination Sharanda Jones heard from her years ago: “Sustainable liberation means I can’t keep rescuing people from prison and restoring them to poverty.”
See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu for the full Race To Justice schedule.