William Kunstler and the Active Voice to Discuss Racism

I saw a new documentary called “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” about the civil rights lawyer.  the film was made by his two daughters from his second marriage, Sarah and Emily Kunstler.  it was interesting and much of the film was about racism, although none of the promotional materials hint at this.  In this way, it’s much like the documentary “The Weather Underground,” which also focuses a good deal on racism.

One of the things that struck me most profoundly about the Kunstler film was the way that the language about institutional racism in the late 1960s early 1970s is so strikingly different from the way we talk about race and racism today.    What I mean about the language around institutional racism is that Kunstler would say things like, “the white power structure” or “the racist court system” and “all whites are racist” and “we (whites) are responsible for letting this racist power structure continue.”

This language and way of talking about racism is all in the category of “stuff you just don’t hear anymore.”

The power of calling out the white power structure and the way that individual whites participate in this racism was clearest for me in the film when they were exploring the issue of the uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.  Kunstler got called in as a negotiator for the prisoners.  This attempt failed and dozens of people – both inmates and guards – were killed by the state who went in and shot them.   after the uprising was put down, there’s this amazing archival footage of one of the white soldiers (national guard?) who went in to the prison,  and he’s got his fist in the air, pumping it victoriously and he says, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about…. white power!”   it’s just a chilling moment that also perfectly illustrates what Kunstler’s been saying throughout the film.

Following soon after that, Kunstler went to the seige at Wounded Knee to serve as a negotiator for Native Americans in AIM who were staging a protest there, demanding that the U.S. Government honor centuries of broken treaties.   Kunstler was able to help avoid a massacre there and successfully defended Russell Banks and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the protest, at their subsequent trial in federal court.
Kunstler’s daughters (the filmmakers) were thoughtful about racism and their father’s struggle against it.   I especially liked when they went back and tried to find out how their dad began to be conscious about racism.  They included a brief section in the film that addressed this issue, noting that Kunstler’s race consciousness certainly didn’t come from his parents, who had black servants that used separate toilets and ate apart from the family in the kitchen.   This is illustrated by home-movie footage of one of the nameless-black-servants in the family serving the grandmother and one of the filmmakers when she was a child.

The filmmakers were less thoughtful, in my view, in exploring their own racism around their objection to their father’s defending Yusef Salaam, one of the alleged “Central Park jogger rapists.”   Years later, of course, Salaam’s conviction was overturned, and thus Kunstler’s defense of him was vindicated, but I wish the filmmakers had done more with this.

Returning to my point about the language around racism, the way the film is advertised and promoted and discussed (i heard a long interview with the filmmakers in which they never mentioned racism even once) is more typical of the way racism gets addressed today, which is in this oblique, passive-voice kind of way.

Today, to the extent that experts and non-experts even acknowledge racism, they may refer to “structural racism” or (in the world of public health where I work) “racial disparites.”   But these all happen in the passive voice.  Racial disparities just “happen.”   There are no actors in today’s language of racial inequality.     In Kunstler’s heydey (the civil rights era), there were clearly people who were responsible for the oppression of people of color, and it was white people acting in the interest of a white power structure.   Losing that language, we’ve lost some clarity about what is at the root of racial inequality.  Today, it seems, no one’s responsible as we live in this ‘racism without racists’ post-civil rights era.