Reckoning with our racial past reflects present-day inequalities

By Cesar Antonio Nucum Jr.

LOS ANGELES — The words of philosopher George Santayana in 1905 goes that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” while British statesman Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech in 1948 uttered “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It is keeping with these popular quotations and the lessons from them that an Ethnic Media Services Briefing Reckoning With Our Racial Past that leaders from the Smithsonian Institution and three cultural centers in Los Angeles discussed how past racism relates to present racial inequality.

Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles executive director Michael Truong once asked, “How can we reckon with a racial past if we don’t know it?” and he together with three other speakers discussed a new Smithsonian Institution initiative called Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past by presenting a collaborative series of public to explore how race has transformed each of our lives, and how racist events and policies of the past connect to glaring inequities in our society today.

The other speakers at the briefing were Smithsonian Director, Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past, Smithsonian Institution Deborah L. Mack, PhD, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes CEO Leticia Rhi Buckley, and National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, Japanese American National Museum Director James Herr.

Mack believes that the initiative came about to address the history of racism and its present legacy in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protest movements.

“The United States is, more than at any other time in its history, a globalized society, and many of the concepts of race that are portrayed in mainstream media have often limited application to the communities they’re intended to represent,” elaborated Mack even as she explains the Smithsonian’s role in the Our Shared Future initiative, a program that seeks to teach Americans about our racial past in order to bring about racial healing and acceptance.

Mack saw Los Angeles as “one of the strongest places to express the full breadth of histories of racism as an American national experience” because of the city’s diversity  and so the Smithsonian worked with three cultural institutions that have long focused on that work in marginalized communities: LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Chinese American Museum and the Japanese American National Museum.

“Although even reflecting on the racial past poses political challenges in many parts of the country, we don’t see reticence nearly as much as we expected,” Mack explained. “We’ve particularly seen a lot of response from educators who have been punished for raising these issues, who use our work to say, ‘If the Smithsonian is doing this work, why shouldn’t we?’ … If we don’t talk about our history of inequity, we won’t be able to move forward from it.”

For her part, Buckley impressed that far from being limited to preserving this past, the role of museums is to “spotlight where we’re now moving as a culture through the history of our communities.

“We don’t just collect artwork, we collect stories, because it’s important that they are told by us and not for us. The past isn’t just 100 years ago — it’s last year, last month, last week,” addressed Buckley. “Since we’re working within systems that were not meant for us to be working within, it’s not just about dismantling the systems itself, but creating our own. You can’t address racism without difficulty; that’s why it continues and is perpetuated … it’s hard, but we can’t move forward unless we reconcile ourselves to the past.”

“Alongside more traditional museum exhibitions, this reconciliation takes the form of “music, dance, culinary demonstrations, multigenerational art making, and in-person storytelling,” highlighting the experiences of LA Mexican Americans,” Buckley explained. “These stories are filled with trauma and defeat, but also joy and success,” she added. “We look at the past to address the harms that our communities have endured, but also to reckon with the harms that we may be guilty of inflicting.”

Truong further expands museums’ role in telling stories saying that they must be a place “where we unite rather than divide people … by telling these racial stories as part of a broader American experience of U.S. history. Chinese Americans are not only part of a larger community of Asian Americans, but also of Americans in general.”

“The need to tell these stories is as pressing as ever given rises in Asian hate over the past few years, but extends throughout a century and a half “of forgotten history of Chinese Americans in LA’s Chinatown,” Truong continued. “How do we reckon with our racial past and heal from our racist past, if we don’t even know the history, if we don’t know what to heal? Our work is not just to remember the past, but to make sure we’re learning from it,” Truong explained.

Herr reminded “when you’re telling the truth about America’s racial past, it can often bring up feelings of hatred and resentment and bitterness towards those in power, so we want to tell and share these stories to avoid reliving the past.”

“JaNM was “founded in what is now the first Buddhist temple in LA … It’s also on a plaza that used to be Central Avenue at First Street, which is where Japanese Americans in LA were ordered to report before being incarcerated in internment camps,” Herr stressed.

Herr continues that these issues of racially marginalized American citizens “stripped of their rights and due process” continue to arise so long as they are “denied the right to write their own history.”