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Historically Speaking: A Change in the Air

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

Who would have ever thought that the world would keep changing at such a rapid clip? It has been relentless. We are stressed beyond measure since Covid-19 ushered in its merciless spread of a disease that has both separated us through social distancing and united us during a restrictive lockdown. Glued to our screens for news about the pandemic and the economic crunch that has ensued, we have waited for signs of hope. Instead, as we watched, we witnessed the horrific murder of George Floyd on March 25, 2020. The video's harsh reality pulled back the surface of another deadly "disease" that has run rampant in the United States since the colonial era—systemic racism.

Our citizens take to the streets now on a daily basis as the powerful wave of the Black Lives Matter movement leads us toward a chance for true change. The outcry has moved the needle every so slightly in a contentious election year where race and equity draw the battle lines in party politics in a country much in need of strong leadership.

I recently sat down for a bi-monthly Zoom conversation with my friend Will Bellaimey to talk about world events and the history that has brought us to this pivotal moment in time. Will is a high school history teacher in Southern California and star of the informative and highly entertaining podcast All The President's, Man.

Elizabeth Gracen: Well, friend, the world has taken quite a turn since the last time we spoke. It’s been exciting to watch the Black Lives Matter movement gain momentum. Change is in the air. It’s also been a hard realization for many of us to know that we really don’t know our American history.

Will Bellaimey: Well, I've heard a lot of people—mostly white people, especially people of generations before mine—feeling frustrated about their history education. They were simply not taught about some of the kinds of things that now feel so relevant—about structural racism, about redlining. I’m curious: what kind of history teaching did you get growing up in Arkansas?

Image: Overlapping maps of five boroughs of New York were combined to show redlining across the entire city.

EG: Well, we certainly were never told what “Juneteenth” was, and I never heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre—and Tulsa was just three hours away from where I lived! We were vaguely taught about the Little Rock Nine and Central High School, but the violence against Black people—the horrible mob lynching mentality that occurred in the state—none of that was ever dwelled on or taught. My father was an overt racist. I mean, it was what I grew up with in the South. I’m from a smallish town, and there was a section of town that all African Americans lived in.

WB: Most towns in America have the Black part of town, because of laws. Also, because of just prejudice. Part of what I think people have felt in recent days is that they didn't learn in school the extent to which these kind of things aren't just about personal prejudice. They are actually about things that were built into the housing code. Northwest Minneapolis, called the Northside, has for a long time been the neighborhood that's predominantly Black. Then the neighborhood where I grew up was almost entirely white folks. That affects how people feel and think about one another.

EG: What kind of history were you taught in Minnesota?

WB: It's something that I’ve been thinking about. I don't think that I was taught a lot of the things that I talk about now. I don't think I was taught a myth. I don't think I was taught Birth of a Nation. My American History class, I remember well. We watched a film about the 1968 Chicago Eight trial that sticks in my mind. I think there were bits and pieces of glimpses of the story. We talked about slavery in some depth. I had some pretty radical teachers in my senior year who taught Latin American history. I think they, at least, got me thinking in a more critical way. I think a lot of my learning about history has come since I’ve been an adult.

EG: I just recently rewatched the Ava Duvernay documentary 13TH the other night. It is such a comprehensive timeline of race in America. For anyone who wasn’t taught the true history of Black America, it is a great film, a great resource. After screening it again, in light of everything that has happened since the murder of George Floyd, I was just left thinking, Well, so what do we do? How do we fix this? What are we going to make of this important moment in time? I mean, I try not to be pessimistic, but looking at history, it's hard to feel incredibly optimistic about real change in our country.

WB: I've been doing a lot of thinking about optimism and pessimism and what they mean, because I hear a lot of people feeling both hope and pessimism and cynicism. I think they're appropriate responses to the moment. I do think that we have to understand that there will never be a final victory over racism in our lifetime. I think we all know that, intellectually. Somehow, emotionally speaking for my generation, the Millennials, there is something about growing up in the 1990s, where the Cold War had ended and the attitude around race at that time was very much like, "Cool. We fixed that pretty much. Let's make one Power Ranger Black and one Power Ranger Asian. Then, we'll just let it be." Even though most Millennials would, I hope, recognize that electing the first Black president was not the end of racism, I do think there's still this internalized narrative in a lot of our generation and, probably, in white people of an older generation too that's like, "Well, cool, we're going to finish dealing with this racism thing." This is where it's helpful for us to look at Black leadership at different moments. I don't think Martin Luther King, Jr., for all his "I Have a Dream" heights, ever believed that he was going to, in his lifetime, be able to move on from the struggle. I don't think anybody who fought to abolish slavery thought that abolishing slavery was going to end the struggle. If you don't believe that in your lifetime the struggle will ever end, does that make you a pessimist?

EG: It makes you a realist.

WB: I think that is just part of being alive in a democracy. If we could all start from the place of "so we're going to spend our entire lives fighting against oppression, then, we will die, and some other people will pick up the fight," then once you accept that, there's a lot of space for great hope. People right now are demanding change. Even if the change that happens doesn't solve all the problems, we're paying attention to the problems in a way that we haven't. It really takes moments of crisis, it seems, to shake white America out of its complacency around these kinds of issues. I think we haven't seen white people paying as much attention to race as they are right now in a very long time.

EG: It's been the perfect storm of people being locked in a contentious, highly charged election year and then this horrific murder. In such a horrible year, it’s been a surprise to see such collective passion for change come out of these circumstances.

WB: Well, it's bringing attention to it. Attention is not in quite as short of supply. Time is not in quite as short of supply. I think, on some level, empathy is not in quite as short of supply. There's something that's been unifying about all of us going through this struggle together, even as the people who are most severely affected with so many issues, as we talked about last time, are Black and brown people. There's something in the consciousness right now that's a little bit more—

EG: We're all tuned in, waiting and watching everything. That video, of course, was just striking a match.

WB: Also, worth saying that we've had five years since Ferguson. During that time, a lot of work has been done, mostly in obscurity from the perspective of the mainstream media narrative, by community organizers, especially Black community organizers, to build something that would be ready to harness a moment like this.

EG: And the marches continue. I don’t know how long that will last.

WB: You see things flare up and die down. That's just kind of the nature of protest. I don't think we should necessarily see that as a sign that it is losing strength.

EG: Then, of course, I don't even know when the officer goes to trial.

WB: That's what happened with Rodney King and in Ferguson and so many other places. When justice is not delivered, then protests come back again.

EG: I actually lived near downtown when the Rodney King verdict came down. Where I lived had not been gentrified yet. I mean, there were people on the corners with baseball bats. We had to retreat to a friend’s house for a couple of days.

WB: How do you remember the people you were with and yourself thinking about and talking about what was happening at that time?

EG: Mainly, I remember coming home from an audition, after driving around town. When I got back home, I came in the door, and my husband was just pale as a sheet. That was the day before cellphones or anything. He showed me the footage of a man being dragged out of his car and being beaten. Everyone was so afraid. It was like an explosion of violence. Hollywood burning.

WB: That's an interesting question. I think it's an open one. What were people afraid of? Clearly, there was a lot of scary things going on. It's been interesting to see how echoes of that have come up in the public consciousness at moments in this current situation. The first couple of days when police cars are set on fire, I think where a lot of people who remember the '92 Riots immediately kind of fell back into that narrative of a country on fire, cities under siege. I think if you tune to Fox News right now, that's still kind of the main narrative. It does seem like in a lot of other places, for a variety of reasons, the narrative returned to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter.

EG: I do feel everything has calmed down and that the narrative has changed back to focus on the real issues.

WB: The question is, did it calm down because the violence changed? Did it calm down because the narrative changed or did one thing lead to the other? All of these stories, it's all about how the story is told.

EG: I think the biggest difference between the ’92 narrative about police brutality against people of color and what is happening now is that there is so much video. We see the brutality. Over and over again. We see the overreach. We see the aggression. Of course now the buzz phrase is “defund the police,” and I hope that that phrase is not harnessed by the Right to keep pushing the fear narrative.

WB: Meaning, “defund the police” means you all need to be afraid because there'll be more more people of color breaking into your homes. I’m thinking of the film you watched, 13TH. One of the good things that the film does so well is emphasize how the words "criminal" and "thug" have been repeatedly used over time to describe Black people, and especially Black men, as a way to purposely create fear. I feel like after I've watched that movie, when someone uses a word such as "criminal" or "thug," I'm attuned to it. It's like the dog whistle that you can suddenly hear. Even President Trump's tweets right now are an attempt to kind of push people into that narrative, which is one that he did not invent.

EG: I'm curious to see how it’s going to play out in Minneapolis. It sounds like they are going to make relevant changes.

WB: Well, I think some of that has gotten overblown by the media. What has happened in Minneapolis is that a majority of the city councilors committed at a public rally that their goal in the future is to dismantle the police department. I think it initially got reported that they have gotten rid of the police department, which is not true.

EG: What do you think will happen?

WB: I don't think it will ever will be true that the police department will be dismantled. I think what it could look like is the police being one piece of public safety. Maybe the police aren't even called "police" anymore. Let's start from scratch. What are we trying to accomplish here? I think most people would agree that there are certain situations in which it's really helpful to have somebody who works for the government with guns, such as the SWAT Team. I also think most people would agree that you wouldn't want to call a SWAT team in if somebody had a counterfeit $20 bill in a convenience store. That's not who you call in. Essentially, with the militarization of the police and with the culture of that level of intensity, which is driven by a whole number of factors, not least of which is just the existence of guns in so many places and communities, every police officer has the potential to feel like a SWAT team. I think one way to think about what defunding the police could mean is, "Let's separate out the police work that is SWAT team work," which is probably a very, very small percentage of crimes, from the kind of work that's more community building and health and safety. There is a great documentary film called THE INTERRUPTERS about anti-gang activists in Chicago who are, literally, former gang members who walk into violent shootout scenarios. Their goal is to interrupt or de-escalate the violence. Part of why I'm pitching a documentary like that in a moment right now is because I think there's a lot of talk about what would a new world look like in terms of this. I think they give a really good example of how, even as it continues to be really dangerous, there are things that people can do in those scenarios that actually make the violence less in these situations where having really highly armed, often jacked-up people, usually white guys, come into a scenario like that can even make it worse.

EG: A lot of the younger people I talked to a recent Black Lives Matter march said they had attended many BLM marches over the past couple of weeks. They all said that everything was always peaceful until the police showed up. They said, "We saw some beautiful things, and we saw some awful things" that were done to protesters who were peaceful. And then, of course, we had Trump and his strange Bible/tear-gas moment.

WB: That moment made me think about Martin Luther King, Jr. in the campaign with Bull Connor. He chose to go to a town where the law enforcement officer was known to be violent and was known to escalate things. There were other places in Alabama, in Mississippi, where he could have gone where there were enlightened police leaders who would have allowed the marches to take place. MLK said, "We specifically go to this place because we're trying to draw attention to the reality of violence, and we need to do it in a way that shows how dramatic it can be." I think, in some ways, having Donald Trump as president right now is like having Bull Connor. It's like if Mitt Romney was president right now, he would be up there—who knows exactly what he would be up there saying—but a lot of more even-keeled Republicans would probably say, "This is a terrible thing that's happened in Minneapolis. These are not who police officers are. We will continue to investigate this incident." That’s all they would have to say. That calms down every part of the system. If you get out there and you're trying to start shooting, you will send a signal to the whole country. "These are the stakes. This is what's happening. We are in a real struggle between racism and anti-racism."

EG: What is the benefit though? It fires up his base. He does it, even though he knows it will incite more aggression?

WB: I think what you should view it as is a reaction of instincts, most of which are self-protective. He sees that this is threatening to him, and some of it comes from an authoritarian streak that just doesn't like chaos. Some of it comes from a racist streak that just doesn't like Black people. Each of those things is part of the system of white supremacy, selfishness, authoritarianism, and racism. You don't even need all three of them to support the system. Many of us have continued to support racist institutions simply by being selfish or simply by wanting order over chaos. You don't need to be an open racist, or even a secret racist, to have continued to support this system. It's so helpful to wake people up to that reality when the president is really all three of those things in the most extreme form we've seen in a long time.

EG: It’s like he’s come from Central Casting for the part.

WB: People keep saying he's our first white supremacist president. I'm always like, "Well, the first white supremacist president . . . in a while."

EG: Back to the film the 13TH, it really feels like so much of racism stems from economics. Money and power.

WB: Yes, but the thing that racism does so effectively is it teaches people that even if they don't have money, they have power. In 1676, poor white Americans who were mostly indentured servants and poor Black Americans who were enslaved to various degrees revolted together in North Carolina in what was called Bacon's Rebellion. They revolted against the white planter class who they saw as exploiting both of them. They ran the governor out of town and scared the white planter class, really scared them. It's 100 years before the American Revolution. I think, in some ways, that date is a really important one, because what happens is, after that, they start to make really clear distinctions in the law between enslaved Africans and white indentured servants. They say, "If you're black, you don't have these privileges. If you're white, you do, regardless of your status." Edmund Morgan, who's the historian who's most associated with this thesis (it's sometimes called the Morgan Thesis), says that the idea there was that in order to create the sense of loyalty to the government within the white population, you have to create white supremacy.

EG: I’ve never heard of this.

WB: Why did all these white people fight against the Union in the South when many of them didn't own slaves? Because you had been taught that the thing that gave your identity meaning wasn't how much money you had, wasn't whether you owned land, wasn't even whether you own slaves. It was that your being white in a slave state meant there was always somebody who would be less than you. The North has had its own version of that story. In that way, of course, it's about economics. But when we have the kind of "what's the matter with Kansas" question from that book, it's like, why do working-class whites vote to lower taxes on the rich and cut government programs that could benefit them? It's because racial identity is built in to make people feel solidarity and pride that has nothing to do with their actual economic circumstance.

EG: Well, that sounds like the whole thing in a nutshell.

WB: I think there's an extent to which you can view the backlash to Barack Obama being elected president in the same way. It's like we had a deal: The deal with the white planter class in 1676 was, poor white people, you don't team up with poor Black people, and we will give you a superior status. Then, when a Black man is allowed into the highest office in the land, that proves that that deal was a lie. There's anger. Then, that's why Trump is a backlash to that. It's why the white working class continues to be a really powerful force that both parties are trying to figure out how to connect themselves to. It's really complicated to work out which parts of those grievances are real and which of them are, I don't want to say, imaginary, because they feel real. They're coming from non-economic reasons. I think the hollowing out of the middle class that's come along with the last 40 years since Reagan was elected, plus a lot of forces like globalization and robots that go beyond those policies, have hollowed out the middle class.

EG: There's nothing left.

WB: Yeah. I think you actually are afraid for your family's well-being. That grievance is a really powerful force of populism that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into in their own way and found ways of directing it.

EG: How do you feel the current status of the world will play out—the pandemic, unemployment, the economy?

WB: I think we haven't yet seen how serious the economic crisis is, because the Republicans and Democrats together passed that unemployment package that was pretty generous. That runs out on July 1st. At that point, we are in the highest level of unemployment that we've seen since the Great Depression. Generally, those moments when there's such high unemployment lead people to demand radical change of some kind. I think that's part of why everybody, both Democrats and Republicans, have kind of rushed, I believe, to reopen the economy in the last few weeks, because they want to cushion that as much as they can. Even if it means people are working in businesses that ultimately aren't safe or aren't even financially that stable, at least then you don't have to give them unemployment.

EG: Any final thoughts to wrap this up?

WB: You know, I end up in a lot of conversations where I play the history teacher a little bit, which sometimes I like and sometimes I just want to be a regular person who doesn't know what's going on, because I am that too. I would just like to tell people that it is important to remember one thing and that is that it never ends. When I say it never ends, I mean the struggle for justice never ends, and that's okay. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn't. In Sweden, they're fighting for justice. In Canada, they're fighting for justice. They really are. I think we're behind them in a lot of ways. It doesn't mean that they get to stop there. We shouldn't kid ourselves that somehow when Donald Trump leaves office that it's fixed. I think one of the biggest takeaways for me in watching this has been that we've spent a lot of energy as a country in these last four years really wringing our hands about the circus in Washington, D.C. and the things that protesters out in the streets are demanding right now. We could have been demanding those this whole time. Do you know what I mean?

EG: Yes!

WB: Police reform. That has nothing to do with Donald Trump. How many hours has everybody spent watching about the Mueller Report, watching about impeachment? All it took was one week in the streets to get Eric Garcetti to cut $100 million from the police department. Not like that's going to be the end of it, but that's a pretty big change. Our local and state leaders, both Democrat and Republican, are by and large a lot more responsive to shifts in public demands than the little orange ball of chaos at the top. No matter what you protest, it's not going to make Donald Trump change anything; but when you get out there and you ask your local leaders to do a better job, a lot of them will try. They don't always do it perfectly, but I think that's a lesson that I think all of us should take.

As we sit and, of course, spend time wringing our hands about the results of the 2020 election, whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden or some other person ends up sitting in the White House doesn't make that big of a difference in terms of what it's going to take to protect Black lives in the streets of our cities and deliver better education to Black and brown children. All these kinds of things that should be at the top of our list of things that we would hope the next president would get done, most are done in your local area. That, to me, is a hopeful thing too, because it means that we don't need to wait for Joe Biden to ride in on a horse and help us out.


Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.

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