“We Want It Now”: On Jesse Williams and Rewriting the Racial Rules

By Gabriel Matthews |

As many of you reading this will have already seen, Jesse Williams, best known for his role in the ABC series Grey’s Anatomy and increasingly for his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, was named Humanitarian of the Year at the 2016 BET Awards last Sunday evening. The inspiring moment was underscored by Williams’s rousing, socially conscious speech, in which he thanked “real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”

It was a speech heard ’round the world—or at least the internet—and one that, while speaking directly to injustices against black and brown bodies and lives, also acknowledged our country’s enduring desire to push people of color to the margins of the political and economic debate.

In Rewrite the Racial Rules: Building An Inclusive American Economy the Roosevelt Institute demonstrates the historical implications of policies and practices, past and present, heavily shaped by race and gender biases. In this report, we argue that acknowledging this influence at every level of the policymaking process will enable us to rewrite inequitable rules in a way that builds a long overdue inclusive American economy—an economy that works for the struggling parents, families, and students, among others whom Williams humbly mentioned.

Blacks confront a plethora of struggles in many sectors of contemporary society, and those struggles often result in disparate outcomes. These inequalities are most apparent in our criminal justice, education and health care systems, through the disparate impact of the money bail system on black families, ominously racialized student debt delinquency, and the impact of HIV/AIDS and other STDs, among other factors that weigh on the health and well being of black Americans.

Black lives have, at best, experienced retrenchment and, at worst, been literally taken in a variety of ways for generations. While we may not be able to fully rectify ages of racial exclusion, we can choose to address modern-day injustices by considering race in newly rewritten policies and their implementation to ensure equity across racial lines.

“Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter but, you know what, though,” Williams passionately declared, “the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”

We not only want it now, Mr. Williams: for the sake of truly shared prosperity, growth, and equity, we need it.

Gabriel Matthews is a Program Associate at the Roosevelt Institute.