LBJ Summit on Race brings together activists, leaders, celebrities

LBJ Summit on Race music panel

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  The struggle for equality and the continuing racial divides in America are in focus this week at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tuesday is the second of three days in the LBJ Summit on Race in America, the first event of it’s kind for the LBJ Foundation.  While the event draws on the history of civil rights witnessed by President Lyndon B. Johnson — whose name and legacy are central to the summit — more than 50 years ago,  the leaders, activists, artists and authors at the summit are talking about how those discussions about civil rights look similar and different in 2019. 

This event is free and open to the public, though you may have to wait in a line. 

Mark K. Updegrove, President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, told attendees, “today, despite the strides we’ve made toward civil rights, we find ourselves in what LBJ might have called a time of testing, a time when bigotry and racism are on the rise, threatening to compromise the dignity of our fellow citizens, erode our democracy, and define our age.”

“President Johnson’s words and deeds half a century ago are a clarion call,” he added. 

Here are a few of the speakers at the summit slated for Tuesday: 

  • Brittany Packnett ( Co-host of Pod Save the People and Teach for America’s Vice President of National Community Alliances )
  • Bryan Stevenson (Founder and Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative)
  • Madeline Albright (the first female U.S. Secretary of State)
  • Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez (Founder and Executive Director, Jolt)
  • Wyclef Jean (GRAMMY Award-winning Musician)
  • Sasheer Zamata (Comedian and Former Cast Member of Saturday Night Live)
  • George Lopez (Comedian, Actor, and Producer)
  • Valerie Jarrett (former senior advisor to President Obama) 

UT Austin’s Director for DIversity and Student Engagement asked Brittany Packnett and Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez about how to expand diversity of thought. 

“Even here at UT,  some of black and brown students will say,  ‘well Dr. Moore I don’t go to that office because to go to that office, to be around those students, you have to think a certain way,’ so how do we get to a point where we can increase diversity of thought?” Moore wondered. “Because I don’t believe we can grow if we just confine ourselves to an echo chamber.”

Ramirez explained her organization works to mobilize young voters in Texas, she explained she likes working in Texas because there is a wider diversity of opinion. But she noted that talking about race in her line of work can be complicated, as many of the Latinos she knows talks about race through the lens of immigration rather than talking about race itself. 

In her outreach with Jolt, Ramirez said she is not seeking to impact the “the activist woke person” her target audience is, “the average, working class, brown youth, who represents the majority of what Texas is but doesn’t see themselves reflected anywhere.” 

She explained that Latinos make up roughly 40% of Texas’ population, but most of the young Latinos Jolt works with believe Latinos only make up 10-15% of the state’s population. 

“And they think that because they don’t see themselves reflected in government, they don’t see themselves reflected the stories they see about what Texas is,” Ramirez said. 

“I believe it’s going to be a young and diverse Texas that transforms not only the politics of this state but this country,” she said. 

She made a call for a more inclusive discussion about race and the issues that are connected to it. 

Brittany Packnett expanded on that idea.

“We are so quick to judge how soon someone came to an understanding about an identity different than yours, I think that kind of ‘woke-litmus test’ is incredibly dangerous,” Packnett said. 

“My job is not to make sure the same 20 people are cris-crossing the country are having the same conversations trying to do the same thing, the point is to activate someone else who can activate someone else and engage in the kind of multiplier effect,” she said. 

Packnett gave a shout out to the coastal cities she’s visited recently that have airport announcements in multiple languages, while the noted her home, midwest airport only had announcements in English.  

“There is something we can learn from people who have grown up in a space that has consistently been diverse, and I think when we dismiss folks on the cost as just elites who don’t understand the rest of the country, it’s creating a different type of exclusion,” Packnett said. 

In the discussion about music and race, musician Wyclef Jean told the panel that he thinks that the young people of color he works with who are just starting to enter the music industry have more tools to help them make sure they aren’t being taken advantage of as they pursue careers in music. 

“This new generation has the information, that’s why they don’t sign with a label!” he laughed. 

Wyclef’s panel was asked which musical artists today are doing inspiring work. Wyclef said the Afrobeat movement, in general, inspires him. 

“It makes me so happy and it shows, like, you can’t keep people down,” noting how the genre has allowed music from young people in Africa to become globally popular. 

Songwriter Jimmy Jam said that J.Cole’s work has the type of storytelling that inspires him. 

Blues singer Shemekie Copeland responded that Austin artist Gary Clark Jr.’s work captivates her. 

Jimmy Jam also spoke on the power of music to support conversations about topics like race where they might not otherwise happen. 

“The responsibility is you always want to leave the place better than you found it, and I think music is such a powerful tool to do that, so the idea that we have is to just create music that not only the soundtrack in a passive way, but also in an empowering way to educate people,” Jimmy Jam said. 

“We did an album called Rhythmn Nation with Janet [Jackson] it was an album that was interesting because people didnt know that we were talking about racism, we were talking about drugs and gangs, we were talking about all kinds of things, but it had this beat to it,” he continued. “So what I think music has the power to do is educate and inform people, but not in a way where you’re sitting down and going ‘Oh man’, so the responsibility is to continue to create music.”

Jean explained he believes in the power of person-to-person connection to change minds and create music. He also emphasized the importance of representing immigrants people of color within music and popular culture, citing a particular memory:

“We about to go on at the Grammys and we’re backstage — me and Steve Marley, Bob Marley’s son,” he recalled, noting there was a moment when the two were reminded that this platform would give them viewership of more than 20 million people. 

Jean and Marley insisted on carrying out both a Haitian flag (as Jean is an immigrant from Haiti) and a Jamaican flag onstage. 

“It’s the first time on a Grammys stage that they ever saw two flags from the islands,” Jean said. 

“We’re not doing it for us, but because we know that there’s people back home that are sitting at the islands, and if they see us, they know they could have a shot,” Jean said. 

Valerie Jarrett, the former senior advisor to President Obama, explained that growing up as a person of color internationally, complicated her sense of identity when she moved as a child. She recalled how, upon meeting President Obama, how the two found common ground in their experience living outside of the country, “what it’s like to be an ‘other’ and figure out your blackness.”

She hopes that the people who run for the presidency in 2020 supports Americans from a wide range of backgrounds. 

“Who is going to advocate for what is best for our country? Who creates a level playing field where every young child can compete and achieve their dreams? Who going to be looking out for the people who are not being looked after right now and who is going to send the message to the world  that we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants –that’s been our history — that’s the kind of vision I’m looking for in who moves our country forward,” Jarrett said.

Jarrett explained that several people running for office in 2020 have already come to her seeking advice

The summit continues on Wednesday with more speakers including: 

  • Jamie Azure (Tribal Chairman, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians)
  • Julieta Garibay (Texas Director and Co-Founder, United We Dream)
  • Austin Mayor Steve Adler
  • Glenn E. Singleton (Author and Creator of Courageous Conversation)
  • Yamiche Alcindor (White House Correspondent, PBS NewsHour)
  • Duke Fakir (Founding Member of The Four Tops)
  • Claudette Robinson (Member of The Miracles)
  • Mary Wilson (Founding Member of The Supremes)
  • Bob Santelli (Founding Executive Director, GRAMMY Museum)

Speakers and moderators from UT Austin and Huston-Tillotson University will also take part. 

Monday’s speakers included President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughters (Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb), as well as labor activist Dolores Huerta, former Martin Luther King Jr. aide Andrew Young, organizer DeRay McKesson, and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. 

For coverage of the events on Monday and videos of the summit, look here. 

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