Remarks at the UN Film Screening of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Desirée Cormier Smith
Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice
New York, New York
November 17, 2022


Good evening, I’m Desirée Cormier Smith. In June of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed me as the State Department’s first ever Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice. In this historic new role, I am focused on advancing racial and ethnic equity and justice globally through our foreign affairs work. It is my job to ensure that U.S. foreign policy, programs, and processes protect and advance respect for the human rights of persons belonging to marginalized racial and ethnic communities, including Indigenous peoples and people of African descent, and that we are working to counter systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia around the world.

My position exists because – while we acknowledge the very real and ongoing challenges we are facing here in the United States to fully address the long and lingering legacies of the displacement of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants – we also recognize that these challenges are not unique or exclusive to the United States. Structural racism, discrimination, and xenophobia are global scourges that require global solutions. The United States seeks to be a positive and productive member of a global community working to address racial and ethnic inequities as a means to a more just and peaceful world. And we are trying to show our commitment not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example by doing the hard but necessary work to address systemic racism here in the United States openly and honestly.

Now, part of that work means acknowledging and addressing the ways in which anti-Black racism and the global devaluation of Black lives has plagued our world for centuries. African descendant communities around the world are still grappling with the devastating and lingering impacts of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism. Though a concept founded on a fallacious premise, it is undeniable that white supremacy’s global legacy is one that is deep, systemic, complex, and violent.

I came across “Who We Are” a few months ago while watching Netflix on a random Saturday, well before I knew I would have the opportunity and the privilege of being here with Jeffery Robinson today. After seeing the short preview on Netflix, I knew I needed to watch this film. As a practitioner of racial justice work but also as an American, I immediately recognized “Who We Are” as required watching. And not to spoil the plot, but one of the things that Jeffery says in the documentary that has stuck with me since – and I’m paraphrasing here – is something along the lines of: countries, like human beings, can be many things at once. Just as no person is purely a saint or purely a sinner, neither is any nation. That stuck with me because it is so true but rarely acknowledged. Like people, all countries have parts of their histories they can and should be proud of, but there are also undoubtedly dark chapters in our histories that we wish we could change. But wishing them away doesn’t negate the fact that they happened – nor the fact that we are still grappling with the lingering legacies of many of those ugly historical events.

Many things can be true. America is a great nation – but we are a great nation whose original sin was the enslavement of Africans stolen from their homeland and the displacement of Native Americans who were here long before European colonizers arrived. And as President Biden often says, great nations do not shirk from their past – and I would add to that, nor do they shirk from their present. This is why it is important that we understand that the United States is not exempt from this complicated legacy of white supremacy. In fact, our country, my country has at times played an integral role in perpetuating white supremacy both domestically and globally. None of us are pure saints or pure sinners.

As we gather here this evening in the beautiful halls of the United Nations, where decisions impacting global stability and peace are made by the most powerful people in the world, I want to acknowledge that we are on the ancestral lands of the Lenape people, which stretched from New York City to New Jersey, parts of eastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware. I also want to acknowledge that we are only a few blocks away from Seneca Village, a historic community founded by free Blacks in 1825. This middle-class community provided sanctuary and safe haven for many Black people following New York’s abolition of slavery in 1827. And that thriving community was destroyed by city officials several decades later. Homes demolished – hundreds of people forcibly displaced to make room for what we now know as Central Park.

“Who We Are” reminds us of the power of remembrance of communities like Seneca Village, gone but never forgotten. It is so important to remember so that we can better understand how we got to where we are today and to prevent us from making those same mistakes.

This incredibly insightful and informative documentary could not be more timely and more relevant. I applaud the directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler, as well as the man of the hour Jeffrey Robinson, for spearheading such a thoughtful and substantive analysis of who we are as Americans, who we have been, and who we have the potential to be.

The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to taking steps to begin to right past wrongs, understanding that we are indeed at a tipping point – not only here in the United States, but as a global community. Marginalized racial and ethnic communities around the world are joining in what can only be described as a global reckoning on inequities and injustice. This anti-racist work is urgent. We have the opportunity in front of us to create a more just, a more equitable, and a more peaceful world. Not only is it morally the right thing to do, but it’s also in our shared security interest. Societies that successfully address deep-rooted disparities tend to be more peaceful, more prosperous, and more stable – and that is good for us all.

I am honored to serve with my colleagues in the State Department to work towards a more just world where all people are valued and included, and no one is prevented from living up to their full potential simply because of their race or ethnicity. James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The history and legacy of racism, particularly anti-Black racism, here in the United States and around the world can be uncomfortable to face head-on. But the United States can, the United States must, and we are trying to do just that.

Thank you.