Conversations with Rev. Markel Hutchins: On race in America, the importance of STEM, and building bridges with police.

Reverend Markel Hutchins is a civil and human rights activist who has put in the work for his community, his people, and most importantly, for disenfranchised individuals regardless of color, creed, or geography. CNN has called him “one of the most important voices in today’s fight for civil rights.” Coming from Atlanta, he belongs to the long tradition of American civil rights activists that emerged during the 1950’s and 1960’s. At 36 years old, Rev. Hutchins is a consummate community leader, political activist, and social justice advocate carrying forth the spirit and tradition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to whom he has been compared since childhood.

Rev. Hutchins has led issue-oriented public campaigns and given voice to issues impacting millions of lives. He has led dozens of protests, marches and rallies. Rev. Markel has been arrested numerous times for engaging in civil disobedience to call attention to issues such as homelessness, police brutality, unfair labor practices, criminal justice system abuses, and discrimination against immigrants. The mission of his work is to protect, defend and advance civil and human rights by widely trumpeting the call for personal responsibility while working to eradicate economic, educational and social inequities and promoting peace and justice.

MovementForward, Rev. Hutchins’ organization, provides this generation of Americans a conciliatory voice to offer programs, projects, activism, empowerment opportunities, and targeted issue campaigns to advocate for one standard of justice regardless of race, class, gender, religion, orientation, or immigration status.

What is your assessment of race relations in America today?

I think we are in a precarious position when it comes to race relations in America. The last several years have brought to the forefront a lot of continuing racial animus and misunderstandings. A lot of that has been brought on by a powder keg of political activity. 

The election and re-election of Barack Obama I think laid the groundwork for the presidency of Donald Trump and the Trump presidency has laid the groundwork for a degree of racial animus to be put on Front Street, both giving comfort to people who hold racial animosities toward people who are different than they are, but as well emboldening to speak in in very forthright terms about their continuing commitment to white supremacy. Those things have created a situation where we have a generation of young people that are angry and visceral, and sometimes that anger boils over and becomes unproductive discourse and unproductive actions. We see that manifested in so many ways, through our politics and throughout our culture. 

I think in so many ways, we are so much better than we’ve ever been when it comes to racial progress, particularly for people of color. But we’re also probably in one of the worst places we’ve been in in American history in terms of people being unwilling to sit and reason together to try to recognize the commonalities that we have that supersede the particularities of race.

The election of President Obama was complicated on many levels. In a weird way, it seemed to set things back. Did his election just provide a degree of cover and freedom for bigoted voices to emerge from the shadows?

I think the election of Barack Obama provided the level of visible progress. We could see that a black man ascended to the highest office in the land. But the backlash to that was that people who had historically felt and been privileged by virtue of their race and often by virtue of their masculinity or their manhood had privileges in America that were both stated and unstated. 

For the 44th President of the United States to be something other than a white man was really transformative. It was it was a major change. It was not only historic, but it was a change in culture and it was a change in sentiment and attitude, not just for people of color, but also for white men. There was a natural and I think frankly an understandable reaction. The President of the United States is the most powerful individual in the world, and, having a non-white male in that seat was highly suggestive and caused a degree of backlash. It also gave way again to the rise of Donald Trump. I think more than the Obama presidency, the Trump presidency allowed folks to come out of the woodwork and, in some sense, show their real colors – very nasty and bitter and visceral colors – but their colors nonetheless. 

Now how does your faith inform your activism?

For me, we live in our faith, but we live under the law. There are more faith based organizations in the United States of America than any other form of institutions. There are 65 million Americans that attend some form of faith based service every week, so the largest body of volunteers in the United States of America belong to and are part of faith based communities. For me, those faith based communities have to be about social action. They have to be about societal transformation. That is what my faith means to me. My faith means I’m committed to God that my service to God is exactly through service to mankind.

We are the arms and tentacles of God. The only way that I’m able to live out my faith is through my activism through my efforts at making the world more just and equitable and peaceful and fair, to bring about healing and reconciliation and understanding without demonizing people. 

That is what faith does for me. I would argue that that’s what faith should do for anyone. It should open our eyes to the possibilities of serving humanity as an extension, and because of our commitment to God.

It’s been a long two years with the Covid-19 pandemic and social unrest. The disease has affected people of color. Very early in the pandemic, it was obvious that there would be two or three different pandemics experienced by different groups of people. Some people were able to just get out of dodge and go somewhere safe. Others had the luxury of not needing to go anywhere at all. Other people were stuck where they were because they had to work or couldn’t afford just to pack up and leave the congested cities they lived in. How has the pandemic affected the African American community around you that you’ve seen?

It’s affecting the African American community broadly, in there’s a natural distrust that many people of color have, for example, for the vaccine, for the origin of the Coronavirus to begin with. It is rooted in the history of things like the Tuskegee experiment and other experiments that were exploitative and really targeted African-Americans and other people of color. That is one element.

The second element that I would offer is that because African Americans still suffer from disproportionately low wages, disproportionately inadequate access to medical treatment, insurance, redlining and other predatory practices with regard to insurance and the affordability and accessibility of insurance, the combination of those claims put us in the most vulnerable posture possible. In 2022, five years after the first black president of the United States of America, 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, we’re still in a place where African-Americans are the last hired and the first fired. We are still suffering disproportionately from low wages and inadequate access to health care. All those other kinds of social inequities are a byproduct of years of oppression, hundreds of years of oppression, legalized slavery, then Jim Crow laws, and now attacks on our voting rights. 

The continuing injustices and inequalities that African Americans have faced have put us in the most vulnerable position so that when a global pandemic hits the United States of America, African-Americans are at risk because we don’t have as much access to health care as others. The health disparities that exist every day in our community include the lack of accessibility to good quality produce, for example. Every day we face all of those things that have come together and created this powder keg that has exploded in our communities. That has caused COVID that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Now, you mentioned access to quality and affordable health care. It’s a serious problem. How can this be addressed? Is there a solution to that?

Well, I think it calls for both a public policy and a public culture solution. Obamacare was a good start in that it provided affordable opportunities for a number of Americans. I think we have a number of African Americans that otherwise would not have access to that health care. I think we have to go a step further. We have to continue to drive down the cost of health care, continue to drive up the accessibility of good quality medication, and continue to regulate doctors and pharmaceutical companies that would deny appropriate treatment for people of color, and any other person in low income communities who might have pre-existing conditions. That’s a continuing public policy discussion. We need to expand health care.

We’re the only industrialized or modern so-called civil society in the world that does not have health care every right of citizenship, health care should be a right of every person in the United States of America. Just like our children have the right to go to school. every American ought to have a right to go to a doctor without being concerned about whether or not they can afford the treatment. Whether or not they can afford the doctor’s visit and the prescriptions or medications etc. So that’s number one. Then there’s a public culture conversation that we have to have. 

In 2022, five years after the first black president of the United States of America, 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, we’re still in a place where African-Americans are the last hired and the first fired.

Rev. Markel Hutchins

As people of color, we have to empower every community leader and every community organization with enough knowledge and wisdom to be able to speak aggressively about the need for people to go to the doctor for folks to be seen. We have to destigmatize treatment for illnesses. 

I was reared in the South… Stone Mountain, Georgia which Dr. King spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech. There are members of my own family who don’t want to speak to the doctor about their health challenges. Some of that is alive in the lap of what you referenced earlier, and that is the faith community. This idea that somehow if we speak of the challenges that we may be having with our health, that we’re somehow lacking in faith, that somehow we should be relying on God and not medicine, if you will. 

There’s a big stigma among African American men, for example, about the procedures that are necessary to detect prostate cancer in it’s early stages. We have to destigmatize health and wellness in communities of color, and I think that’s going to take both the public policy focus, as well as the public culture focus.

There’s pretty significant under-represented representation of African Americans in STEM fields in schools, whether it’s undergrad, graduate, PhD, becoming a doctor, there’s still a significant under representation. Can you discuss that a little bit and then and also, how would that how could that be solved? I mean, are there solutions?

There is a direct correlation between the health and wellness disparities that we’re seeing are African Americans, Hispanic, American and other communities of color and the lack of the lack of proportionate representation in communities of color in the STEM industry. 

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If and when we see a rise in young people of color entering into and being adequately educated in the STEM fields, we will see the health disparities decrease because when your cousin or when your nephew… when your son speaks to you or someone from your community speaks to you about the necessity of treatment and health and wellness, it permeates differently than if you’re just hearing it from someone that you don’t see, you don’t know, and who doesn’t look like you or come from the communities in which you do.

I would hope that the US Department of Education would begin looking at how we can increase support for historically black colleges and universities to begin to develop curriculum and degree programs in STEM fields. So many of the historically black colleges and universities in the United States of America are solely focused on liberal arts when liberal arts is not, quite frankly, the most pressing needs in our community. The most pressing needs in communities of color are in the area of STEM. 

We can and should do is begin to put more resources academically both at the collegiate as well as at the high school level on careers in the STEM fields. Our local school boards need to begin to look at their curriculums and target this deficit in the STEM fields, putting more emphasis and resources academically. Again, at the high school level on educating and providing opportunities and equipment for STEM, STEM studies and STEM focus. 

When you were discussing healthcare, you contextualized it in terms of the past and how the past continues to influence the present. When critics attack so-called critical race theory, that seems to be one of their primary objectionsthe idea that the past can influence the future and still does. Can you discuss that?

I think one of the one of the challenges with terminology like critical race theory is that a lot of times we get hung up on the terminology, and not really addressing the context and the content of the subject matter. Whether you call it critical race theory or anything else, the truth of the matter is, no matter what walk of life you come from the history of this nation, the history of our individual communities are individual ethnicities is driven by history. 

And we have to adequately and effectively examine the history of this nation and the context of race and the context of opportunities in the context of ethnicity. It’s in the context of religion and other social identifiers. In order to effectively assess how we go forward and how we create opportunities to overcome that history. 

There is an unfortunate tone and tenor in a lot of circles, that somehow you should just be able to dismiss history in assessing the status or the state of a particular group of Americans. That is historically irresponsible, and it’s also ineffective, and it’s illogical, and it works to the detriment of the perfection of our democracy. We have to lean into understanding the challenges that have faced African Americans historically, if we’re going to figure out a pathway forward. 

So all of the cultural challenges, all of the social challenges, even the medical challenges, the challenges with getting young African Americans and Hispanics into STEM careers can be traced back to not only Jim Crow but also segregation. It takes only one second to cut a laceration, but it will take many weeks for that minor laceration to heal. The same thing is true with a deep wound like slavery and Jim Crow. We may never completely overcome those things. 

Every generation must work more and more and more to try to build a more perfect union. But we cannot build a more perfect union if we continue to deny the continuing contributions that slavery and oppression make to the disenfranchisement and disadvantage of black people in America.

So many of the historically black colleges and universities in the United States of America are solely focused on liberal arts when liberal arts is not, quite frankly, the most pressing needs in our community. The most pressing needs in communities of color are in the area of STEM.

Rev. Markel Hutchins

What is MovementForward?

MovementForward is a solution focused human and civil rights organization that we created, frankly, in the aftermath of a lot of the divisive protests that we’ve seen around the country. 

I was mentored by most of the civil rights icon that work very closely with Martin Luther King Jr. I was born a decade after Dr. King was killed, but I’m very fortunate to be mentored by Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Reverend Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young and John Lewis and Hosea Williams and Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Height… the list goes on and on of those icons. 

What I began to see several years ago, particularly in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, is that too much of our protests had become angry and visceral and not centered on love. The thing that made the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement different and the thing that made it so successful is that Dr. King and the generation that worked with Dr. King was not out to destroy America. They were not out to damn America. They were out to redeem America.

They did it from a position and a posture of love, love that transcends justice, love that causes you to love your neighbor, even when your neighbor doesn’t love you, to recognize the humanity and decency that is possible in your neighbor even when your neighbor doesn’t see the humanity or decency in you. 

That’s the kind of leadership that I believe America needs today. Unfortunately, too many of the protests and demonstrations and outcries have not focused on bringing us together, seeking to build bridges seeking to promote understanding, even when people don’t understand you, and that’s my fault.

We took the best of the civil rights movement, the best lessons of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the movement to abolish apartheid in South Africa, the best of the movement for the rights of immigrants and LGBTQ persons, and we were seeking to move those things forward into a more cooperative space,  into space that focuses not only the things that divide us, but also the things that unite us. That will cause us to work around our commonalities instead of just remaining divided by our differences. 

We’re building a multicultural, multiracial and intergenerational movement for positive and progressive social change to advance and protect the human and civil rights of all people. It is basically civil and human rights organizations where our core programming focuses in this moment on the criminal justice space, because there’s no more critical need in America today in terms of public policy, or public cultural discussions, to focus on issues around policing and police brutality. 

Our organization leads the largest and most collaborative Police Community Outreach Project in American history. We’re based in Atlanta. We’ve got a very diverse team and we’re building a civil rights organization that’s going to further the work of building the beloved community that Dr. King envisioned some 60 years ago.

I’m always interested in how relations between the police and community can be improved. But my question is, how do you even begin to address improving things when police forces, especially in big cities are sort of equipped like mini-armies?

The first thing you have to do is put the law enforcement officers in those communities in a relationship with the people that they’re policing. Most of the law enforcement tragedies that we’ve seen across the country have been based on fear. The law enforcement professionals fear the people that they’re policing and the community fear the law enforcement professionals. 

There was a 55% increase in the number of law enforcement officers that were killed in the line of duty in 2020. From 2020 to 2021, there was a 55% increase in the number of law enforcement professionals that died in service. On the flip side of that, there’s a continuing number of law enforcement involved tragedies, where law enforcement officers are killing people that should not be dying at the hands of law enforcement. All the while, violent crime is rising in communities across the country. What that says to me is that we have to come together and see the humanity in each other and begin to speak to one another, decrease the fear, and decrease the bias. It’s very easy to dislike or hate those who you do not know, but it’s very difficult to hate.

We have to call the community and law enforcement to come closer to one another and help law enforcement officers feel less threatened and less threatening, because in doing so, it will cause these law enforcement entities and the individuals that work in those entities to be less militaristic and more focused on public service and protecting and serving. I’m not in the defund the police crowd whatsoever because defunding the police does more harm to communities of color than any other community. 

When you start this whole conversation that occurred a couple of years ago about defunding the police, I think there’s a direct tie between this nonsense about defunding the police and the rise of violent crimes that adversely and disproportionately affects communities of color. 

I think the underlying premise is that we’ve got to get communities and law enforcement to come into a relationship with one another, both for the purposes of decreasing the mutual tensions and bias that cause police officers to be a lot less afraid and a lot more familiar and understanding of the people that they’re policing. It also causes the community to take more responsibility for public safety in their own neighborhood and in their own communities. That is the only thing that will give us the kinds of results that most Americans want to see.


IMAGE CREDIT: Rev. Markel Hutchins.

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