(The Root) — Trayvon Martin’s tragic death has inspired nationwide demonstrations and calls for action that have reverberated all the way to the White House. President Obama’s spontaneous and heartfelt words about the plight of race relations in America touched upon the need for a national conversation about race but expressed skepticism that politicians might effectively lead such an endeavor.
Obama is right on this score. It’s time for all citizens to participate in a dialogue on race in America because we all have a stake in our nation’s democratic institutions.
Such a day could go a long way toward jump-starting the dialogue on race, democracy and public policy that is desperately needed around the nation, especially (but not only) in poor communities of color. In contrast to previously called for conversations on race (including one launched by the Clinton administration) that bore little tangible fruit, this dialogue should be purposeful and policy-driven in pursuit of an agenda of democratic transformation at the local, state and national levels.
The dialogue would be led by activists, civil rights organizers, policy experts and community leaders for the express purpose of crafting public-policy solutions connected to issues of racial disparities in criminal justice, employment, public schools, housing, health care and overall life chances in America.
Fifty summers ago, the heroic period of the civil rights movement inspired a national conversation about race and democracy that engaged citizens of all races and affected virtually every sector of American life. Religious leaders, labor activists, welfare mothers, prisoners and politicians participated in this dialogue, one that included roiling street protests often accompanied by the passage of watershed legislation. The idea for a National Dialogue on Race Day is inspired by the collective activism and action of these citizens, many of whom turned out in droves for the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The march united disparate political strands into a mighty and unifying call for racial justice, economic equality and multicultural democracy. The historic event galvanized social, political and cultural awareness of racial injustice and helped lead to substantive public-policy transformations in the form of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The March on Washington’s approaching 50th anniversary should be a time of national reflection and democratic renewal to assess how far we have actually come.
But to continue the conversation, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University is convening a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, and we invite all to participate in local communities across the country. The agenda for the inaugural National Dialogue on Race Day will be organized around three major issues:
1. Fifty years after the March on Washington, how far have we progressed as a nation in achieving Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of multicultural and multiracial democracy?
2. Trayvon Martin, mass incarceration and the public school-to-prison crisis.
3. Race and democracy in the 21st century: What do racial integration, justice and equality mean in contemporary America, and how can we shape this dialogue locally, nationally and globally?