Face-to-Face on Racial Inequality

National Dialogue on Race Day tackles issues of education, criminal justice and poverty.

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The event attracted a large number of students, many of whom asked a range of questions about the role of white privilege in American race relations, the hidden radicalism of King and how activists could transform the prison industrial complex. 

America's willful refusal to talk about race, except when forced to during times of national crisis, was vigorously addressed. The national embrace of colorblindness as an antidote to institutional racism has led to an ironic situation in which merely "seeing" race opens one up to accusations of being a racist.

Part of this confusion stems from a misreading of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, specifically when he imagined his four little children being judged "by the content of their character" rather than the color of their skin. This was no advocacy of colorblind racism, however -- the phenomenon of declaring racial equality a fact while ignoring unequal outcomes. Instead, King challenged Americans to stop attaching negative stereotypes to skin color. Only by openly discussing race can we work toward this goal.

What made the NDRD so compelling was the diversity of its participants. White, Latino, African-American and Asian-American students, activists, senior citizens and soccer moms joined in a dialogue about how race is lived in America. Most important, young people came away from the event with a deeper commitment to engaging in civic activism.

Bringing Americans together to talk about race will always be challenging. As Barack Obama eloquently pointed out in his comments about Trayvon Martin, black Americans daily confront a brutal history of racial oppression that just "doesn't go away." But the difficulty of the task should not dissuade us from pursuing the goal of racial justice and economic equality that brought the nation to Washington, D.C., 50 years ago. The kind of proactive conversation that took place at Tufts and other universities last week is proof that we are having -- and will continue to have -- the national dialogue on race in America that many have called for.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.

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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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