Face-to-Face on Racial Inequality

Panelists at Tuft University's National Dialogue on Race Day (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)
Panelists at Tuft University's National Dialogue on Race Day (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

(The Root) — On Thursday, Sept. 12, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University convened a National Dialogue on Race Day. The standing-room-only event attracted upwards of 400 people to discuss racial justice and equality in America 50 years after the March on Washington. The struggle for racial justice necessitates an intellectually based and historically contextualized dialogue on race, democracy and civil rights. Dialogue can help educate and empower diverse groups of citizens committed to Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of multicultural democracy.


In July I first wrote about the concept of the NDRD in The Root. Since then, conversations about racial justice in America have been taking place organically at the local and national levels. This past Thursday, however, a series of organized events took place that are designed to foster a new dialogue on race, public policy and civil rights. These events brought together disparate groups of activists, organizers, policy experts and citizens to discuss how racial justice can be pursued in concrete ways. NDRD panels simultaneously occurred at several other universities — including Duke, Fairfield, Columbia and UCLA — and civic groups like the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston.

At Tufts the interactive discussion was organized in two parts, with panelists offering remarks that focused on the persistence of institutional racism in education, the criminal-justice system and voting rights. The second part of the discussion focused on comments and questions from audience members who shared intimate stories of combating racial discrimination in their personal and professional lives. 

The evening's theme of "continuing the call for racial justice in the 21st century" utilized history's lessons to offer a way forward in the future. Many of the racial controversies of the past summer, from Trayvon Martin to the Supreme Court's Voting Rights Act decision, were on the minds of panelists and attendees.

In my capacity as founding director of the CSRD, I moderated the forum, which included Boston NAACP President Michael Curry; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter; Kimberly Moffitt, professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Harvard University scholar John Stauffer; Paul Watanabe, professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and writer Kim McLarin.

Curry, who is a practicing attorney, recounted the paucity of legal services that leads blacks to be disproportionately incarcerated in the criminal-justice system. Although Curry has been able to aid poor black criminal defendants, he openly wondered about "the thousands of blacks people who have no access to proper representation."

McWhorter discussed the link between racism and economic inequality. Capitalism's devastating impact on the poor is, she argued, at times obscured by the prevalence of racial divisions. "Racism and capitalism are intimately interconnected," she noted.


The immediate aftermath of slavery offered parallels to our contemporary era, suggested Stauffer. The period from 1870 to 1920 introduced new forms of incarceration, including the convict-lease system, which criminalized black men and allowed private companies to work them to death — a practice that America is still coming to terms with. "Prisoners in the United States represent a form of slavery," observed Stauffer.

King's "I Have a Dream" speech, according to Watanabe, remains misunderstood. "We are much more comfortable as a society talking about brotherhood than we are about barriers to opportunity. We tend to ignore three-fourths of Dr. King's speech and focus solely on 'the dream' instead of the hard challenge of transforming public policy," he argued pointedly.  


"The war on poverty is the one war we have given up on," said McLarin, who confessed to pessimism regarding the contemporary struggle for racial equality. America's race problem is also a class issue. The proliferation of economic growth exclusively among the 1 percent reverberates throughout all sectors of society but particularly affects already impoverished blacks.

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.

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.