On Sept. 15, at Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, we will host the second annual National Dialogue on Race Day. This year’s program carries particular significance in light of the tragic death of Michael Brown and last month’s events in Ferguson, Mo., and we are committed to advancing a better understanding of what we’ve all seen.
The Ferguson crisis proved—like all watershed historical moments—to be many things: a referendum on the state of African-American leadership; a tipping point for a generational civil rights divide that played out on national television; a shocking example of the militarization of local police departments; and a heartbreaking depiction of how far discussions of black equality have fallen from our national discourse.
Ferguson also represents a teachable political moment.
Occurring 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the images of poverty, police brutality and roiling demonstrations that riveted the nation (and much of the world) offered a bittersweet portrait of racial progress in the 21st century. Ferguson reminds us that politics are local and national.
With millions of college students returning to campuses this fall, now is the perfect time to jump-start a sustained, national conversation on campuses all across the country about what Ferguson means for the future of American democracy.
This will require courage and leadership on the part of educators, activists and administrators, since Ferguson opens a Pandora’s box of racial and economic injustice questions that the nation has largely ignored over the past 30 years.
The National Dialogue on Race Day seeks to examine the national measure of racial and economic justice in the age of Obama and the age of Ferguson. If Ferguson is to be remembered as the start of a movement, rather than a singular moment in American history, the responsibility lies with all of us.
Reimagining black equality is key to this discussion.
Even as Americans celebrate a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the nation has lost sight of why King and the civil rights movement mattered, then and now.
We need to do more than just share this narrative with a new generation of young people. We must offer them tools to shape contemporary politics and policy that respects history without being held hostage by it.
Above all, Ferguson revealed that, even in an age of transcendent black success, millions of African Americans remain behind a wall of poverty, unemployment and isolation. And the desperate, at times chaotic, images of Ferguson portend a national reckoning on race and democracy that has been decades in the making.
Ferguson reminds us why social movements matter. Civil rights struggles wedded civil disobedience, protests and demonstrations to concrete political and policy demands at the local, state and national level. The movement’s success triggered international consequences, becoming a global inspiration to people in search of freedom everywhere.
Once again, the whole world is watching.
On this score, National Dialogue on Race Day will bring together activists, students, intellectuals and citizens to dialogue, learn and inspire one another. The ultimate goal is to create a sustained conversation that will carry policy implications on a range of issues locally and nationally.
A year ago, more than a dozen universities and community-activist organizations joined the movement for a National Dialogue on Race Day by convening their own local dialogues from Texas to Connecticut. We hope that more people and organizations will join us this year.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” King famously reminded us, “but it bends toward justice.”
Indeed. But only when millions of people have come together in pursuit of freedom’s cause, an issue greater than their own individual interests.
We stand, once again, at a pivotal crossroads in American history: our Ferguson Moment. How we respond next will be judged not just by history alone but by future generations of Americans who are hungry to understand the world even as they seek to change it.
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.