Why Is Talking About Race So Hard?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, keynote speakerat the Facing Race Conference
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, keynote speakerat the Facing Race Conference

At a time when America's obsession with race has intensified, a gathering of experts on racial justice is taking place in the heartland. The Facing Race in Chicago 2010 conference began yesterday at the McCormick Hyatt Regency in Chicago. Hosted by New York-based Applied Research Center, a think tank on race, the event is being billed as a multiracial meeting of leaders, educators and activists talking about achieving racial equity in the age of Obama.


Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is the keynote speaker for the conference. She will bring her trenchant observations on the importance of turning verbal conflagrations, such as Dr. Laura Schlessinger's use of the n-word, into so-called teachable moments.

Specifically, Harris-Lacewell will talk about how the Dr. Laura incident "reflects individual bias in the country and how you can connect it to public policy and institutions," said Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the ARC. "She'll talk about how the larger point is to start change, not person by person, but through institutions, such as schools, where the rules are set. She'll also take a look at the criminal justice system and how the media report the incidents."


Besides Harris-Lacewell, other speakers include Van Jones, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Tim Wise, an activist and educator; and Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of VotoLatino. Social commentator and writer Chris Rabb will emcee.

Plenary topics include, "Changing the Conversation on Race Through New Media Strategies'' and ''Re-Imagining the Economy and Popularizing Racial Justice." Workshops will include discussions on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, health-care disparities, the economy, green jobs and immigrant rights.

"America's failings to substantively address the continuing challenges of race emerges from a lack of shared vocabulary and experiences, collective understanding of the difference between personal attitudes and systematic discrimination," Harris-Lacewell said in a news release. "Most importantly, however, we lack a collective vision of a racially just future. These are the aspects of race that we must face, working in communities across America among people of good faith."

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