(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?
Community groups, universities and colleges, civic organizations, churches, synagogues and civil rights activists have natural constituencies to organize single panels or all-day symposiums to which students and surrounding community members would be invited to join in the conversation. Citizens seeking to participate might attend a live local event or simulcast of an event at a different location, stream an event online from their own computers and/or share their thoughts on social media with the hashtag #NDRD. Event organizers would publicize their affiliation with NDRD both on and offline. Ideally, a National Dialogue on Race Day could simultaneously occur in every community across the nation, and even those unable to organize such an event locally could easily participate online.
Ella Baker, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, famously remarked that "strong people don't need strong leaders." Neither the African-American community nor the nation as a whole can afford to wait on politicians to lead a discussion that will cast a strobe light on issues of inequality, racism and injustice. It's uncomfortable because we're out of practice — but we need to do it anyway.
The aftermath of the Supreme Court's recent voting-rights and affirmative action decisions, as well as proliferating urban violence, poverty and mass incarceration, make this conversation more necessary now than ever. A deliberate, widespread dialogue among American citizens is critical to push forward the transformation of our democratic institutions. Now is the time to revisit the energy and activism of the March on Washington to revive the goal of racial justice.
The same summer as the march, in a national television address to the nation, President John F. Kennedy defined institutional racism as a "moral" issue that reverberated through political institutions. Two months later Martin Luther King Jr., during his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, proclaimed that African Americans had come to the nation's capital to cash a check that had been marked "insufficient funds." King refused to believe, in his words, that the bank of American democracy could be bankrupt. Despite evidence to the contrary, many Americans of diverse backgrounds continue to believe in King's dream of racial equality and economic justice.
President Obama's recent admission that we are not in a "postracial" nation goes a long way toward combating the "colorblind" racism that stubbornly declares racial equality while ignoring growing social, economic and political disparities based on race. But politicians cannot lead this national conversation.
We are capable of being the architects of the democracy in which we want to live. This requires confronting racism openly and educating our fellow citizens that merely discussing, recognizing or "seeing" race does not make one a racist. The idea that one does not "see" race should be reserved for the political satire of Stephen Colbert and not be viewed as a serious political perspective. Only by seeing race can we begin to transform public policy and democratic institutions.
America is well on its way to becoming a majority-minority nation, but we still too often think and speak about race in binaries. A National Dialogue on Race Day should rightfully include the diverse racial and ethnic panorama that makes up 21st-century America.
As we approach the cusp of the 50th anniversary of King's dream, a national conversation on race and democracy led by activists, scholars, community organizers and active citizens will help us reimagine American democracy while confronting the social, political and racial injustices that threaten King's dream and our own.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center 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.