Continuing the March

Tufts history professor convenes National Dialogue on Race Day
Peniel Joseph
“As President Obama pointed out, this conversation should not be led by politicians, but should occur among people where they live,” says Peniel Joseph. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 9, 2013

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From the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case to the Supreme Court’s decision eliminating two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, events of the past several months suggest the time is right for a national conversation on race, says Peniel Joseph, professor of history and founding director of Tufts’ Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

“We see the symmetry with the summer of 1963, when events from the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi had everyone from politicians to the media to the public talking about race,” says Joseph, who is author of the award-winning Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.

Taking up President Barack Obama’s appeal “for all of us to do some soul searching,” Joseph is convening the National Dialogue on Race Day program “The March on Washington’s 50th: Continuing the Call for Racial Equality in the 21st Century” on Thursday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. in Cabot ASEAN Auditorium at Tufts. Similar events are being held in conjunction with National Dialogue on Race Day around the country, including at Arizona State University, Columbia University, UCLA and the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston.

“As President Obama pointed out, this conversation should not be led by politicians, but should occur among people where they live, so they feel like empowered participants, reengaged on a personal level,” says Joseph, and accordingly, Tufts’ program will be conducted town-hall style, with time for plenty of discussion. It will be multi-generational, multiracial and multicultural.

“This is to bring the Tufts community together, along with the wider community, in a research-driven, intellectually driven conversation about where we are now and how we can go forward,” says Joseph, who reports that guests, among them policy experts and activists, are coming from Roxbury, Dorchester, Medford, Somerville and elsewhere in the Boston area.

Panelists include Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP; Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Carry Me Home, a history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham; and Paul Watanabe, associate professor of political science at UMass Boston and author of A Dream Deferred: Changing Demographics, New Opportunities and Challenges for Boston. Joseph himself will serve as both a panelist and a moderator.

Joseph believes President Obama spoke for many this summer in one memorable remark on race: “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said.

Exploring that set of experiences and history will be key to the National Dialogue on Race. Joseph acknowledges that signs of racial progress in the United States are obvious: Barack Obama as president and Eric Holder as attorney general; an increased black middle class; more black college and high school graduates; and thousands of black entrepreneurs, business leaders, sports figures and elected officials. But there are worrying signs, too, such as the mass incarceration of black men and women well out of proportion to the white population, Joseph says. Black men receive 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men for the same drug crimes, reported the attorney general in his speech before the American Bar Association; more blacks are jailed for drug use as a percentage of the population, even though the use of drugs is equal among blacks and whites.

Joseph is also concerned about some misguided notions that people have acquired. “A post-racial society is not a goal, but a post-racist society is,” he says. “Martin Luther King’s dream that we judge not by the color of skin but by the content of character did not mean we should not see race in the future, but that we would not attach negative qualities and stereotypes to race. This misinterpretation has transmuted into this whole idea of color-blind racism, where we announce racial equality as a fact even though there are racial disparities and outcomes.”

And then Joseph has noticed other, more subtle shifts in perspective that do not bode well. In 1997, President Bill Clinton called for an entire year to be dedicated to a national discussion of race. But, says Joseph, his blue ribbon panel got nowhere, in part because the context in which Americans talk about race had changed. From 1963 through 1977, the year Roots became the most-watched television mini-series in history, people engaged in discussions of racism and its origins in slavery. In later years, however, race began to come to the fore more often around disasters or violence, such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots or Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “The problem in our recent history is that we’re just reactive,” says Joseph.

Still, he is convinced that the National Dialogue on Race could have long-lasting consequences. “I hope this day opens up a dialogue, with our center at Tufts as a headquarters, where that conversation can be continued on everything from civil rights and immigration to the justice system,” he says. “The byproduct is people getting to know each other in a different way.” And he adds that pursing such dialogue is central to our ideals as a nation. “Democracy is not something that is static—it must be fought for. It changes over time. It’s dynamic, and it needs our voices.”

Follow Peniel Joseph at @penieljoseph; follow the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at @tuftscsrd.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.