Past, Present and Future of Race and Inequality

Tufts forum highlights the need to understand the complex origins and harmful consequences of racism in America
David Harris and panelists at forum
Provost David Harris moderated the Forum on Race, Inequality and Action on Feb. 25 that featured two panel discussions. Some of the panelists from left: historians Peniel Joseph and Kendra Field and sociologist Helen Marrow. Photo: Kelvin Ma
March 2, 2015

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At the university’s Forum on Race, Inequality and Action on Feb. 25, faculty, students and staff heard six panelists describe from a variety of viewpoints—from history and political science to sociology, religion and health care—how those issues affect us as a nation and as members of the Tufts community.

Sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, in collaboration with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, the forum featured two panel discussions—“Racialized Violence: Public Policy and Civil Rights for a New Generation” and “Inequality and Action: Encouraging and Empowering Communication and Social Change”—followed by an question-and-answer sessions.

Provost David Harris led off the forum with a personal reflection: his reaction to the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991—the attack was captured on videotape, and yet a jury acquitted the four officers charged in it. More than 20 years later, a similar event, the filming of the arrest of Eric Garner in New York last year, led to a grand jury decision not to indict the officer who put Garner in the chokehold that caused his death.

In both cases, Harris noted, different groups of Americans who viewed the videos came to starkly different conclusions. Understanding how race and inequality played roles in those events and others—and how Americans reach conclusions about them—is crucial for making progress on these issues, he said. To gain such understanding, Harris said, it’s important to consider race and inequality in context, to understand the historical and cultural influences that have brought us to this point. Universities, he said, can take a leadership role in advancing the discussion and advocating for social and political change.

Peniel Joseph, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, spoke about what he called the “uneven citizenship” that people live under in the U.S. “It’s connected to education, civil institutions … and even universities,” he said. Some people clearly have more rights as citizens than others, referring to what he called “the new Jim Crow.” In the end, though, he urged the audience to understand that “it’s not just why black lives matter, it’s why all lives matter.”

Understanding the history of race relations is crucial, said assistant professor of history Kendra Field. She spoke about her research for her upcoming book, Growing Up with the Country: A Family History of Race and American Expansion, about her grandparents’ grandparents, who lived in the post-Civil War period in the South. During Reconstruction, more than 1,500 blacks held political office in the South, but those initial political gains were soon sharply curtailed by Jim Crow laws—and all those officeholders were driven from their positions. Likewise, former slaves were legally free, but were “economically bound to the land,” Field said—no real freedom at all. These factors led to a quiet exodus from the Deep South in the late 1800s, which preceded the Great Migration, when more than 6 million African Americans left the rural South for urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest and West between 1910 and 1970.

It isn’t just African Americans facing systemic inequalities, said Helen Marrow, an assistant professor of sociology, whose scholarship focuses on immigration issues. She spoke of “the racialization, criminalization and demonization” of immigrant Latino men, mainly from Mexico and Central America. Often these men are being stopped for civil infractions—fishing without a license, for example—and being deported, leaving behind wives and children, who then, for the first time, need to apply for public assistance. This harsh response to immigrants is especially prevalent in the interior of the United States, she said. “Deportation is profitable,” she noted, citing the privately owned prisons filled with immigrants, the majority not charged with any criminal offense.

Racial inequality has even more insidious effects, striking at the health of entire communities. Joyce Sackey, dean for multicultural affairs and global health at the School of Medicine and associate professor of public health and community medicine, spoke about the stark inequities between the health of blacks and whites in America, noting, for instance, that the infant mortality rate for blacks is three times higher than for whites, and that preterm birth for blacks is almost 60 percent higher than for whites.

Heather Curtis, an associate professor of religion, spoke about how, while many religious communities have consistently opposed racism and inequality in the U.S., other religious traditions “often contributed to the elaboration of racial hierarchies that privileged whiteness, protected slavery and—after emancipation—continued to promote the exclusion of African Americans and other racial ‘outsiders’ from the political process and the public sphere.” She also pointed out that universities are important in the effort to balance past inequities. “Universities like Tufts are places where we can cultivate the listening skills that will help us understand how various social and cultural forces, including religious communities themselves, have been complicit in constructing and perpetuating inequalities,” she said.

Pearl Robinson, an associate professor of political science, spoke about her research for a book about Ralph Bunche, an American academic and the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1950, for his mediation in Israel.

The forum was the first in what Harris says will be a continuing conversation at Tufts around issues of race and inequality. Among upcoming events are the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s conference “Freedom Dreams 1865, 1965, 2015,” on March 4–5, and a lecture, “This Ends Badly—Race and Capitalism,” by Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College, on Tuesday, April 7, at 5:30 p.m. in Alumnae Lounge. Also, a talk, “Science of Stereotyping and Unconscious Bias,” will be held on April 16 at Cummings School.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.