Shedding light on racism today
Tonight, at 5 pm, the W.E.B. DuBois Institute of Harvard University, one of the nation's oldest research centers dedicated to the study of the history, culture, and social institutions of Africans and African Americans, will sponsor the discussion, "Race [Still] Matters," at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown.
The discussion will be moderated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the civil rights activist, author, and Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist who divides her time between her homes on the Vineyard and in Johannesburg, South Africa. She explains that the title of tonight's forum is a play on the theme of Cornel West's book first published in 1993, entitled, "Race Matters."
Ms. Hunter-Gault says, "People might have thought it's no longer an issue. You see blacks with money and in positions of prominence and think that race doesn't matter anymore, but then you look at the demographics within the poor of the country, you see that the people who are getting the shortest end of the stick are still black. While there are alarming statistics about educational levels among black and white kids, it's most egregious among blacks. AIDS too. Every marker for prosperity and poverty, those at the bottom are still blacks."
This year's panel features some of the nation's most notable experts on the intersection of race, politics, social inequalities, culture, and history. Among the stellar panelists will be Lawrence D. Bobo, W.E.B DuBois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and former director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity; Stanley Crouch, leading music and cultural critic, author, and New York Daily News columnist; Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University; and Deborah Gray White, author and Rutgers University Board of Governors Professor of History.
Ms. Hunter-Gault, who was the first African-American reporter for The New Yorker, and wrote for the New York Times for over 10 years, has been the target of institutional and mob racism. In 1961, Ms. Hunter-Gault and her fellow high school classmate, Hamilton E. Holmes, were the first African-American students to end racial segregation at the University of Georgia, after initially being rejected. With the support of Civil Rights leaders and attorneys such as Vernon Jordan and Donald Hollowell, the two students reapplied, and after two years of legal battles, were accepted for enrollment. When they arrived on campus, they were greeted with taunts and jeers, and a mob that formed outside of Ms. Hunter-Gault's dormitory, smashing windows.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Today, nearly 50 years later, and with Barack Obama having won the Democratic nomination for President, one might believe that America's race issues have evolved. Yet, news sources have questioned whether Mr. Obama is too black or not black enough to be elected President of the United States of America. Race, it seems, still matters.
Ms. Hunter-Gault says of forums such as this evening's, "part of the function of a journalist is to help educate people." She continues, "You know, Edward R. Murrow once said that television is to educate, illuminate, and inspire, otherwise it's just a television and wires in a box. I think that while he was talking about television, as a media person myself, that has always been a part of it, that's my raison-d'etre."
Ms. Hunter-Gault anticipates using this forum as an opportunity to go beyond discussing the need to have a conversation about race. "A lot of discussions I've listened to all talk about the problem," she says, "and no one is really asking what to do about it. Everyone gets all wrapped up in the heat of the debate. Maybe it's not as bad as we think, or maybe it's worse.
"I'm hoping people come and share their fears, and hopes, and concerns, so we can ventilate their anxiety," Ms. Hunter-Gault explains. "This is not a panel where we have left, right, and center. It's a panel that's meant to shed light as opposed to heat it up. We hope to put some cool air on what has now been full of hot air."
Ms. Hunter-Gault notes: "There is a wonderful cross-section of people on the Vineyard, people here year-round, people visiting, blacks, whites, Asians. It is an ideal setting and an excellent opportunity with all that brain power."
Tonight, Thursday, August 21, 5 pm, "Race [Still] Matters," sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Institute of Harvard University. Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. The forum is free and open to the public.
Olivia Lew, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, is involved in international studies.