Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute hosts forum "Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama"
The biggest challenge facing the five panelists at Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research forum at the Old Whaling Church last Thursday was finding interesting ways to give the same answer.
The forum, "Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama," began with moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault asking: "Since the election of Barack Obama, we've been hearing a lot about how America is now a post-racial society. What do you think of that term, and what does that term mean as it relates to our discussion of seeking equality in the age of Obama?"
Despite the general unanimity, interesting stress fractures did manage to emerge even among this panel of decidedly liberal thinkers.
Interesting also was the way the July 16 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. at his home served as a backdrop for the conversation. In his opening remarks, Mr. Gates, director of the Du Bois Institute, placed his experience in a larger picture: "The most important thing to remember is that this isn't primarily about me. It's about fairness under the law - race-neutral application of the law. That's what this is about."
This theme of institutionalized racial inequality would pervade the next hour and a half, often in panelists' comments on the American criminal justice system.
Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor in the School of Education at Stanford University and veteran of the education transition team for President Obama, noted that in terms of educational achievement, America trails the world's top industrial nations in most categories: ranked 35th out of 40 in math; 31st out of 40 in science. "We used to be first in the world in higher education," she said, "but we're now 16th and dropping every year.
She then pointed out that the United States is first in the number and proportion of African Americans in prison, mostly high-school dropouts, and concluded, "So this has many derivations, but it is substantially an educational problem."
Lawrence D. Bobo, W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard, hit the same theme hard. "We incarcerate more of our people than any other western industrial nation," he said. Most of this massive wave of American incarceration, he noted, relates not to violence but to drug arrests. One in nine African American men between the ages of 20 and 34, he said, is now in jail.
Mr. Bobo drew applause when he declared that the change America most needs "may mean greater education policy, it may mean urban targeting, and it certainly means moving away from this tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs, zero-tolerance lunacy that has not made us safer, that has resulted in criminogenic consequences in American communities."
Claude Steele, provost of Columbia University and former Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford, opened the panel's conversation on education and its role in expanding opportunities for blacks in America. For more than a decade, Mr. Steele has been studying and writing about "stereotype threat," the impact on performance that appears when persons perceive themselves as being threatened by a negative stereotype about them.
Mr. Steele suggested it is a self-fulfilling prophecy with vivid, easily measured consequences. "What works," he said, "is to say, 'Look, this is a very demanding task' - ask a lot of a person but at the same time to affirm their ability to meet that goal."
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor at Princeton University, picked up on Mr. Steele's remarks in discussing last fall's presidential election, saying: "Part of what the Obama campaign did was, they did exactly the good teacher thing. They said, 'Oh, this is a difficult task for you. But you can do it!' As it turned out, we actually saw white Americans over-perform."
The first real rift in the perspectives of the five panelists opened up after Charles M. Blow, visual op-ed columnist for The New York Times, spoke about the lives of African Americans today, saying the disadvantages faced by black children begin long before entering the school system. "First, 70 percent of them are born to single mothers. Unintended pregnancy is an enormous issue," Mr. Blow said, explaining that while the students are sexually active, their mostly religious parents are "the least likely to support sex education, the least likely to provide preventive things like condoms." He said black children are the most likely to be the recipients of maltreatment, and the least likely to be active. "Basically, we end up trying to undo damage, much of which has been done even before the child enters a school."
This rubbed Ms. Harris-Lacewell the wrong way. "I'm always irritated when the conversation devolves to black cultural pathology," she said. "What we see repeatedly, is that drug use and abuse, that premarital sexual behavior, that even premarital pregnancy, that criminal action and activity has a very limited impact on the life chances of the wealthy and of the white, and particularly of wealthy whites.... "The problem is that we look at black life, we see negative behaviors. We see that outcome, and we assume that the negative behaviors are responsible for the bad outcomes. But it's the negative behaviors in combination with structural inequality, vulnerability within a system that doesn't impact the life opportunities of poor people, of brown people, of urban people, of young people." She concluded, "For me, one of the most exquisite benefits of the stupid Skip Gates arrest is the lie that it gives the notion that respectability will make you safe."
Mr. Bobo added, "It's not simple unemployment that leads to the breakdown of families' structures. It's long-term, durable unemployment that makes men and women look at one another as not particularly good partners to invest in. You start to get students who don't have the level of adult supervision that exists in middle and upper-class families. When we make big policy interventions that reshape the pie and the opportunity structure, in my experience, people do a pretty good job of taking care of themselves when the opportunities are there."
Mr. Bobo summed up the panel's shared perspective by quoting from his own column in the Washington Post: "There ain't nothing post-racial about the United States of America."
Nis Kildegaard's column "Soundings" appears bi-monthly in The Times.