20th Anniversary Conference and Alumni Reunion featuring Keynote Speaker: Julian Bond

Post-Racial America: Fact or Fiction?
March 31, 2011 to April 1, 2011

Date: April 1, 2011

Synopsis of Keynote Address by Traci Dant Johnson

It’s 2011, 150 years have passed since the start of the Civil War, and the nation is two years into the first term of its first African American president. So has America entered a new era of post racial nirvana?  Speaking in Graham Chapel as the keynote speaker for the Chancellor’s Fellows 20th Anniversary Conference, famed civil rights activist Julian Bond passionately debunks this notion.  Citing the ascendance of the tea party movement, the historic cycle of progess and stagnation in civil rights movements, and the current state of Black America, Bond argues that America is still struggling with race.

Bond sees the Tea Party as a movement which has everything to do with race. He sees race in the Tea Party’s idolization of the founding fathers despite the fact that many of the founding fathers were slaveholders. He sees racial implications in the Tea Party’s support for Republican policies, which are anti-environment, anti-union, anti-immigrant, and anti-healthcare. He also sees race in the Tea Party desire to take the country “back” to the “good old days” of the pre-Civil Rights movement, which were the “bad old days” of Jim Crow for African Americans.

As a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and the grandson of slaves, Bond likens the era of Barack Obama to the post-reconstruction era in the South.  Then and now, enormous changes in racial status had been achieved. In the aftermath of such enormous change, many white Americans in the post-reconstruction era became “tired” of racial problems, which led to a tremendous rollback of civil rights for African Americans and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South. Bond believes we’re experiencing the same sort of race-fatigue in the Obama era, which has led to a rise in concern about “white” discrimination as well as the scapegoating of minorities and immigrants for the country’s economic problems. Bond sees this fatigue as a part of the cycle of all social movements including the women’s movement, anti-war movement and the movement for gay rights.

Bond also argues that it is impossible to see America as post racial when so many African Americans are doing so much worse than their white counterparts. African Americans continue to experience higher rates of infant mortality, death by homicide, and dropout rates at every educational level. Downward mobility is also a greater threat for African Americans, who may be born into middle class families but unable to provide a middle class lifestyle for themselves and their children.

In light of all of these pressures on the African American community, Bond sees hope not in the notion of post racial celebration, but in the revitalization of the struggle for social justice in the United States. Just as committed grassroots volunteers joined organizations like the NAACP and SNCC to defeat Jim Crow, Bond hopes that new coalitions will arise among people of color and other minority groups to overcome the social injustices of the 21st century.

Panel Discussion: Post Racial America: A Response to the Bond Keynote Lecture

Date: April 1, 2011

Synopsis by Traci Dant Johnson

Following the keynote address by Julian Bond, five distinguished professors gathered in the Olin Women’s Lounge to respond to Bond’s address and to share why they felt that the idea of a post racial America is a myth not a reality. In addition to Julian Bond, the panel included Washington University professors Garrett A. Duncan, Adrienne Davis, Clarissa Hayward, Luis Zayas, and Rebecka Rutledge Fisher from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Moderator Garrett Duncan, Director of Washington University’s African and African American Studies Program, opened the discussion by restating Bond’s belief that Jim Crow may be dead but racism is still alive and well. Duncan noted that schools are more not less segregated than they were in the Civil Rights era, and that black families are still contending with the impact of billions of dollars of lost wealth as a result of the legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws.

Law Professor and Vice Provost Adrienne Davis commented that, “the further we get from brutal repression, the more people seek to reclaim that history of brutality.” Davis said this phenomenon was part of the pendulum swing of U.S. history, which swings from periods of justice and light to periods of great injustice and darkness. She also stressed that we should not assume that the pendulum will naturally swing back to justice. Nor should we ignore the fact that we lose something every time the pendulum swings into darkness.

Political Science Professor Clarissa Hayward agreed that we are not post racial. Racism has simply become more opaque in the 21st century because our cities and suburbs are sites of “thick injustice”. Hayward defined thick injustice as racial oppression that is hard to see because its causes (poverty, segregation, and inequality) are not equally distributed across spaces. Therefore, privileged Americans may never experience or see racial injustice. Hayward illustrated this phenomenon by discussing zoning laws in affluent communities. Affluent communities can zone out lower income families by requiring that only single family homes with large lots can be built. Such zoning laws can create racial and class segregation as well as lock out lower income students and minorities from higher quality school districts. But since these laws may be racist in impact but not in statutory intent, it allows privileged Americans to argue that racism no longer exists.

English Professor Rebecka Rutledge Fisher said the term post racial or past racist is enigmatic. It both declares an end to something as well as seeks to lose a painful racist past into a sea of oblivion. The use of the term post racial also deems the continued use of “black” or other racial positions as outmoded. This negates the fact that while race is invalid scientifically, it has deep roots in social structures and has been enforced globally by white supremacists.  Fisher believes that “post racial” must be seen as a paradox needing to be historicized, contextualized, and commented upon as an aspect of blackness.

Professor Luis Zayas of the School of Social Work emphasized that Blacks and Latinos are in danger of competing against one another instead of forming lasting coalitions to fight against social injustice. Zayas said that this peril is especially apparent in cities like St. Louis where Blacks and Latinos lack a history of cooperation and cohabitation. This lack of unity makes both communities more vulnerable to the attacks of organizations like the Tea Party. Zayas also expressed deep concern about the increased incidents of deportations under the Obama administration.  These deportations ignore the rights of “citizen children” who face the prospect of losing the emotional and financial support of their parents or leaving behind their homes and lives in the US.

The two-hour discussion concluded with an audience question and answer session for Julian Bond and the other panelists.