Civil Rights Symposium Sparks Discussion on Racial Trends, Past and Future
By Aria Bracci | Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Faculty, students, and community members—some from as far as Keene, New Hampshire—gathered in the Cape Cod Lounge on the evening of March 23, 2016 to contribute to the conversation of our country’s racial history. Department of Economics Professor Carol Heim, after expressing gratitude for such recent efforts as the Black Lives Matter movement, introduced the symposium panel, which consisted of Professor John Bracey of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies; Professor Gerald Friedman of the Economics Department; Katherine Newman, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, and visiting speaker Gavin Wright, author of the 2013 book Sharing the Prize, which served as the crux of the symposium’s discourse.
The evening began with Heim’s introduction of Wright, in which she stated, “I’ve been teaching Gavin’s books in my classes for 27 years,” and as the event progressed, it became evident that Wright’s contributions as a Southern economic historian and activist were not lost on his contemporaries, even though they represented various fields of thought. Their main commonality was, of course, analyzing racial trends in their country.
Wright began by displaying a national map of school segregation in 1950, four years prior to the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation. “You cannot appreciate the economic consequences of the Civil Rights Movement,” he explained, “unless you take a regional perspective,” which he described as an integral “component to change.”
In reference to both academics and economics, Wright insisted that “you don’t observe black progress at the expense of white progress,” though, as he pointed out, the decline of the South’s manufacturing focus (due to numerous trade agreements) reversed the region’s otherwise pro-growth trajectory, its economy—and its racial equality—having declined since then. Integration was the main conversation point.
Professor Bracey, who was active in both Civil Rights and Black Liberation work in Chicago, followed Wright in the panel. “We were disappointed that we didn’t get the resources to build within the black population,” said Bracey, addressing the dissonance between cultivating strong black communities and coexisting in unwelcoming white communities, even after they were technically opened to black people. “My whole life was grounded in this contradiction,” he said.
Bracey did, however, celebrate Wright’s book for communicating these difficulties, particularly how black people wanted to “reclaim the South,” which had been their home all along. “It was the first thing I read that really explained my life during that period,” he said.
Professor Friedman, who has been working with Bernie Sanders on economic plans and strategies, offered an analytical and political perspective to complement Bracey’s anecdotal and activist testimonies. “You obviously can’t say that racism is gone,” said Friedman as he displayed a map of state-rejected Medicaid expansion and later addressed the low representation of Southern democrats in government. While Bracey spoke in terms of his own experience with the tension of integrated communities, Friedman attempted to address his qualms of the racial climate in terms of recent voter division and other regional statistics. “Have we shed the burden or have we divided the South?” he asked.
With background in sociology and financial insecurity, Katherine Newman cited the more positive aspects of the South’s transformation. “[Wright’s book] left me feeling more optimistic than anything I’ve read in a decade,” she said, but “it taught me to think of history in waves.” She explained that regional improvements in public services were founded “on the back of progressive taxation” (characteristic of radical reconstruction), though when tax structures fluctuate, so do social climates; historically, she said, “if there was money to be made, racist values could be stretched,” many instances of which Wright addresses in his book. “We have a history of progression and retrogression,” argued Newman, symbolized by “an accordion rather than a one-way street.”
“In history, you never know where you are,” said Bracey; patterns are always changing, never reliably following the sensible predictions from past events. But the speakers gave voice to these enigmas, personifying the past and the future, allies and marginalized people alike. “Can I stay alive so I can figure out what I want to do?” asked Bracey, acknowledging the uncertainty of progress, but asserting his place in claiming it. “We don’t have a vision for the future, but nobody has.” In the words of the black scholar, as Professor Friedman reiterated, “we have not triumphed, but we have not been defeated.”