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School of Arts and Sciences

National Dialogue on Race Day to be Held at Tufts September 12

Friday, September 26, 2014

Peniel Joseph Aims to Jumpstart a Nationwide Dialogue on Race, Democracy and Public Policy in America

by Anna Burgess

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial, and in a year marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, as states debate voting rights and affirmative action, many have called for an open dialogue on race in America. Peniel Joseph, Tufts history professor and renowned scholar of African-American studies, has taken the interest in a conversation on race one step further. This past July, in an article published in The Root, an online magazine, Joseph invited citizens across the country to participate in National Dialogue on Race Day" a nationwide discussion on race to be held at Tufts and other universities, in local communities, and online on September 12, 2013. The event is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.

Peniel Joseph, Professor of History and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, invites citizens to participate in National Dialogue on Race Day on September 12.
(Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Joseph, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD), is one of the nation's top historians focusing on African-American history and how it affects our lives today. He is a frequent national commentator on civil rights issues for C-SPAN's Book TV, NPR, and PBS's NewsHour, and has authored several books, including Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, and Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. Most of his work focuses on race and democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries. The CSRD, he says, "is designed to be a headquarters for intellectual and research-driven conversations [on race]," and that the goal of National Dialogue on Race Day is to lead these conversations. Joseph describes the National Dialogue on Race Day, which he planned as an annual event, as one of several initiatives being launched by the CSRD.

While there have been national discussions on race periodically over the past few decades, Joseph claims that "over the last 30 years what we've done is have responses to racial crises." Citing examples like Rodney King and Trayvon Martin, Joseph explains that, "It's always a reactionary response [we have as a nation]." He sees this as problematic, believing that a continuing dialogue is the best—and perhaps the only—way to truly change things for the better. National Dialogue on Race Day is "[For those who] want to have a dialogue that's consistent instead of constantly reactionary."

The 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, says Professor Joseph, "helped convene a national conversation about race and policy that pushed us toward a more multicultural society."

Joseph explains that the event's agenda will center around three broad topics: the March on Washington and how things have or haven't changed in 50 years; social justice policy and how it affects race in America; and race, racial equality, and democracy in the 21st century. Participants nationwide are encouraged to use a variety of forums for discussion—town hall meetings, discussion panels, movie screenings, or even talks over social media. For the most in-depth and structured events, participants can attend in-person or online events at Tufts, as well as at Fairfield University, Duke University, Arizona State University, and UCLA.

The symposium at Tufts takes place at 7:00 PM at the Cabot ASEAN Auditorium on the Medford campus, and will feature speakers holding question-and-answer sessions on these three topics and various sub-topics within each. Civil rights journalist and author Diane McWhorter, and University of Massachusetts Boston's Director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and Commonwealth Journal host Dr. Paul Watanabe, along with local NAACP leaders will be among those hosting discussions. Joseph emphasizes that although the event will be hosted at an academic institution featuring many scholars, "the audience is everybody." He mentions that the CSRD has been doing a good deal of outreach through the local NAACP and other community partners to spread the word about the event. It's important to Joseph and the CSRD to gather as diverse a population as possible for the discussion at Tufts. "We want white students, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, young people, old people, people who are global citizens, they don't even have to be American citizens," he adds.

On the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus, community members are invited to participate in a panel discussion with scholars and leaders for National Dialogue on Race Day on September 12. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

According to Joseph, one of the main questions that Tufts and the CSRD might explore is, "how can we, as a research center in a leading university, really use our research and intellectual tools in terms of social justice and democracy?" He explains that, though Tufts works hard to promote an image of global citizenship and diversity, "Tufts, like most schools, has lagged behind in talking about [race]." Speaking as part of the Tufts community, Joseph says that the CSRD was founded as a way to prevent this lagging behind: "What the center is doing is providing a vehicle to talk about race...we [at Tufts] are trying to walk the talk, through the CSRD." He adds that, "the fact we're hosting National Dialogue on Race Day is a reflection of a bigger discussion [starting to happen] here."

Ultimately, Joseph and his colleagues are looking to convene a discussion that extends beyond the Tufts community, a conversation that will inspire policy change - regarding employment, education, and the criminal justice system, as these changes cannot come about without first having in-depth conversations about race. The biggest challenge we face as a society regarding race, says Joseph, is, "denial of racism, or saying we live in a post-racial society. You can't attack the problem if you deny that it exists." Moreover, the struggle to talk about racial equality is really a larger conversation—about American democracy." He sees a discussion about race as something beneficial to all citizens, as he emphasized in his recent article,since we all have a stake in our democratic institutions. "Coming to an understanding of [our racial] history, but also how it impacts our contemporary is very vital."

At Tufts, the CSRD will continue to bring new speakers to Tufts every few months. This fall, the center is also hosting civil rights advocate and writer Michelle Alexander. Joseph also mentions the goal of growing the CSRD itself: "Over the next few years, we're really going to try to build capacity," he says. The next few years, he explains, will see the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act, so now more than ever, it's important to have open dialogue on race.


National Dialogue on Race Day event at Tufts and other sites

Peniel Joseph's article in The Root

Peniel Joseph's article "Our Long Walk to Freedom" in The Chronicle of Higher Education