For many, the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first African American president, ushered in a “post-racial” age, the long-anticipated time when racism no longer exists.
But for others, Obama’s election highlights the central role race continues to play in American democracy.
Peniel Joseph, a history professor at Tufts University, would argue the latter. “The paradox is that we do have a black president who elicits hope and inspiration for a post-racial society that’s nowhere in sight,” he said. “At the same time, we also have to have a discussion about why racial disparities continue, why there’s still racial injustice and social inequality — while acknowledging that the election of Obama is an example of racial progress.”
In 2010, Joseph and some of his colleagues at Tufts put together a conference entitled “Barack Obama and American Democracy” to explore these very questions.
This year, the conference is in its third run, and Tufts has announced its decision to make these issues a permanent fixture on campus by establishing a Center for the Study for Race and Democracy.
The center, said Joseph — who will serve as the center’s founding director — will be a research hub for local, national and international issues, “from mass incarceration and the criminal justice system in Boston to race and democracy in the Arab Spring.”
The center won’t offer any new courses, but it will draw upon resources from all corners of the university — from humanities to social sciences, and even medicine — to sponsor graduate and undergraduate research, organize symposia and workshops and produce an anthology and discussion papers.
“Students are eager to see what sorts of resources the center will add to the curriculum at Tufts,” said Joshua Reed-Diawuoh, a junior studying political science. “The study of race and democracy is an integral part of the American story — it’s what defines the American experience. Trying to reconcile our high democratic ideals with the reality of racial exclusion in this country is very much at the heart of the American narrative.”
“Without a center like this, it’s very difficult to capture the complexities of American history,” added Reed-Diawuoh, who will be working for the U.S. Agency for International Development this summer.
Theresa Sullivan, a senior, also sees the center as a welcome addition to campus. “I think more than anything, the center will reflect Tufts’ commitment to making this a community for global citizenship, which is something we talk a lot about at Tufts,” she said.
A poetry major who helped put on the “Barack Obama and American Democracy” conference last week, Sullivan added that the center will engage students from diverse fields of study: “History, political studies, international relations, anything focusing on multicultural or diaspora studies, health or education — so many students will be able to draw resources from the center to expand their understanding of what their field of study is.”
The opening of the center coincides with Tufts’ decision to create an Africana Studies major, something students and faculty at the university have been pushing for the past 43 years. Presently, students can only get a minor in the school’s Africa in the New World program — even though the school already offers majors in areas such as Asian Studies, Latin American Studies and Women’s Studies.
The curriculum for the new Africana Studies program has yet to be determined, but Joanne Berger-Sweeney, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, has promised three new tenure-track faculty positions and the appointment of a new program director as early as next academic year.
“I had a very strong interest in African American history coming to Tufts and I hit the glass ceiling because there were only so many courses to take,” said Reed-Diawuoh. “The minor, Africa in the New World, isn’t really substantial.”
Jameelah Morris, a junior majoring in international studies and Spanish, agreed. As vice-president of the Pan-African Alliance on campus, Morris has spent two years participating in the protests and negotiations with the administration that brought about the new Africana Studies major.
“We have the Republican debates and a lot of racially charged discourse going on,” she said. “If you’re going to understand domestic politics you have to have a foundation in race and the racial intersections with democracy and policy.”
According to Joseph, it’s “more important now than ever to interrogate what citizenship in a democracy means, and the way race contours these conversations,” given the new voter ID laws immigration policies that are popping up around the country.
To those who say race is no longer an issue, he said, “all you have to do is look at socio-economic indicators — everything from the criminal justice system to rates of AIDS and HIV, unemployment, access to health care, high rates of residential segregation, high rates of school segregation — to know that race continues to matter and have an impact.”
“And when you look at positive social indicators — wealth, home ownership, low rates of infant mortality — African Americans and Latinos are going to be disproportionately underrepresented,” Joseph continued. “They are overrepresented in the negatives and underrepresented in the positives.”
Joseph said he hopes the new center will bring an intellectual context to race that is usually missing in public discourse. As he said, “It matters in terms of public policy, our jobs and how we live, higher education and our institutions, beyond just the issue of personal prejudice — this is about citizenship in an increasingly globalized 21st century.”