"Race in the USA" Starts Active Dialogue on Race at BC

The Boston College faculty has taken an active step in the fight for racial equality.

On Wednesday night, Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley partnered with The Jesuit Institute to host an open panel discussion on racial inequalities at Boston College and across the nation, in wake of last semester’s student unrest and events of national attention. In an overflowing Fulton classroom, five members of the BC faculty spoke on the topic of “Race in the USA,” specifically their expectations, hopes and concerns for 2015 regarding the fight for racial equality.

“We should have more faculty involved in the discussion about race on this campus,” said James Keenan, SJ, in his opening remarks on how the idea for the event was conceived.

Gustavo Morello, SJ, Sociology Department
Photo courtesy of Boston College

Photo courtesy of Boston College

Mr. Morello organized his thoughts into three things he learned about race this past summer. Being of Argentinian nationality and applying for a US Visa, in doing so having to check off only one box defining his race, taught Morello that race is a social construction. “Race is not about biology, but about power relations,” he said. “It establishes roles in a given society.”

He went on to talk about the difference between discrimination and racism in the US. “Discrimination is different than racism. Discrimination is a personal and pervasive attitude, whereas racism is a social system that naturalizes discrimination,” Morello said. “Most Americans don’t see racism as a part of their daily life, but the question is: For whom is race not an issue anymore?”

Morello’s third idea about race as an issue of power—namely who has the power to set the rules in daily life—served as one of the central themes of the night.

Nancy Pineda-Madrid, School of Theology and Ministry

As a Mexican-American woman, Pineda-Madrid used her background growing up in a US-Mexico border town to demonstrate that the issue of race is not solely about blacks and whites. She explained that immigrants in the US are “a new class of slaves” and cited her own personal experience of being questioned about her nationality by border patrol officials, despite the fact that she was born in the US.

“In many ways race in this country is an element of a ‘border’ reality, of an ‘us’ distinguished from ‘them,’ where the world is safe and where it is unsafe,” she said.

Pineda-Madrid explains that there is a phrase common along the Mexican border, carnalismo, which means, “a recognition that we are connected to one another.”

“That’s where we need to go in responding to the tragedies we know in our own time,” she said.

Vincent Rougeau, Dean of BC Law School

Mr. Rougeau decided to focus his remarks on the three themes of the event: expectations, concerns and hopes in 2015.

Rougeau’s expectations included a change in the language used to describe race that isn’t so “stilted,” that the discussion on race in the US will necessarily involve a discussion of class and income inequality as well and that race will be understood differently based on geographic regions of the country and urban versus rural inhabitation.

Photo courtesy of BC Law School

Photo courtesy of BC Law School

His concerns were rooted in Americans’ collective ignorance of the past and inability to own up to past faults. “Race and racism are deeply embedded in our history, and these things will not disappear,” he said. “[Racism] is [everyone’s] problem. We are all influenced by the cultural connections that develop because of racism in our American life.”

“We have to stop being adolescents as a society when it comes to dealing with our past,” Rougeau said.

Rougeau also is concerned that some Americans do not accept that systemic structures prevent some people from ever moving up in society despite hard work or education. “We need to get over that nonsense,” he said. “There are a lot of people here who are just going to be stuck.”

However, Rougeau expressed that he has great hope for the future. He stated that the US will soon become a majority of nonwhite citizens, and that the future is now in the hands of young people. He encouraged all young people, especially students in the audience, to engage democracy politically and to celebrate the progress that the US has made as a country.

Min Song, English Department, Director of Asian American Studies Program

Mr. Song focused on the nature of policing, and said that the crisis surrounding police and race is rooted in what policing has become rather than who police officers are.

According to Song, race further “compounds the complexity” of police encounters, and often the relationship between police officers and citizens is the result of inaccurate assumptions about the other.

“If a civilian might have all sorts of fantastic ideas about what the life of a police officer is like from [the media], “ he said, “so too will an officer harbor fantastic ideas about civilians from the same source, especially if those civilians are black.”

Martin Summers, History Department, Director of African and African Diaspora Studies Program

Mr. Summers concluded the panel discussion by demonstrating that 2015 is a ribbon year for important anniversaries: MLK’s march from Selma to Montgomery and the passing of the Voting Rights Act, the release of “Birth of a Nation” which advanced ideas about white supremacy and the speech that Lyndon Johnson gave at Howard University encouraging students to take action in the fight for equal rights.

Summers believes that creating more diverse institutions and a more racially diverse student body and faculty will allow the issue of race to be a part of daily life, rather than creating a homogenous environment that “disrupts” the ability to see the realities of minorities.

Fransico Bernard / Gavel Media

Fransico Bernard / Gavel Media

A question and answer session followed, the main theme of which being the absence of BC President Father Leahy, SJ, from the discussion as well as a lack of comment from the president’s office on the events that occurred last fall.

Kwesi Aaron, A&S ’16, expressed frustration in the University’s response to student demonstrations on campus. “Here we are at a powerful institution with a huge endowment and a huge reach, and yet we don’t feel that the administration has a responsibility,” he said. “When I’ve been involved in ways that aren’t safe or aren’t up to a certain image or aren’t universally appealing, all of a sudden rules become very important.”

“I feel that the University has failed me personally,” Aaron said.

Other issues brought up by students included how to create an action plan in response to racial inequality, the importance of continuing discussions on race with peers and how to be a good ally as a white person who has benefited from an unjust system.

Students attending the event were encouraged that the University was finally showing an interest in the issue of race at BC. “This is a good first step, having events that intentionally open up discussion,” said Olivia Hart, A&S’16. “Getting the dialogue started is really important.”

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