Galloway, New Jersey – Faculty members from the Africana Studies, Education, and Political Science programs hosted a panel discussion focusing on the idea of race and racism in the Campus Center Theater on February 16.
The panel discussion, “Why Running Still Matters,” was moderated by Patricia Reid-Merritt, Distinguished Professor of Social Work and African Studies. After introducing the speakers, Reid-Merritt provided a historical perspective on how race and racism have developed over time and continue to “shape our experience here in the (United States of America).”
“Race is ingrained into the fabric of American culture,” Reid-Merritt said. “And for those who, even today, wonder about why we still talk about race, it’s because we can’t not talk about race. It’s one of those things that determine the quality of your life, where you might be, and the positions or states of your life.
Discussions like this are routine for Reid-Merritt, who proclaims herself a “daughter of the civil rights movement.” Her hope is that as we continue these conversations in R1 and R2, Stockton University students walk away with invaluable knowledge of social justice.
We have pledged that if you become an educated person and leave Stockton with a college degree, you will not be ignorant of the social evils surrounding race and racism.”
All of the speakers had different perspectives on conversations about race, which made for a well-rounded discussion.
Media Perspective – Donnetrice Allison, president of Africana Studies and professor of communication studies
From Allison’s media perspective, she claims that the media is a socializing tool; in other words, one’s ideas and attitudes about racial identity come from multiple sources, including what one reads or watches.
“Race is not biologically a real thing; there are all kinds of DNA tests that have determined that we are more alike under the skin than we are different,” Allison said. “However, we have been socialized to believe certain things about race for centuries – like the 16th and 17th century – this is the time we were taught to believe that white is better than black. While this isn’t a true biological category, it is one that we’ve been convinced means something.”
He gave two different examples of this: the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which is widely believed to have been what helped launch the American Civil War from its portrayal of an enslaved, but devoutly Christian man whose faith made him pardoned his jailers; and the film “Birth of a Nation,” which is lauded for its advanced cinematic techniques but centers on white Southerners who are “rescued” from violent black men (white actors in Blackface) by the Ku Klux Klan.
Allison encouraged students to question the information they receive, especially since the socialization process she described is cyclical. For example, the code language for the black community has evolved from words like “urban” to “woke.”
During the Grammy tribute to 50 years of Hip Hop, the great LL Cool J said something that I found really interesting: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. There are so many things that have happened in the past that we see coming back in some way. If we don’t talk about these things, it keeps happening.”
Political Perspective – Michael Rodriguez, professor of political science and liaison for the Washington Internship Program
Before discussing race and racism, Rodriguez delved into defining terms like metacognition (essentially thinking about one’s thinking) and racial essentialism (the idea that race as a category is biological rather than social). He then argues that racial essentialism is prevalent in our society and that it requires students to examine the ways they intergenerationally convey that thinking through their understanding of race.
“I think we need to paradigm shift in how we think about race,” Rodriguez said. “Before we do anything or believe anything about race, we need to have a cognitive register of what race is as a concept. We don’t do enough to interrogate or critique the conceptual frameworks and ideas that are embedded in our worldviews, we simply take them for granted.
Rodriguez then introduces a new concept, racial plasticity, as a way for society to view identity and challenge racial essentialism.
“Plasticity is something malleable, changeable and non-static. In many ways, I strongly believe that, based on my studies and research, identity is not something immune. It is subject to interactions with our environment, that is, there is no racial “essence” or character that is intrinsic and cannot be changed. What if your identity was based on your affinities or lived experiences?
As a Tejano, one of the first Mexican settlers of the state of Texas, he is familiar with the stereotypical view of Texans who are both American and non-American. Despite this, Rodriguez sees the state as an example of the case made for racial plasticity: Because Texas is seen as a politically conservative rather than a multicultural state with complicated histories, it misses several opportunities across the aisle.
“It’s just a small example of how the ideas we have about something determine how we respond to it,” Rodriguez said. “We do this with race, gender and class, so it’s important to take a step back and take an inventory of our cognitive registers.”
Educational Perspective – Darrell Cleveland, Associate Professor of Education and African Studies
Cleveland chose to discuss current events surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) and recent opposition to African-American education in states like Florida. As an alumnus of Temple University’s Africology and African-American Studies program, the situation affects him in many ways. He says it’s important to speak up and speak out against political figures like Ron DeSantis, who he says is using Florida as a “test case.”
“The governor of Florida has implemented policies that eliminate teaching about race and racism,” Cleveland said. “If a book contains the word ‘oppression’, you cannot read that book. And I think it was just last week, he said colleges that have majors like African-American studies won’t get funding before calling my diploma a “zombie curriculum.” The scary thing about this is that he’s probably running for president in 2024 — he might try to make it a national trend.
This situation has only shown in Cleveland how meaningful courses that focus on race and racism are for the next generation.
They call it “wokeism”. They’re afraid that graduating students like you will be “woke up” enough to say, “This isn’t right.” This is why we have a race and racism curriculum and why it matters.”
He also raised another point: the historic decision for Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954.
“Would you be surprised to know that schools are more segregated now than they were in 1954? Ask yourself, how is this possible? This is why learning about race and racism is important.
The round table concluded with a question and answer session for the students and light refreshments.
Learn more about African Studies
– Story and photos by Loukaia Taylor