The United States needs to have a frank discussion about the role race plays in its past, present and future.
John L. Jackson, Jr., PhD, discussed what such a conversation should entail, as well as the pitfalls it should avoid, as part of the keynote address to the University of South Dakotas annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities on Monday night.
Jackson is an anthropologist filmmaker and author whose most recent book was entitled Racial Paranoia and the Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.
Often the only model of racial conversation in the analysis of history is one of the all or nothing variety, Jackson said that racism is the only topic discussed, or it is ignored completely.
Its just an odd way to misstate and under-emphasize the truly complicated ways in which history is full of all kinds of things, positive and negative, he said. Our job as good historians is to try to make sure we dont veer too far in one direction or the other.
To this end, Jackson said that for more than a month last semester, he did an experiment in which he did not talk about race in public or in private.
Part of the point was to say its hard to live in a world where theres any part of our cultural or social landscape which we try simply to ignore, he said. We cant do it. Around every turn its always already there, I would argue.
Another problem arises is terms of social segregation.
Weve replaced segregation on the busses, segregation at the lunch counters, with a more entrenched form of segregation in our social networks, Jackson said. Usually what we do on a public street especially in mixed company, especially when were talking across racial lines is we have very superficial conversations. Small talk. We talk about the weather, maybe we talk about sports, we share a laugh. But you dont really cultivate strong relationships.
Jackson said this isnt because people dont want those kinds of relationships.
Were afraid (that if) we talk too much what eventually will happen is well say something that will offend them, he said. I think the conversations we have have become very superficial, because were talking to strangers. Were not talking to family.
The third problem in terms of having a discussion Jackson mentioned is that people tend to intellectualize racism and other social problems.
We think we can reason our way out of racism, and we can reason our way out of sexism, he said. We can reason and rationalize our way out of homophobia, like somehow if we build a better argument, if were more rigorous, if were more systematic in our thought process, clearly those folks who dont get it will have to genuflect on the power of our argument.
The fallacy of this view, Jackson said, is that racism isnt just about whats going on in our heads, but in our hearts, as well.
We do it just because we do it, not necessarily because we have a rational reason for it, he said.
All of these reasons help to prevent an actual conversation from taking place, he said.
All we do is debate, Jackson said. One side talks, and we will if theyre lucky not talk over them. Maybe well act like were listening, but were kind of biding our time. And then when they cede the microphone, then we will make our case. And our job is to win the debate.
In that kind of environment, conversation is the last thing on anybodys mind, Jackson said.
Were trying to win a discursive battle, he said. If thats the organizing principle for the conversation, then weve lost before we even started.
He continued, If were really going to find a way to make sense of what a multi-racial America might look like in the 21st century we need to cultivate a really sharp commitment to a critical self-conscious form of investment in humanity. Its not enough for me to be right. Its not enough for me to think Im right. I want to figure out why you think youre right.
Each year, as part of the holiday, USD Student Services, the Center for Academic Engagement and the Campus Enhancement Diversity Group lead local residents and USD students in service projects. This year, a total of 13 projects were completed.
Funded in part by a $1,000 grant from the North Carolina Campus Compact, local activities include volunteers making door decorations and playing BINGO with residents of Vermillion Assisted Living; assisting the Center for Children and Families; working at Sanford Care Center; and completing various maintenance tasks at the Vucurevich Childrens Center.
Dr. King devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and opportunity for all. He taught us that everyone has a role to play in making America what it ought to be, said Whitney Siegfried, coordinator for Academic Engagement at USD via a press release. By serving on this holiday and throughout the year, we honor Dr. King and help realize his dream of equality and opportunity for all.
Jackson agreed, saying, Its tangible, its practical and it actually has an impact. It is a part of his dream.