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AAAS sponsors race and gender discussion, Hill moderates

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: News

Three local activists and scholars gave their thoughts on race and gender in the election Tuesday night, in a forum moderated by Professor Anita Hill (HS) and sponsored by the African and Afro-American Studies department. The panel, the first of two forums preceding the election next month, was held in Boston’s South End and was widely attended by members of the Brandeis and Greater Boston community.

Hill posed questions to the three panelists, who responded with insights from their knowledge and life experience as erudite activists. The panelists included Callie Crossley, host of “The Callie Crossley Show on Boston Public Radio,” Lani Guinier and Kenneth Mack, both professors at Harvard Law School.

“They are leaders in their fields who have worked with democracy and election projects,” Hill said of the speakers. “Rather than talking about the election, they’ve actually done some work on it.”

The topic of race took center stage, as the three gave their opinions on what stance Obama has—and should—take on the role race plays in politics. “Race is everywhere, and it’s nowhere,” Mack said.

Mack added that previous elections have been devoid of race, a topic that both parties have avoided in recent years. While politicians have avoided talking directly about race, it is ever present in the election, with hate speech such as “put the white back in the White House” and Newt Gingrich’s reference to Obama as a “food-stamp president.”

Guinier added that race and merit have become the language of class, and avoiding the talk about race steers-clear of discussion of a skewed class system.

“We need a new narrative about how wealth is distributed in this society,” Guinier said. “Race is everywhere, but it can’t be talked about.”

Clay Campbell ’13, said the talk about race and minority groups is essential to the election. “Politicians should not be afraid to talk about race. It is a polarizing issue, but discourse is necessary,” Campbell said. “It’s not always the case that constituents determine the issues that candidates are addressing; people talk about the issues that candidates are talking about.”

Campbell added that he was slightly disappointed by the overly one-sided discussion by the panelists. “I left the panel feeling a bit torn. I’m disappointed with the nature of the political discourse because it has become so polarizing that liberals seem to have lost the ability to be self-criticizing. All of the panelists were reluctant to say anything critical about the president.”

Despite the packed audience and passionate question-and-answer session, there was little discussion of gender by either the panelists or the public. “Gender did seem to fall out of the conversation,” said Chad Williams, Brandeis professor and AAAS chair. “I think this speaks to the difficulty, even among scholars, of connecting gender to discussions of race.”

At one point, Hill posed a question that tied the two issues together, and the panelists struggled to answer. “I certainly hope that we do have more discussion about gender at the campus forum on Tuesday, and expect that we will,” Williams said.

A key driving force behind the event, Williams was pleased with the evening.

“The panelists did a great job, considering how complex the role of race in our politics is and the numerous issues we could have potentially discussed,” he said. “I appreciated how the panelists provided a historical context for understanding the function of race in the modern electoral process, and linking this to contemporary issues surrounding the election.”

Williams did note that while Hill was a logical choice to represent Brandeis and moderate, choosing the panelists was a difficult feat, as a number of speakers were in the running. “Ultimately, we decided to focus on individuals who were in the Boston area, had connections to the community, and were engaged in addressing these issues from different perspectives,” Williams said. “I wish we had even more time for discussion, but we probably would have been there all night.”

Another forum will be moderated by Williams on campus Tuesday night, and will include professors Jill Greenlee (POL), Ibrahim Sundiata (HIST) and Daniel Kryder (POL).