Race, Conversation, and Columbia

Friday, November 13, 2015

At last week’s Awakening Our Democracy conversation about Ferguson, Charleston and Beyond, the discussion – like so many at Columbia in this moment – wrestled with questions about the role of race now, in American society.  With events at Yale and University of Missouri at the forefront right now for many us, the conversation’s carryover to higher education is striking.

On the table:  What makes racism structural rather than just an individualized problem? Why are hostile or violent incidents ascribed to a “lone wolf” or “bad actors” when engaged in by whites yet as often attributed to entire communities when African-Americans are involved? And what is the role and responsibility of governments, universities, and each of us individually in seeing and responding to racial and other bias?

I invite you to watch the conversation online.  It was one of the very best I have ever attended, sparkling with insights that bear on how we might talk and think about these issues here and beyond.

Another question you’ll hear discussed:  What makes race so difficult to talk about and racial conflict so difficult to change?  In a moment, I will share a couple of panelists’ observations on that point. 

But first, some guidance from President Obama, albeit in a very different context.  The American ambassador to England recently told the New York Times that, as a new diplomat, he had asked the President for advice.  In response, President Obama said, “Listen.”  Reflecting on that advice, the ambassador said, “and I slowly realized that’s what he meant, to listen.”

Often, there is no better way to learn, particularly when someone is talking about challenges they experience in being part of a shared community.  Listening doesn’t require agreement with the speaker, but without listening, it’s hard even to know what the points of agreement might be. 

To be sure, not every moment is ripe for listening – talking, and sometimes even shouting, can be part of learning and also part of trying to teaching others. 

But especially in a University community, finding ways to listen, as well as talk, across differences, including differences related to race and ethnicity, is essential if we are to create a place in which all can have some sense of belonging.

On that note, I will return to the comment of one Awakening Our Democracy speaker, Michael Skolnik, who talked about his own reaction, and the reaction of many white people, to hearing about hostility or violence toward black friends and colleagues.  “We hear stories and we think, oh it can’t be that bad.  Or really, did it really happen like that?  Are you sure he’s innocent?” 

And then, Skolnik said, came the photos of Walter Scott being shot in the back in South Carolina.  Referring to his white family and friends, Skolnik said he heard people saying, “I believe it.  It’s a turning point for us as white people to begin to say, wow they are telling the truth.”

Why now?  Race discrimination and racialized violence have long histories in this country.  Social media and smartphones change the conversation, of course.  But Maya Wiley, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s counsel, also highlighted the coming together of social, political and economic challenges “that help all of us see our connectedness and all of us feel our dislocation.”  Against this backdrop, she added, “clearly morally reprehensible moments” of violence “become flashpoints that are like a match that drops on a tinder box.”

And still, as sociology professor Van Tran said in Awakening Our Democracy: The “American” Dream, Immigration and Belonging, the intensity of our differences is not all that we have.  Even amidst important and sometimes transformative flashpoints, "[b]y and large, we get along. There is a possibility for inclusion and something larger than ourselves."  Or, to return to Maya Wiley, “There’s so much we can do.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Suzanne B. Goldberg is Executive Vice President for University Life.  She is also the Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.


Return to all Messages from EVP Goldberg.