MEDFORD — The issue of race has been a much discussed topic as of late. It has been parsed in the halls of the Supreme Court. It has been discussed at the Lincoln Memorial and in the aftermath of a Central Florida jury’s decision. And it is the subtext in the campaign for Boston mayor, with forums dedicated to the diversity needs of the community and forums dedicated to the diverse field itself.
Yet there are political and social observers who say that few substantive conversations about race and ethnicity have risen above the chatter, with exchanges about diverse communities often stumbling into stereotypes, hyperbole, or simply brushed aside. But last week, a multiracial, multigenerational crowd of about 300 packed a Tufts University auditorium to discuss — and, at times, debate —issues of race and democracy.
On what was billed as the first National Dialogue on Race Day, Tufts students, faculty, and staff, along with community leaders, were joined Thursday by universities stretching from the West Coast to the South to engage in a nuanced conversation about race. The interactive dialogue was presented by the new Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts, which hopes to make this an annual event, continuing the conversation far into the future.
For nearly two hours, a panel of activists and academics shared their views on the legacy of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, race and the criminal justice system, and race and democracy in the 21st century.
Then, they took questions from the audience.
“This is how democracy looks,” Peniel Joseph, a Tufts history professor and the center’s founding director, told the crowd in the room. “Dialogue is power. This is a conversation that needs to be happening all across America, and it’s a conversation that we will link to public policy and substantive legislation.”
Bridgette Wallace, 43, a Boston resident, strode to the microphone and said she was not optimistic about the intermingling of race and class, particularly in Roxbury and Dorchester, because people are being priced out of their homes.
“What I see are people being used as place holders for different people in the community,” she said. Gentrification, she said, comes with two messages. One is, “This neighborhood is not good, you need to flee;” while the other is, “You need to come to this neighborhood and we’ll build a bike path for you.”
Wallace wanted to know what could be done to stop the “class-cleansing.”
“Buy a home,” responded panelist Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.
The conversation came on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the country’s most cited speeches.
King’s address was not just about a dream for the country as a place of racial harmony but also a call to action to break down barriers to economic equality.
During the 17-minute speech, King touched on topics that panelists said still ring true: poverty, police brutality, and voting rights infringement.
“America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds,” King told the crowd that day in 1963. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
And though the country has fulfilled much of King’s dream with the abolishment of legalized segregation, with people of color holding some of the most powerful positions in the country, there is still so much work to do, panelists said.
In the standing-room-only auditorium, people, some sitting on the floor, talked about how the pipeline to prison — mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes rules — disproportionately affects black and Latino communities. A felony conviction can determine where someone lives and lead to disqualification from certain state and federal subsidies. And, panelists said, it can cost men and women their ability to get a job or cast a vote.
“The one war that we did not keep pressing was the war on poverty, and I think that’s where the emphasis needs to be,” panelist Kim McLarin, an Emerson College professor, told the crowd.
Curry said he grew up in the Lenox public housing development in the South End but saw more drugs in college. The war on drugs, he said, created an atmosphere in which young people in urban communities of color find themselves before judges more so than their white peers in suburban neighborhoods.
A criminal justice system more reflective of the community it serves — from police officers to prosecutors to judges — would result in greater sensitivity to the reality of life in different communities, Curry said. For example, he said, what might be regarded as criminal activity in one neighborhood could be regarded in another as a youthful indiscretion best dealt with at the kitchen table.
“The reality is the lack of diversity in the system leads us to prison,” he said. “There’s not enough of us at the table. And if you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.”
Tufts freshman Maeve Moynihan wanted to know more about coalition building between communities of color and gay rights advocates, but there wasn’t time to delve into that topic before the night ended.
So she approached another student, who did have an opportunity to ask a similar question and learned about several campus groups she could join.
But Moynihan said she sees that as the point, to start the conversation here, and continue it out in the world.