In her new book, the renowned professor of law and social policy utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to address issues of race, gender, class and access to the American dream.
At lectures around the country where Anita Hill discusses the subject explored in her most recent book, Reimagining Equality: Gender, Race, and the American Dream, there is a palpable sense of excitement and energy among those in attendance. Audience members connect Hill’s history to their own moments of enlightenment, engagement in issues and sense of purpose.
Hill’s book is about the role home plays in defining equality. Home in many cases is defined by the purchase of real property and the rewards and challenges that come with such a purchase, but Hill indicates it also means a sense of community and belonging. She talks about how the foreclosure crisis brings to light issues of inequality in terms of race and gender.
On Monday evening, Hill addressed a capacity audience at Barnard College at the 2012 Helen Rodgers Reid Lecture, a series begun in 1975 to honor distinguished women in public life who have shown significant commitment to improving the lives of all women. Her presentation included aspects of her family’s story, which had been largely gathered through oral history, as well as points related to sociology, economics, psychology, law, public policy and social justice.
“Interdisciplinarity is about the ways in which we marshal different kinds of methodologies in order to address different kinds of problems,” said Dr. Tina Campt, director of Barnard’s Africana Studies program and professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “There’s a necessity from the perspective of Africana Studies, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and American Studies—those kinds of interdisciplinary programs—not to just approach a problem or a social issue from a single perspective … but to be able to mobilize a number of different methodologies to actually be able to crack into that problem.
“What I felt she did really masterfully is to point to the way that politically it’s really essential that we draw not simply on policy analysis and demographic analysis, but also on the various kinds of resources that different communities have both historically and in terms of their own survival strategies used to face the structural inequalities that are still sort of hardwired into American society for people of color and for minority groups.
“Social justice cannot be achieved simply through the law,” she added. “You have to mobilize all sorts of different approaches in order to accomplish the complicated project that is social equality.”
There was a question and answer period after the lecture (questions were submitted in advance), and one question addressed how today’s students find it virtually impossible to aspire to be homeowners given the enormous amount of debt they amass during their education. Hill said it was only after recently joining the Provost’s office at Brandeis University as a senior adviser that she finally looked at a university’s books and gained thorough insight into operational expenditures.
“All of us who are in administration are going to have to start looking very hard at the numbers, at what a college education costs, and what we can do to reduce the costs,” Hill said. “How are we going to be able to deliver education to people in the future so they’re not incurring those debts? I want to reduce the cost of education even if people aren’t going to buy a home.”
She was asked if the American dream also applies to same-sex couples. Her answer was a decisive yes. Hill noted that opponents to same-sex marriage often argue that the home environment of same-sex couples is somehow inadequate. Homes, crucial to everyone’s sense of equality, are being used to make judgments against same-sex couples.
“The points I’m making about home and equality apply not only to racial and gender equality, but it applies to sexual identity equality as well,” Hill said.
Another question was how Hill feels interdisciplinary studies help inform the current generation to fight for a reimagined equality, which she said involves having a vision for a life beyond one’s current circumstances.
Hill responded that she is disheartened by states trying to put a stop to ethnic studies programs.
“The assumption that ethnic studies are just for one group or another is a fallacy,” she said. “Yes, it’s important for those of us who are going to go out and change the world and make it better. But it’s important for everyone—whether you think of yourself as an advocate for social justice or equality—it’s important we all have an understanding of our entire history in the world that we live.”
Dr. Kim Hall, professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard, said in time Hill could actually change the image of the home foreclosure crisis.
“I think she’s giving us a different face of people who wanted the dream that is the promise of America,” said Hall. “It was promoted—as she said—by government and policymakers even as it was being taken advantage of in the financial sector.
“That alone would be a huge contribution to this country in thinking differently about how we understand the impact of the financial crisis.”