The recent election of Dr. Ravi Perry to lead the National Association for Ethnic Studies (NAES) is anything but fortuitous.
His 82-year-old father, Dr. Robert Perry, is considered a pioneer in the field of ethnic studies and was one of the founding members of the nonprofit organization created in 1972 to provide an interdisciplinary forum for scholars and activists concerned with the national and international dimensions of ethnicity.
But Perry, a rising star in academe, isn’t merely operating in his father’s shadow. The 32-year-old political science professor at Mississippi State University (MSU) has bold plans to push the organization in the direction of becoming more engaged in the day-to-day fight against social injustices such as homophobia and police brutality.
“Ethnic studies as an academic discipline has grown substantially since the founding of this organization,” said Perry, who is the youngest person to lead NAES. “As president, I want to put us in a position where we not only maintain and grow as academics, but that we also grow our activist orientation.”
For Perry, who is openly gay and is married to his partner, the role of academic and activist is one in the same. Several years ago, he surprised some of his contemporaries when he left a tenure-track faculty position at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and moved with his husband to the conservative town of Starkville, Mississippi.
“It was a head scratcher for some because we chose to move here,” said Perry, who will leave MSU in the fall to become an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond.
During his tenure at MSU, Perry became a visible presence on campus. He served as the faculty adviser to LGBTQ students and was able to “help the community of Starkville move forward on LGBT initiatives” while churning out several scholarly works, including a new book released this week that he co-authored with his mother, Dr. D. LaRouth Perry, about the fight to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.
“Ravi Perry is a consummate scholar-activist. His scholarship challenges us to consider the diverse contours of American politics with a keen eye toward the practical challenges facing underrepresented communities,” said Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University. “Recent uprisings in places like Baltimore and Ferguson highlight the continuing struggle to confront issues of equity, inclusion and accountability. Ravi’s work is on the cutting edge of those questions. He’s a force.”
From an early age, Perry was drawn to politics and activism. He was among a group of supporters who ultimately helped to elect the first Black mayor of Toledo, Ohio — Jack Ford — into office in 2001.
“I’m a lover of politics and I fight for issues and people we might consider marginalized,” said Perry, who remembers Harry Belafonte and authors Maya Angelou and James Baldwin passing through his home in Toledo to visit with his father, who spent nearly three decades as director and chair of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University. His mother, a retired public school teacher, also taught in the Africana Studies Department at the University of Toledo.
While a student at the University of Michigan, Perry briefly contemplated a career in law, but was quickly dissuaded from going to law school by his professor, the late Dr. Hanes Walton Jr. Instead, Walton urged him to become a professor and to study politics.
“I have a career and hundreds of people have a career studying Black politics because of him,” said Perry, who enrolled in the Ph.D. program in political science at Brown University. His dissertation — which he eventually turned into his first book — examined the trajectory of Black politicians, such as Ford, who won office with a majority of their support coming from White voters. “We knew a lot about Black mayors in Black cities, but we knew little about Black mayors in cities where the majority are White,” said Perry. “How do we gauge their efforts?”
Two years after accepting a position as an assistant professor of political science at Clark University in 2009, Perry was appointed director of the ethnic studies concentration and developed a diversity action plan which later led to the creation of its Diversity Task Force and its Office of Diversity and Inclusion. His decision to leave Clark to join the faculty at MSU was a desire to teach at a land-grant state institution and to be surrounded by a diverse student population.
“I was attracted to the diversity of the campus,” said Perry, who also wanted to work with Dr. K.C Morrison, a prominent professor whose scholarship focuses on Africa and Third World politics as well as African-American and Mississippi politics.
After three years on MSU’s faculty, Perry is now looking forward to joining VCU in August, while simultaneously working to expand NAES as it looks to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022. His presidency comes at a time when some colleges and universities have begun to slash and downsize their ethnic studies programs.
“The assault on ethnic studies is nothing new,” he said, adding that, as an umbrella organization, NAES is looking to create collaborative partnership between the various ethnic fields and individual ethnic organizations. “Our programs are regularly assaulted, underfunded and not given the appropriate resources to thrive.”
And yet, he is optimistic about the future of ethnic studies, evidenced by student-led protests following the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others.
“This is a new student protest movement and it is a symbol of minority youth activism,” he said. “We think it will help ethnic studies grow the consciousness here in America.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.