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When Academia Meets Activism

When Academia Meets ActivismHarvard’s Color Lines conference draws nearly 1,000 participants to share new insights, data
on the nation’s agenda on raceBy Ronald RoachCAMBRIDGE, Mass.
Labor Day weekend is not the time of year one would expect hundreds of professors, graduate students and other education professionals to be encamped under a white tent at the Harvard University law school campus for an academic conference. Usually, summer’s unofficial last weekend provides professors, graduate students and higher education officials a last-minute opportunity to prepare for the new academic year and to squeeze in a final summer outing.
Nonetheless, the “Color Lines Conference: Segregation and Integration in America’s Present and Future,” organized by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, played to nearly 1,000 conference attendees intent on hearing and questioning the latest academic research on racial inequality and social justice in American society. Over three days, attendees were treated to 120 research paper presentations along with plenary panel discussions and an address by Harvard president Dr. Lawrence Summers.
“I am here to tell you that after eight years in Washington, this kind of knowledge and this kind of consciousness changes our nation. That is why a conference like this is so profoundly important,” Summers, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, told attendees.
Launched in 1996, the Civil Rights Project conducts research and organizes events to promote understanding of and to highlight racial integration and equality in the United States. The Color Lines research papers offered “fresh data and insights” on “the growing complexity of our nation’s racial makeup; evidence of persisting, even increasing, racial inequalities; and the simultaneous steady erosion of civil rights protections and guarantees in courts and legislatures,” according to conference organizers. The conference registration exceeded its original goal of 1,000, resulting in 1,100 registrations, and generated roughly 550 research paper submissions, more than four times the number of papers for which the event had presentation slots, according to officials.
“This is more than double the size of conferences we’ve had in the past. It allows us to take our work to a new level,” says Harvard law school professor Christopher Edley, founding co-director of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Harvard education school professor Dr. Gary
Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, says that the recent challenges to and elimination of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education have helped revive the academic research agenda around race-based issues.
“We’re seeing a tremendous resurgence of interest in the academy around issues of racial inequality. You had a great deal of research that came out of the 1960s and 1970s, but it died down in the 1980s,” Orfield explained.
Among the myriad of studies, the Civil Rights Project in association with the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York-Albany generated significant local media coverage with the release of a report documenting evidence of deep-seated segregation in Boston metropolitan area schools. Students in Boston public schools are mostly Black and Latino. In suburban areas, Black and Latino children are concentrated in predominantly blue-collar districts, such as Lowell and Lawrence, and the affluent suburban schools are predominantly White, according to the report.
Other conference highlights included plenary sessions featuring Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF); Charles Ogletree, Harvard law school’s Jesse Climenko Professor of Law; and Dr. William Julius Wilson, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard.
Conference organizers, clearly buoyed by the turnout and an overwhelming response of submitted papers, said they hope to find a way to link social justice-minded academics with activist initiatives. In addition to touting the attendance and research paper submissions, Edley announced that corporate awards of $500,000, $200,000 and $100,000 came from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Delta Airlines respectively to help underwrite the conference.
“It’s exceptionally difficult to have a conference of this sort” without corporate assistance, according to Edley.
In addition to the Civil Rights Project, other academic sponsors included the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard, Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard’s Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program, the Harvard Immigration Project and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
The Notables
During plenary sessions that featured panels of well-known scholars and activists, moderators posed provocative questions to respective panel members. When asked what is the most significant issue the civil rights community will confront in the 21st century, MALDEF’s Hernandez told the conference audience that securing equality and fairness for a diverse, multiracial population ranked high among her concerns. “To me, the biggest challenge in civil rights is how we’re going to deal with the demographic changes in this country,” she said, referring to the nation’s growing diversity fueled largely by immigration.
For his part, Bond expressed optimism about the prospects for progressive change in the new century. He said there existed an environment ripe for the emergence of a successful coalition representing disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities. “I believe we’re poised on the brink of positive change. We have hope on our side,” he said.
Later in the conference, panel and audience members took issue with questions raised by Ogletree during a plenary session which he moderated titled “Whither the Integration Ideal.” Asking whether integration was overrated as a goal of the civil rights movement, Ogletree drew responses from panelists who affirmed the pursuit of integration as a worthy effort.
“Structural integration is not overrated. It can be done,” Wilson said.
Orfield pointed out that true integration has only been attempted and achieved in a limited number of venues in American society. Counting the U.S. Army, Southern school districts in the late 1960s, a few towns and cities, and some businesses as integration successes, Orfield urged that the United States undertake a broader and more sustained push at integration.
“We have not invested in (integration). We’ve invested much more in segregation,” Orfield noted.
The panel members also proclaimed the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases a clear victory in response to Ogletree’s questioning of the outcome.
“This is more than a narrow victory,” Wilson said.
“We would have serious problems had the court said the schools could not consider race in admissions,” Orfield responded.
Among the topics covered during research presentation panels, talks on African American reparations, U.S. immigration policy, racially based health care disparities, the persistence of housing segregation, youth culture and racial identity attracted significant numbers of conference attendees.
In a well-attended session on reparations, Dr. Glenn C. Loury, an economics professor and director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University, took a dissenting position on whether pursuing reparations for slavery and segregation represented a good idea on the part of the Black community. He argued that the pursuit and attainment of reparations would effectively end the credibility of Blacks to pursue social and political redress arising out of the structural inequalities due to slavery and segregation.
“We ought not to be in a rush to close the door on historical claims we want to make as a community. It should be an open-ended claim,” Loury told audience members.
In opposition to Loury, Dr. William Darity Jr., a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, countered that the case for Black American reparations is rooted in policies that were long ago authorized by the Congress and federal officials, but subsequently abandoned. “Politically, it’s important to do it by legislation. But it has to be done,” Darity said.Learning From Junior Scholars 
The inclusion of junior scholars and doctoral students resulted in notable presentations on issues involving race, culture and identity. One session, “Urban Youth Culture and the Dynamism of Ethnic and Racial Identity” played to a packed lecture room in Austin Hall at the Harvard law school. The three research papers presented during the session documented wide-ranging experiences of identity construction among both minority and White youths as represented in entertainment, in a multiracial Queens neighborhood in New York City, and in the underground hip hop scene in the San Francisco Bay area.
Anthony Kwame Harrison, in his paper “Real Niggaz, Cracker Rap and Filipinos With Perms: The Situational Rationalization of Identities Within a ‘Colorblind’ Hip Hop World,” documents how heightened attention to race and ethnicity by non-Black hip hop artists allows them to gain an authentic presence in an “egalitarian” and independent hip hop scene in the San Francisco area. Harrison, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Syracuse University and a Virginia Tech faculty member, says hip hop music represents a powerful cultural force among Black and non-Black youth.
“Hip hop continues a cycle of Black cultural styles being appropriated or having influence on people in the Black community and outside the community,” he explains.
Though he wondered whether it would represent an “outlier” in a conference heavily focused on social policy, Harrison believed his research paper, which was distilled from the dissertation he will defend in November, represented an appropriate fit within the conference format. He says the positive reception of his paper at the Color Lines conference mirrors that of the response he gets in the sociology and cultural anthropology circles in which he works. The established senior scholars are eager to learn from junior scholars about the dynamics of hip hop and other facets of youth culture, according to Harrison.
“The older scholars see this as the terrain of younger scholars. They look to us to take the lead,” he says.
Dr. Kim Williams, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, believes strongly that issues of identity and culture are closely tied to the exercise of power in social life and politics. As the presenter of “Defying the Civil Rights Lobby: The American Multiracial Movement,” a paper based on her forthcoming book, Williams documents how the drive by the parents of mixed race children in the 1990s to have a separate multiracial category in the U.S. Census led to a clash with the national civil rights lobbying organizations.
Though a compromise was reached with the Census Bureau allowing citizens to mark one or more boxes to describe their racial and ethnic backgrounds rather than a single multiracial category box, Williams argues that the civil rights community stands to lose politically in future battles around race and identity given that the powerful political right has joined in on the side of multiracial movement advocates. Her study revealed that the leaders of the multiracial movement during the 1990s were primarily well-educated, suburban-based White middle-class women who were typically married to African American men.
“My research here anticipates what you see happening with Proposition 54 in California. The political right has co-opted the multiracial movement with the intent of gutting civil rights enforcement,” she says. 
Attendees such as Dr. Rehana Patel, a mathematics professor at St. John’s University in New York City, said the Color Lines conference presented an opportunity for her to refine her understanding of racial and cultural issues in the American education system. A native of India who has lived in the United Kingdom, Patel sees her long-term effectiveness as a professor tied to her becoming knowledgeable about American social conditions.
“My interest in K-12 public education issues will help me better understand what to expect from students at the university level,” says Patel, who is in her first year of teaching at St. John’s.
As a sociology instructor at Luther College in Iowa in the midst of writing his doctoral dissertation, Timothy Radloff said the Color Lines conference proved a valuable investment of the time and expense to travel to Cambridge after the start of the school year.
“I got a lot out of it by getting a chance to hear prominent sociologists like William Julius Wilson talk about social movements. I want to bring these ideas back to my students,” Radloff says. 

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