Event Highlights: A Discussion on Race and Racism



On Wednesday, September 30, 2020, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) presented “A Discussion on Race and Racism,” via Zoom webinar. The discussion was co-moderated by ACLS President Joy Connolly and Alondra Nelson, President of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Featured panelists were Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and Director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, and Bianca Williams, Associate Professor of Anthropology and faculty lead of the PublicsLab at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

ACLS President Joy Connolly deftly captured the spirit of the “A Discussion on Race and Racism,” a virtual panel which drew nearly 250 participants for 90 minutes of passionate, highly insightful conversation about the past, present, and some suggestions about a vision of the future of race and racism in higher education.

Presented as part of an annual anniversary series celebrating the founding of ACLS in September 1919, the event was also part of both organizations’ ongoing commitment to improve conditions for scholars of color in the humanities and social sciences. As part of these efforts, each has prioritized creating space for honest, probing discussions on race and racism and the changes needed to realize an academy of the future that truly embraces the diversity of thought and experience as part of its standards of excellence.  

ACLS President Joy ConnollyIn her introduction, Connolly referenced Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass.” “Scholarship is a living thing – it thrives when it draws on the intellectual powers of living things,” she noted in setting the stage for the panel. “We at ACLS and SSRC are committed to supporting, as Hayden puts it so powerfully, the lives fleshing out Douglass's dream.”

The robust discussion began with SSRC President Alondra Nelson asking each panelist to share the most important contributions made by humanistic scholarship to the public understanding of race and racism.

Harvard’s Khalil Muhammad noted that, historically, scholars have sought to explain and justify inequality in society. But the academy has also inaugurated the study of the history of racism -- anchored by the work of W.E.B. du Bois, which serves as some of “the most important knowledge in the service of anti-racist change.” From there, Muhammad reviewed a century of distinguished scholars and seminal works on racism, from Eric Williams and Mary Frances Berry to Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s “Long Civil Rights Movement,” and many others.

CUNY’s Bianca Williams likened the question of identifying the most important work in the field to “asking a musician to pick a favorite album.” She noted the importance of du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk as a strong illustration for undergraduates and future scholars of how scholarship can be useful in the everyday. She added the impressive canon of work exploring intersectionality, from Phillis Wheatley to Saidiya Hartmann on race and gender, and Zora Neale Hurston’s contributions in anthropology, still cited today.

Bianca Williams“For me, Black studies, Black feminist thought, Black queer studies, are disciplines and fields that were created out of organizing and created where the community was central,” Williams said. “If you're a scholar of those disciplines, then you're doing public research and finding the ways that the humanities are useful in public…You're valuing the ways that people not only live, but make meaning of the world in which they live.”

In discussing ways to address the structural inequalities in higher education that inhibit studies of racism, Williams contended that, regardless of support from the academy, marginalized people of color would do the work because they always have.

She went on to call on organizations like ACLS and SSRC, funders, and universities to look more closely at how doctoral students are trained. This education, she believes, should include helping students understand different ways to use their PhD training beyond the academy, as well as elevating the role of emotional wellness and creating and financially supporting spaces for slow thinking, reading, and writing workshops, all essential elements of the work. Further, she urged that the lens through which the research is received not be seen as complaint, but as critique, a necessary step in finding solutions.

“Let’s face it…money matters,” Muhammad added. “It has a lot to do with what is valued at the university.” He pointed to the ongoing tension between the rightness of making change and the lack of commitment by college and university leaders to redirect resources for that change. “As long as we let the market determine what is valuable in the corporate culture of the academy, race and racism, as far as I'm concerned, at least for the rest of our foreseeable lives, will not change in any substantial way.”

He also called on ACLS and SSRC to establish new standards of excellence through guidance and reports to higher education, as well as in requirements for its membership and fellowship competitions. “It’s this kind of change in the market dynamics that will bring us closer to the change we want to see.”

When the discussion moved to the relationship between scholarship and activism, panelists offered personal insights about their personal journeys and how they see their current roles. 

“I wouldn't be an academic if the thing that was driving my scholarship wasn’t activism,” Williams commented. “I picked anthropology and Black studies and Black feminist studies because those disciplines allowed me to do my organizing and activism work and do my scholarship at the same time.” 

Still, she admitted to feeling pressure to live "two different lives” at points in her career.  The upcoming book, Plantation Politics and Campus Rebellions: Power, Diversity, and the Emancipatory Struggle in Higher Education, which Williams co-edited, examines the suppression of Black voices on campuses.

She also spoke of the continued burden placed on people of color to do the work around countering racism. “When people hear the words ‘race,’ ‘racism,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusion,’ they hear ‘folks of color.’ They hear that that burden should be placed on them to do that labor,” she said. “Instead I really want to push people that when you hear those words, maybe the first thing you should hear is ‘What should white people do about white supremacy?’ ‘What more labor can you take on to get that work done…on a program and department level?’”

Khalil MuhammadConversely, Muhammad emphasized the bright line of distinction he has drawn “between being a professional educator whose primary job is to generate knowledge and to distribute ideas that are helpful to the world that we live in,” and being an activist, a role he respects highly.

“The way that we don't teach the actual academically rigorous history that is produced by scholars [is] the equivalent of scientific ways of understanding the world being 50 years behind what's in a textbook. It’s not ‘activist’ for me to say, ‘That's a problem’: It's my job. And it's my job to try to educate the public [about] a political economy that values a certain narrative about the nation above and against what actually happened.”

Following the discussion, the panelists took a wide range of questions from the live Zoom audience that generated equally passionate responses. They expanded on concrete actions foundations could take to improve conditions for scholars of color and how some diversity initiatives and programming have become tools for keeping racism and white supremacy in place. In answering an audience member query on whether it was acceptable to ask African American scholars how they are doing in order to move towards a more whole person approach to scholarship, panelists cautioned about placing the burden on people of color to translate moments of crisis for white colleagues. Instead, they urged people to look to normative visions on how everyone – regardless of race or background – can and should be expected to share concern about wellbeing for colleagues.

Alondra Nelson“Day after day, week after week, year after year, there are Black and Brown colleagues who live with the trauma and are asked to then lead a faculty meeting or do other things in the world,” Alondra Nelson expanded. “Yes, ask me how I'm doing, but don't only ask me as we're teetering on the brink of God knows what. What is the humane human caring and sharing about colleagues that we owe each other, in good times and bad?”

In addition to being presented to mark the ACLS anniversary, the forum was the first in a series of discussions and presentations to provide space to explore ways to improve the academy and scholarship.

Learn more about:

ACLS, its commitment to anti-racism and inclusive excellence, and current fellowship opportunities supporting diversity among scholars and fields of study.  

SSRC and its Inequality Initiative, a series of programs and projects that bring innovative social science analysis to bear on our understanding of the roots and consequences of unequal participation in political, economic, and social systems across the globe.

Khalil Muhammad on NPR, in The Harvard Gazette, and on Twitter.

Bianca Williams on her upcoming book and on Twitter.