Embedded in the Fabric of America: Why Race Still Matters

(L-R): Patricia Reid-Merritt, distinguished professor of Social Work and Africana Studies; Donnetrice Allison, chair of Africana Studies; Darrell Cleveland, associate professor of Education and Africana Studies; and Michael Rodriguez, professor of Political Science.

Galloway, N.J. – Faculty members from the Africana Studies, Education and Political Science programs hosted a panel discussion centering on the idea of race and racism in the Campus Center Theatre on Feb. 16.

The panel discussion, “Why Race Still Matters,” was moderated by Patricia Reid-Merritt, distinguished professor of Social Work and Africana Studies. After introducing the panelists, Reid-Merritt gave a historical perspective on how race and racism developed over time and continue to “shape our experience here in (the United States of) America.”

“Race is embedded in the fabric of American culture,” Reid-Merritt said. “And for those, even today, who are raising questions about why we’re still talking about race, it’s because we cannot not talk about race. It is one of those things that determine the quality of your life, where you might be located and the positions or statuses of your life.”

Discussions like this are routine for Reid-Merritt, who proclaims herself as a “child of the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s her hope that, by continuing these conversations in R1 and R2 courses, Stockton University students will walk away with invaluable knowledge of social justice.

We’ve made the commitment that if you’re going to be an educated person and leave Stockton with a bachelor’s degree, you will not be ignorant to the social ills surrounding race and racism." 

The panelists all had varying perspectives surrounding conversations on race, which made for a well-rounded discussion.

Media Perspective – Donnetrice Allison, chair of Africana Studies and professor of Communication Studies

From Allison’s media perspective, she asserts that media is a tool of socialization; in other words, the ideas and attitudes one possesses about racial identity come from multiple sources, including what one reads or watches.

“Race isn’t biologically a real thing; there are all kinds of DNA testing that has determined that we’re more alike under the skin than we are different,” Allison said. “However, we’ve been socialized into believing certain things about race for centuries – like the 16th and 17th centuries – that’s how long we’ve been taught to believe that white is better than Black. Even if that’s not a real biological category, it is a category that we’ve been convinced means something.”

She provided two different examples of this: the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which is widely believed to have been what helped launch the American Civil War from its portrayal of an enslaved, yet devoutly Christian, man, whose faith made him forgive his captors; and the movie “Birth of a Nation,” which is lauded for its advanced film techniques but centers on white southerners who are “rescued” from violent Black men (white actors in Blackface) by the Ku Klux Klan.

Allison encouraged students to interrogate the information they receive, especially since the socialization process she described is cyclical. For example, coded language for the Black community evolved from words like “urban” to “woke.” 

During the Grammy’s tribute to 50 years of Hip Hop, the great LL Cool J said something that I found really interesting: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. There are so many things that have happened in the past that we see coming back in some kind of way. If we don’t talk about these things, that continues to happen.”

Political Perspective – Michael Rodriguez, professor of Political Science and liaison for The Washington Internship Program

Before discussing race and racism, Rodriguez delved into defining terms such as racial metacognition (essentially thinking of how one thinks about race) and racial essentialism (the idea that race as a category is biological rather than social). He then claims that racial essentialism is prevalent in our society and that students should examine the ways that essentialism shapes and frames our  of race.

“I think that we have to have a paradigm shift in how we think about race,” Rodriguez said. “Before we do something or believe something about race, we have the cognitive registers that are the basis of race is as a concept. We don’t do enough to interrogate or criticize the conceptual frames and ideas that are embedded in our worldviews – we just take them for granted.”

Rodriguez then introduces a new concept, racial plasticity, as a way for society to view identity and challenge racial essentialism.

“Plasticity is something malleable, changeable and not static. In many ways, I do strongly believe that, based on my studies and research, identity is not something that’s immutable. It’s subject to the interactions with our environment, and there’s no racial ’essence’ or character that is intrinsic and cannot be changed. What if your identity was based on your affinities or lived experiences?”

As a Tejano, one of the original Mexican settlers of the state of Texas, he is familiar with the stereotypical view of Texans that both Americans and non-Americans have. Despite that, Rodriguez sees the state as an example of the possibility racial plasticity: because Texas is seen as a politically conservative state rather than a multicultural one with complicated histories, it misses out on different opportunities for understanding the rich complexity of the state.

“It’s just a small example of how the ideas that we have about something determines how we respond to it,” Rodriguez said. “We do that with race, gender and class, so it’s important to step back and do an inventory of our cognitive registers.”  

Educational Perspective – Darrell Cleveland, associate professor of Education and Africana Studies

Cleveland elected to discuss current events surrounding critical race theory (CRT) and the recent opposition to African-American education in states like Florida. As an alum of Temple University’s Africology and African-American Studies program, the situation hits home for him in many ways. He says that it’s important to talk about and speak out against political figures like Ron DeSantis, who he says is using Florida as a “testing ground.”

“The governor of Florida has put in policies that eliminate teaching about race and racism,” Cleveland said. “If a book has the word ‘oppression’ in it, you can’t read that book. And I think it was just last week, he said that universities that have majors like African-American studies will not receive funding before calling my diploma a ‘zombie curriculum.’ What’s scary about this is that he is probably going to run for president in 2024 – he may try to make this a national trend.”

This situation only demonstrated to Cleveland how significant courses centering on race and racism are for the future generation.

They call it ‘wokeism.' They’re scared that students like you who graduate are going to be ‘woke’ enough to say, ‘This isn’t right.’ This is why we have race and racism curriculum and why it’s important.”

He also brought up another point: the landmark decision for the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.

“Would you be surprised to know that schools now are more segregated than they were in 1954? Ask yourself, how is that possible? This is why learning about race and racism matters.”

The panel discussion concluded with a Q&A for students and light refreshments.  

– Story and photos by Loukaia Taylor