Race Matters: Scholars Analyze State of Race Relations at Princeton Forum

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Race Matters: Scholars Analyze State of Race Relations At Princeton. Forum

by Mary-Christine Phillip

PRINCETON, NJ -- A number of leading academic scholars met at Princeton University recently and conducted a high-level analysis of America's seemingly prime obsession -- race.

America, many academicians say, is a country defined by race. From its bloody history to more recent and raw incidents involving people of color, there seems to be no antidote for the "virus" many called racism. It was against this backdrop, in a climate of worsening race relations in the nation, that scholars -- Black and white -- hypothesized on ways of dismantling, as one of the speakers termed it, the "house that racism built."

Instead of "ideological posturing or resorting to platitudes," the organizers of "Race Matters: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain" sought to call attention to "the more complicated ways in which race is being explored in the work of a small but significant group of scholars."

"I have never lived in a world where race did not matter," declared Nobel Laureate and keynote speaker Toni Morrison in opening remarks.

In her address, called simply "Home," Morrison said that that world -- where race does not matter -- is often imagined, but described as utopian. The winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton, Morrison said that one question that has always troubled her work is how to convert a "racist house into a non-racist home." She said that work scholars "do here at this conference could save our lives."

It was no accident that the two-day conference, attended by some 1,000 scholars, students and others in academia, was, in part, a farewell to Dr. Cornel West, author of the book Race Matters. West, a professor of religion and director of Princeton's African American studies program, will join Harvard University's African American Studies faculty this fall.

The lively and provocative discussions touched on this country's history of racial strife, changes in race relations over the course of 30 years of civil rights laws, the impact of racism on gender and sexuality, and the economy as it relates to race.

Many scholars were critical of the rise in Black nationalism, which they say over-simplifies complex identities. Dr. Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, called on the Black intelligencia to take the lead in forging a new vision for Black identity.

"The struggle for Black rights is a struggle for human rights," he said.

This homage to West was not without stoutly voiced critiques of some of the views he expressed in his best-selling book.

Retreat From Race Matters

Citing West's opening chapter, "Nihilism in Black America," Dr. Stephen Steinberg, a sociologist and professor in the urban studies department at Queens College of the City University of New York, said it was "strangely at odds" with positions West has advanced elsewhere.

Steinberg, who spoke on "The Liberal Retreat From Race in The Post Civil Rights Era," said he understands that West "is trying passionately to find an alternative to rage and despair," but he has placed too much on Black people to overcome their own nihilism, while ignoring conditions that worsen their plight.

That kind of analysis, said Steinberg, is picked up by lawmakers to justify abandoning programs that compensate minorities for inequalities. It shifts the blame from whites to Blacks.

Many in the audience reacted favorably to the jabs at West. They weren't stingy with approving applause, despite West's presence. He took the criticism in stride, and later explained that the book is about "market forces," and that nihilism is "a response to those institutional processes that exclude Black people...not as a language of pathology.

"Of course, material conditions matter, but you have to start with Black self-love. …