Building Bridges- Dr. Peniel Joseph
Once a month the Community Engagement Center (CEC) brings thought leadership from the University of Texas whose work examines equity and access to come speak at the Building Bridges conversation.
This month, the CEC was happy to present Dr. Peniel Joseph. Dr. Joseph holds a joint professorship at the LBJ School of Public Affairs as the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and at the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts. He is also the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.
As evidenced by his many roles at the University of Texas, Dr. Joseph holds a deep interest in the ways that history can inform and help us navigate the public policy issues of today. He began the Building Bridges conversation by talking about his own history, and the influences that led him to where he is today.
Dr. Joseph’s mother was from Haiti, and he grew up in Brooklyn, New York during the race riots of the 1970s when New York was afire with protests against racism and de facto segregation. His mother was not one to sit on the sidelines, but rather fought for equity, bringing young Peniel with her. He stood on his first picket line at the age of nine years old. It was his mother, a black feminist, trade unionist, and activist who worked for black political power, who inspired him to pursue research and to write.
Dr. Joseph went on to become a professor and researcher, first at Tufts, and now at the University of Texas. He has written several award-winning books such as, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His most recent book is, Stokely: A Life chronicling the life and contributions of Stokely Carmichael.
He started the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy six years ago during his time teaching at Tufts. He was inspired to start the center both because of President Obama’s election and the negative backlash to it. This backlash included assassination threats and racial slurs. Dr. Joseph was interested in studying the contradictions of the United States, a country which can elect a black president, yet still see its black citizens subject to police brutality and racism.
The center focuses on the intersection of race and democracy, both today and in the past. Dr. Joseph highlighted that America’s story and our democracy is rooted in racial slavery asserting that one cannot understand America today unless we acknowledge that history.
The Center conducts research such as their Civil Rights in Burnt Orange project. The project focus on oral histories and policy to examine the racial history of the University of Texas from Jim Crow to desegregation. Building off the research conducted in the book, As We Saw it, which chronicles the intergregration of the University of the Texas, the Civil Rights in Burnt Orange project is creating a website to house the oral testimonies and policies that are a part of that story.
The Center is working to show the de facto segregation that existed, and to explore the ways that the segregation is still affecting the state and the University of Texas. Thier research has found that desegregation was very similar to the old Jim Crow in terms of impact and outcomes. Even though the intent of desegregation might have been racial equality, the outcomes for people of color were extremely similar to life under Jim Crow.
This trend still exists today. It is evident in the disparity of services available to low-income communities and people of color.This lack of services is directly tied to the practices of white supremacy in the past which extracted resources from the black and Latino communities. This extraction has affected the environment and health of those communities. For example, Dr. Joseph pointed to the higher rates of asthma in Latino and black communities.
Dr. Joseph concluded by emphasizing the importance of remembering and learning from history as we talk about the struggle for equality today. He reminded the attendees that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, which stated that the United States was on the path to creating two unequal societies, one black and one white, and which recommended a broad swath of reforms from the inclusion of people of color in the media to community policing.
We are still grappling with those lessons today, and with those divisions in society.
However, Dr. Joseph pointed out that there is greatness in America, and it lies in our right to protest for our rights.
So what can we do now? Educate, agitate and organize, and always, remember our history.
Books recommended by Dr. Joseph:
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
- The Color of Law: a Forgotten History of how our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
- Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-first Century by Monique Morris
- The Power of the Mayor: David Dinkins: 1990-1993 by Chris McNickle