On Oct. 6, the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) held the second of this year’s series of panels discussing “the viability of the American experiment.” The subject of this panel was race and identity in American politics. Director of CSAD and Professor of Political Science David Rowe moderated the panel, which consisted of Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann, Densil Porteous ’02, Kelley Coleman Ukhun ’92 and Elizabeth Westfall P’23.
The discussion began by focusing on the United States’ founding and the Declaration of Independence. Panelists examined in particular the phrase “all men are created equal” and several members pointed out both the exclusion of women and how several of the Founding Fathers had owned slaves themselves. Westfall, a civil rights litigator, argued that this particular phrase of the document was aspirational, but not reflective of the lived experience of many Americans.
The conversation soon moved towards the central impediments in achieving the aspirations of the Declaration. Ukhun, a Washington D.C. educator and activist, said that she believed that racism was the most pressing problem in the United States today. Ukhun defined racism as “how we deal with people who are not white, any type of system that or policy that is set against people who are not white, that are meant to prevent them from accessing the full liberties of the country.”
“Racism would be not just the discrimination, but the power to implement policy to make sure that the discrimination is grounded,” she went on to say.
Baumann pushed back on this definition of racism. “I think that is, and for many reasons, a bad way to look at it,” he said. “I agree with John McWhorter, who describes it as ‘a dead end.’ Partly, it’s that it allows you to ignore concrete issues of social policy.”
Rowe then moved the conversation towards how individuals interact with each other in everyday life. Porteous argued that every individual has a responsibility to see every person as an individual, and that doing that was part of the solution to the problems of racism in the U.S.
When the panel spoke about possible solutions to the problems of racism and discrimination, general consensus emerged among the panelists: Viewing others as individuals rather than generalizing or stereotyping them is vital to overcoming racism in the U.S. Equally important is the need for white people, and not just people of color, to engage in frank and honest dialogue on the topic of race.
Porteous in particular stressed the need for open discussion on the subject of racial injustice, saying, “Wake up, have a conversation, feel comfortable — get out of this space of ‘we can’t’ and talk to people.”