‘We’ve Got Work to Do’
Four hundred years after the arrival of the first Africans sold into bondage in what would become the United States, the racial inequality and injustices sown by the institution of slavery continue to permeate American society.
On Friday, October 18, the School of Public Health joined institutions and organizations nationwide to mark the 400th anniversary of this pivotal event in American history. The Dean’s Symposium “400 Years of Inequality: Breaking the Cycle of Systemic Racism” convened nearly 300 scholars, activists, political figures, lawyers, and students (and a record total of almost 1,500 people watching the event’s livestream) to reflect on the history and impact of slavery and devise public health solutions to the multi-faceted challenges that continue to fuel health and economic disparities among black communities. The event was cohosted with the Activist Lab, Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, and the Museum of African American History.
Keynote speaker Cornell Williams Brooks (STH’87, HON’15), former NAACP president, professor of the practice at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and visiting professor of the practice of prophetic religion at Harvard Divinity School, underlined the many ways that racial oppression is manifested in black lives today.
“Slavery and Jim Crow literally have their fingerprints on our health and genetic well-being,” said Brooks. “To those of you who are in your 50s and 60s—the extent that segregation and Jim Crow de jure and de facto affected your upbringing may be felt, seen, and experienced in your well-being today.”
The impact of centuries of racism and oppression is evident in the way that African Americas are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, said Brooks. “One of the largest providers of health care to the African American community all across the country is not Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser Permanente—it’s the Department of Corrections,” he said, which has “jurisdiction over more black men today than were enslaved during slavery.”
Brooks urged the audience to maintain a sense of hope by applying a “hermeneutic of resistance bearing witness to a history of resilience”—that is, to acknowledge not only the trauma and struggles that African Americans have experienced, but also their persistent efforts for freedom and equality.
“Hope is not empirically demonstrated, but morally chosen,” he said. “In order to reform public health—which, by definition, is interdisciplinary and intersectional—we need moral architects who are not hyper-specialized specialists, but who are proudly generalists when it comes to social justice.”
The symposium’s second keynote speaker, Neera Tanden, CEO and president of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, highlighted several policy proposals to tackle the wealth gap between black and white households.
“If we want to take on the inequalities in our country, we have to talk about both sets of structural inequality: race and class,” Tanden said. “The racial wealth gap is one of the clearest manifestations of generational inequality that has developed because of our history with slavery.”
Furthermore, said Tanden, one of the “deepest inequalities between races is not income, but assets.” White households possess six times more wealth on average and 10 times more wealth on median than black households, which she said produces a cycle of generational inequality. “White households have access to a whole series of assets, mostly through housing, that has allowed them to pass on their wealth from family to family—wealth that essentially has been inaccessible to African Americans.”
She presented several CAP policy proposals to address these gaps, including baby bonds, a National Savings Plan, national paid family leave, and universal child care. “It’s important that we have a bolder set of ideals around these challenges,” Tanden said.
The symposium took a deeper dive into racial disparities among African Americans with two panels that examined deep-rooted challenges surrounding equitable access to stable housing and quality education, moderated respectively by Harold Cox, associate dean for public health practice and professor of community health sciences, and Yvette Cozier, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion and associate professor of epidemiology.
On the housing panel, Naa Oyo A. Kwate, associate professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University, spoke about discrimination that black families often experience living in predominantly white neighborhoods. She described the decades-old occurrence of “spite fences” erected in white neighborhoods to “keep black tenants out of white sight and space.” Kwate recalled one such fence that Princeton University erected in a residential neighborhood near the New Jersey institution in 2015 to block a white household from the view of a black neighbor—Kwate, herself.
“My friend asked at the time, ‘Do they know you are a professor?’ No,” Kwate said, “and it wouldn’t matter, because I am still black.”
The panelists also explored how homelessness and neighborhood safety can impact African Americans’ physical and mental health.
Participants on the education panel provided a historical and legal perspective on discrimination and segregation in educational institutions, as well as the present-day covert and overt racism faced by students, faculty, and staff of color—particularly African Americans—in higher education.
Alana Anderson, director of programs for diversity and inclusion at Boston University, spoke about the significance and challenges of the surge of activism on college campuses today.
“Throughout history, students have been major change agents both on and off college campuses,” Anderson said, citing a recent study finding that a record one in 10 American freshmen expect to participate in a protest while in college. But the labor it requires—a burden borne disproportionately by minority students—can “lead to feelings of emotional and physical fatigue,” she said. Furthermore, “coping with microaggressions forces students to spend their energy and personal resources constantly resisting mundane racism which distracts them from important creative and productive areas of life,” she said. “Relying on students of color or black students to organize their white peers about racism is a form of racism itself.”
This frustration was fervently reinforced by black students in the audience, who shared the weight of responsibility they feel in dealing with acts of racism—or cultural disinterest—by their white peers in higher education.
The symposium culminated with performance theater artist Rhodessa Jones, capping off a week-long residency at SPH sponsored by the school’s Activist Lab and the BU Arts Initiative. After performing original pieces about her own race and identity, she invited audience members to reflect on the topics of the day in an intimate and emotional open dialogue.
“All of your input reminds me about the rigors of resilience,” Jones told the audience members who joined her on the stage. “It’s great that we’re talking about what we’re thinking and feeling to understand where we are going.”
The future is not hopeless, said Bob Fullilove, associate dean of community and minority affairs at Columbia University and one of the organizers of the 400 Years of Inequality movement.
To the students in the audience, he said: “Your real role isn’t just to be a student—think about what you’re going to do in your communities. Think about the future. Because we’ve got work to do.”