At annual MLK celebration, Harvard professor laments stagnant racial integration
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 07:02
Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, yesterday challenged members of the Tufts community to consider the paradox of race in an America led by a black president.
Patterson delivered the keynote address at this year's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Celebration in Goddard Chapel. He is a historical and cultural sociologist widely celebrated for his work on race issues in the United States.
Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha introduced Patterson, describing him as the foremost expert on race relations.
"I can think of no better scholar to talk about what [President Barack Obama's] election means than Orlando Patterson," Bharucha said. "He is a public intellectual in the best and truest sense."
During his speech, Patterson questioned the notion that black Americans have made significant progress toward total integration since the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.
He presented the audience with a striking paradox: while black Americans seem to be fully integrated into the public sphere, even attaining great prominence in areas such as music, fashion and politics, segregation in the private sphere has simultaneously become more pronounced.
"Black Americans are now more segregated than when Dr. King was alive," Patterson said. "Their apartness in the nation's private sphere has worsened even as their public integration has progressed."
Patterson used the Celtics, a mainly black basketball team, to illustrate the segregation still present in the private sphere. White fans idolize the Celtic's black players, he said, but the same fans would react negatively to a black family moving into their neighborhoods.
This issue of geographical segregation reveals the country's racial situation, according to Patterson.
"The paradox of public intrusion and growing private separation is most clearly revealed when examining the large-scale residential racial separation," Patterson said. "I think this would have disappointed Dr. King the most."
Africana Center Director Katrina Moore, who welcomed the audience with University Chaplain David O'Leary, urged listeners at the event to strive to do more than simply honor King's legacy. They should also take steps to continue his work to restructure U.S. society, she said.
"This year we must do more than remember," Moore said. "We must recommit to the legacy's mission, which requires our collective action. Let us be reminded to stay steadfast to this challenge and believe that we will one day fulfill King's mission of equity, compassion and peace for all humankind."
University President Lawrence Bacow also challenged the audience to honor King's memory by working to improve the world for all humankind.
"The world is not perfect, and the only way it gets better is if good people work together to repair it," Bacow said.
Patterson in his talk also highlighted the striking downward social mobility of black Americans since the civil rights movement.
"There has been a staggering growth in economic inequality, and the black poor has disproportionately suffered," he said. "The socioeconomic fragility of the black population and their economic disadvantage is the net result of centuries of exclusion from the national economy."
Patterson blames the existing private segregation partly on the resistance of black American leaders to a fully integrated U.S. society.
"Partly in reaction to the backlash against early black progress, black leadership took a different line from Dr. King and made a move against the idea of integration or saw it as irrelevant," he said.
Junior Allister Chang's winning essay for the inaugural Martin Luther King Reflections Contest was read at the celebration on Chang's behalf, as he is currently studying abroad.
Musical selections, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)," were interspersed throughout the ceremony. Senior Hope Wollensack also entertained the audience with a reading of Nordette Adams' poem "Remembering a Life."