For all of the progress made by civil rights activists young and old on the root causes and effects of racism, notes Howard C. Stevenson, an uncomfortable truth remains: Americans are ill-equipped for face-to-face conversations and social interactions on race.
“Research suggests that Americans feel so stressed during racial encounters and conversations that they have fight, flight, and fright reactions,” says Stevenson, Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and professor of Africana Studies in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Many of our failures as a society in race relations are interpersonal and emotional and traumatic in ways that legal protests and solutions cannot address,” he adds. “Managing racial stress and incompetence in face-to-face encounters is more likely to prevent the kinds of tragedies we have witnessed in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York City.”
Stevenson will present “Marching Onward and Inward: The Activism of Racial Literacy in Traumatized Communities” at 12 p.m. today in Bond Memorial Hall. The keynote address of the Black Cultural Center’s annual luncheon kicks off the College’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Any opportunity to discuss racial literacy excites Stevenson. But the chance to do so at Swarthmore on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day adds dimension.
“Swarthmore has always had the reputation for an excellent education and some of the most talented students in the country,” he says, “and so many of our leaders today were young minds when they were recruited into civil rights protests.”
The College’s tribute to Dr. King continues Friday with a collection and reception in the Friends Meeting House. The student Gospel Choir and violinist Patrick Desrosiers will perform for faculty, staff, and students, and a reception will follow.
For Dion Lewis, dean of the junior class and director of the Black Cultural Center, these events offer the College community an opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of humanity and justice.
“We need to remember that Dr. King was truly a trailblazer for justice where he felt there injustice existed — labor, war movement, poverty,” says Lewis. “Reflections and actions [commemorating Dr. King] should encompass thoughts on what it means to be poignantly human and how the world community can continue the work he brought to the forefront in the minds of many.”