Melissa Harris-Lacewell Speaks at Facing Race

Her keynote address breaks down teachable moments in not-so post-race America.

By Naima Ramos-Chapman Sep 25, 2010

Facing Race’s keynote speaker Melissa Harris-Lacewell told the crowd of racial justice activists from across the country Friday that our movement must stop compartmentalizing itself. Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University and a recurring guest on MSNBC’s "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann", was both funny and fiery as she urged progressives to see how race, gender, LGBT issues are all interconnected.

As Harris-Lacewell said:

America’s failings to substantively address the continuing challenges of race emerges from a lack of shared vocabulary and experiences, collective understanding of the difference between personal attitudes and systematic discrimination, common data about racial inequity, and historical knowledge about how power and privilege operate. Most importantly, however, we lack a collective vision of a racially just future. These are the aspects of race that we must face, working in communities across America among people of good faith.

Harris-Lacewell spotlighted moments in mainstream media coverage of race that, although often sensationalized, can also be seen as "teachable moments" that counter what some have declared to be a post-racial era. She flipped through memorable images of each moment, using each as an entry point for exploring race in today’s political culture. There was the "Yes We Can" photo of the Obamas, our first black first family. "It was more about us than him," explained Harris-Lacewell, because it represented a "new America to the world community." There was a New York Times headline that assumed the 2008 election would be the moment when our nation became post-racial; the famous "terrorist fist jab" shared between Barack and Michelle Obama; a photo-shopped "Dancing With the Stars" image of Obama and former Alaska Gov.Sarah Palin–symbolizing the not-so-nuanced dance between two different ideologies. 

She also included Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination hearings on her list. Harris-Lacewell said Sotomayor represented "the pillar of rationality, neutrality, and control" that was expected from women of color in the face of adversity. The Shirley Sherrod incident, and the white farmers who came to her defense, forced us reexamine how we see our allies–not as "who looks like us," but more about "who sees us," said Harris-Lacewell.

Harris-Lacewell also sounded a hopeful note, encouraging us to take courage in our progress but reminding us that the changing demographics of our nation does not make racial justice inevitable. "Simply because things are different does not make them better," she warned. In fact, it may mean we have to work harder.