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Social justice advocate talks of healing society of racism

November 28, 2012

Americans are “less racist at a conscious level” than ever before, but at an unconscious level, the issues of race that are “a habit of our society” still prevail, said renowned social justice advocate john a. powell, who spoke recently at Wayne State University Law School. And until we can find our way to move beyond the institutional racism inherent in our system, we cannot heal ourselves and find real harmony, he said.

Professor powell chooses not to use upper-case letters in his name as a tribute to those African Americans, who, when gaining independence from slaveholders, reclaimed their personal authority by removing the capitals from the names their oppressors had given them. He leads the University of California Berkeley’s Haas Diversity Research Center as a faculty member at UC Berkeley School of Law and departments of Ethnic and African American Studies.

He is the author of several books, and read from the latest of those, “Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Others to Build an Inclusive Society,” but he also spoke out on the issues that have drawn his scholarship and activism since he was a young man growing up in Detroit.

“Race is one of our main ways of ‘othering,’” powell said. “What many believe to be true is true in its consequences. If we practice race, then race has real consequences.  The way we do race is a habit of our society. In this country, race is what shapes so much of the world.”

Race is a social construction in our society, a system of dominance by one group of people over other groups of people, and to suggest that we fully deconstruct that system causes “incredible fear” and “deep anxiety” in many of those who strongly define themselves as the ones on the top of the hierarchy, he said. The Tea Party rhetoric opposing President Obama is an example of that deep-seated “anxiety,” he said.

But getting past the established system to arrive at meaningful discussion and an ultimate healing is “not about shame and blame,” he said.

“Going beyond shame and blame is how you talk about it,” powell said. “We have racial anxiety. It doesn’t make us racists.”

Talk of being “race blind,” even by justices of the nation’s highest courts, is senseless, he said. The structure of society’s institutions has to change on a deep level, and pretending, saying and wishing that racism doesn’t exist won’t make that happen.

“It can’t simply be done at a conscious level,” powell said. “We can’t think our way out of it.  It’s not just a political project, but also a spiritual project. We can’t understand the self without understanding the ‘other.’ What we haven’t done is really pay attention to offering an alternative.”

“It is an honor to have Professor powell speak at the Law School,” said Peter Hammer, professor of law and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. “He is one of the most insightful people writing on issues of race today.” In 2009, powell was the inaugural Damon J. Keith Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law.

His lecture was sponsored by the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at the Law School, by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, by the Population Health Council of the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority, by the Michigan Universal Health Care Network and by MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength).

A national voice on race and ethnicity, powell is a co-chair of the Population Health Council, which addresses racial and other health disparities.


Advocating for justice, serving the community, revitalizing Detroit and Michigan