By: Nick Santangelo

It’s easy in 2019 to say that racism is abhorrent and should be eradicated, and it really should have been easy for the country to agree on this many, many years ago. In her recent visit to a College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Africology and African American Studies class, Patricia Reid-Merritt explained how this seemingly obvious statement is worth exploring.

The Stockton University distinguished professor argued that racism is still (disturbingly) alive and even spreading in some corners because much of the United States has failed to reckon with racism’s past. Without acknowledging and making amends for past atrocities, Dr. Reid-Merritt said, the country can’t build a future that overcomes its history of racism.

Looking Back

“I did not think in 2019, we would have to spend a whole lot of time talking about racism,” Dr. Reid-Merritt told a Gladfelter Hall auditorium full of CLA students, “but Charlottesville taught me a whole lot of lessons.”

The professor then asked students to think about whether or not some prominent politicians are racists. She admitted that, at a glance, this seemed like an impossibility in 2019, but she cautioned that the evidence supported as much.

To get to the root of this, Dr. Reid-Merritt wanted students to think about the history of American racism. She showed a shocking video depicting how lynchings of black people were once photographed and turned into postcards that were allowed to be sent through the U.S. Postal Service.

We’re at a point right now where we’ve actually jumped back a few decades

As disturbing as this was, however, she pointed out that racism isn’t limited to these graphic acts. Slavery and lynchings are the most upsetting legacy of American racism, but Dr. Reid-Merritt also pointed to interracial marriage once having been outlawed and the Jim Crow period of segregation. Even today, legal and social systems are still negatively affecting people of color.

“This is not simply a black-and-white issue,” she argued. “This is not simply a regional issue. It cannot be tied only to the South. There is no racist-free state in America. There is not a state you can go to where this isn’t a history of racism.”

Moving Forward

As mentioned, this isn’t just about history, either. The guest professor explained that people continue to join white nationalist groups even today out of a fear of losing their power and rights, pointing to the debate around immigration as an example.

“We’re at a point right now where we’ve actually jumped back a few decades,” said Dr. Reid-Merritt. “If you look at the dialogue today there is hostility in the conversations, and some of that has to do with perceived racial stereotypes.”

This prompted multiple students to ask how they could have constructive criticisms with friends and family members who say things that stem from those stereotypes.

Dr. Reid-Merritt acknowledged the difficulty of having those talks, but she insisted they must be had nonetheless. She recommended students not let the conversation switch to another topic when the dialogue about racism gets tense. Everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, should be having these talks, insisted the professor. Students might not be able to change family members’ views, but they need to at least make clear what their own views are and what America-at-large’s views are today.

“People say, ‘My generation didn’t do this. It was the generation before us. So why do we have to engage and suffer in any way?’ and to that I would say, ‘If not you, then who?’”

Dr. Reid-Merritt also thinks education holds the key to meaningful progress on racism. She wants to see primary school systems mandate coursework on slavery and racism. Otherwise, the country risks too many children being raised in environments in which they don’t know the truth.

To continue their education on race in America, CLA students should attend next Monday’s talk on being a proficient anti-racist. Students are also encouraged to read Dr. Reid-Merritt’s latest book on race and raciscm. 

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