The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and Rackham Graduate School sponsored the latest installment of the Cultural Racism and American Social Structure Speaker Series Monday morning. The lecture consisted of a panel of three faculty members from Washington University in St. Louis who discussed how today’s racial tension is a result of historical mistreatment of minority groups, particularly African Americans. The audience included about 30 students and faculty members.

Margaret Hicken, assistant professor of research at the Survey Research Center of the Institute for Social Research who oversees the RacismLab, organized the series to highlight how American culture is racist toward and marginalizes those who do not fit the ideal American image.

“We have an idea in this country of what it means to be American,” Hicken said. “If you don’t fit those ideals, then your citizenship and sense of belonging is questioned. The speaker series talks about the idea of who gets to belong in this society and the underlying idea of what it means to be an American.”

The panel, whose contributors work on the Legacies Project at Washington University in St. Louis, aims to analyze how the study of history is critical to understanding modern concepts of equality. The project’s goal is to demonstrate that history is continuous. Though the present-day United States may look different than it did in the past, its policy of undermining minorities has stayed the same.

Panelist Geoff Ward, associate professor and associate chair of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, began the lecture by explaining how historical racial violence in a region determines the present safety of the area. His research follows the racial politics of social control and the historical and modern pursuit of racial justice.

“There is a growing body of work that shows that places marked by pronounced histories of enslavement, other times of racial violence, direct violence and structural violence that remain distinguished over various ways today,” Ward said. “The major focus for us now is to clarify some of these relationships, how is it that the past remains present, what are the mechanisms related to that and what are the implications.”

Ward further explained how the historical treatment of African Americans in the United States can be used to explain present-day race relations such as present-day racial disparities.

“Country-level research in the U.S. context finds that histories of enslavement, lynching, civil rights movement-era repression and other racial violence predict violent contention in the same places today,” Ward said. “For example, civil rights movement-era racial violence mediates the relationship between histories of lynching and homicide rates.”

Another panelist, Hedwig Lee, professor of sociology at the Washington University in St. Louis, used historical racial violence to demonstrate the continuation of systematic repression of minority groups today.

She shared a quote by William Faulkner, explaining how it is relevant in our understanding of history.  

“‘The past is never dead,’” Lee said. “‘It’s not even past.’ It was actually used in one of Obama’s … 2008 speeches and I think it is important because we need to figure out how we are going to remember the past and how we are going to use that in the present. We are trying to show that the past is not dead, it is morphed. These things of the past matter.”

The lecture concluded by addressing the myth that racism is a thing of the past. The panel discussed how significant amounts of police brutality, hate crimes and other forms of racial injustice are just as prominent today as they were historically.

LSA freshman Isabella Young, history major, didn’t attend the talk, but told The Daily she believes the current racial climate is reflective of past issues of mistreatment.

“I’d say that current racial tensions are directly linked to past terrible treatment of minorities,” Young said. “More importantly, the omission and denial of that terrible treatment. The only way to move forward and resolve a lot of the racial tensions and issues in American society today is to recognize and acknowledge the mistreatment of minorities throughout history.”

Correction:  This article has been updated with the correct name of the Washington University professors’ project: “Legacies Project.” A quote from Geoff Ward that was deemed inaccurate has also been removed. 

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