Notre Dame Professor discusses racial dynamics, new civil rights movement in 2019 Hanes Walton Jr. Lecture

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 8:19pm

Notre Dame Professor Dianne Pinderhughes speaks to audience about the growing political incorporation of African Americans into electoral politics at the ISR building Thursday afternoon.

Notre Dame Professor Dianne Pinderhughes speaks to audience about the growing political incorporation of African Americans into electoral politics at the ISR building Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
ALEX BAKER/DAILY

The 2019 Hanes Walton Jr. lecture featured Dianne Pinderhughes, political science and Africana studies professor at the University of Notre Dame. About 50 people were in attendance for the event Thursday afternoon.

The lecture is given annually in honor of the late Hanes Walton Jr., former political science professor at the University of Michigan. 

Pinderhughes gave a lecture titled “Racial Dynamics in the American Context: A Second Century of Civil Rights and Protest” and covered the historical progression of racial dynamics in relation to governmental structures in the United States. She discussed the development of U.S. racial politics, Black politics after civil rights reform, the 2018 midterm election and the unexpected politics surrounding the Obama and Trump presidencies.

Citing historian Rayford Logan, Pinderhughes said the 19th to 20th century represented the “nadir,” or lowest point for Black political development in the United States. 

“...After the Civil War, after abolition, African Americans had begun to exercise some power. They’d been able to register to vote. They'd been able to elect numbers of Blacks to office at the local level and the national level,” Pinderhughes said. “But with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, with the overall understanding that the national government would not be aggressive about implementing and ordering and protecting the rights of African Americans, voter registration collapsed.”

From this concept, Pinderhughes said she developed her own notion of a “contested nadir,” showing resistance in the face of systematic struggle for the African-American community. The contested nadir represents a new resurgence of the civil rights movement in the United States. 

“This is a kind of optimistic future,” Pinderhughes said. “I’m arguing that there are challenges — there’s no question that the Trump administration has worked very hard to undercut all the reforms that were being put in place over the last 40 to 50 years — but that there's enough structural changes that make this (stable) long term.”

Rackham student Michelle Mann, a doctoral candidate in history, said she thought the historical comparisons throughout the lecture allowed for a better understanding of racial dynamics in the country.

“I think it’s great,” Mann said. “I appreciated the comparison of the nadir to a new nadir. I think there’s definitely something to that. You can’t understand where you’re at if you don’t know where you came from.”

According to Rackham student Kamri Hudgins, connecting concepts of academics and activism is effective in starting conversations about institutional change.

“I think it’s always good to bridge the gap between academia and activism,” Hudgins said. “So, I feel like a lot of times when you think about people like Ralph Bunche — he was a scholar and an activist — so when you have these people on the ground doing the work, the grassroots-type-thing that are going on, it’s good to have things like this because you almost need a framework to pull from.”

When asked about modern movements like Black Lives Matter, Pinderhughes said social media has allowed for the resurgence of a large-scale civil rights movement.

“In a sense, what we’re seeing is the full mobilization of the African-American community,” Pinderhughes said. “I think we’re not afraid to rise up and take public stands about it and protest in the streets and do things that people wouldn’t necessarily think you’d be safe doing all the time. Ella Baker used to say ‘Strong people don’t need strong leaders.’ It seems to me that’s where we’re seeing community organizing and grassroots organizing happening frequently, and those local organizers rising up and challenging the police and local officials successfully.” 

Hudgins said she appreciated the acknowledgment of a new era of civil rights in the lecture.

“I thought it was really good because you don’t necessarily hear people talking about this new era of civil rights that we’re in. People don't really frame it in that context,” Hudgins said. “It’s like everybody knows something is going on. There's a lot of movements and a lot of talk. There's a lot of stuff happening, but you don't really know what is going on, so I think it's good to even just start baseline.”

According to Pinderhughes, the Obama presidency and subsequent Trump presidency was the result of an overwhelming change in racial dynamics and politics in the country.

“Decades of work seemed to be moving in the right direction, and then the improbable election of Obama surprised many of the most astute observers into saying ‘not in my lifetime,’” Pinderhughes said. “And then Trump was the opposite and the inverse of an Obama, and yesterday was the 1000th day of Trump’s presidency and he may have lost his base.”

When asked about how the modern ideological landscape pertains to the 2020 election, Pinderhughes said candidates appealing to “old-school” Black politics are struggling to garner the attention and support of young African-American voters.

“You could argue that Harris and Booker are out there on the edges,” Pinderhughes said. “Partly — I’m pointing to the race test — how Black are they, issue, and then there’s the issues of they’re not liberal enough for the young population. I wonder what this means in terms of what people’s definition is of ‘liberal.’ How do we judge that?”

According to Rackham student Zoe Walker, discussions regarding racial dynamics are especially important on the U-M campus.

“The University of Michigan is still a predominantly white campus in the Midwest, so I think diversity is going to be an ongoing issue and the question of civil rights is going to be an ongoing issue in a place like Michigan, especially in Ann Arbor,” Walker said. “Even though there's only 4 percent black students here at this school, as Prof. Pinderhughes was saying race has become a national issue and it’s always been an issue in national politics, but especially in the era of Trump it’s going to continue to be a national conversation.”