Emory Report
November 28, 2005
Volume 58, Number 12


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November 28, 2005
‘Dynamic duo’ makes for engaging discussion

BY Eric rangus

The 2005 Unity Month keynote address on Nov. 14 took some 200 attendees on a pair of journeys—one statistical and sociological, the other artistic and edgy—that met in a multilayered cultural exploration of post-Katrina New Orleans and the national implications of the storm that damaged so much and took so many lives.

“Talking About Race Post-Katrina” featured the “dynamic duo” of Stanford University professors Lawrence Bobo and Marcyliena Morgan, who shared the Tull Auditorium stage. Bobo, Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor and director of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and its program in African and African American studies, said Katrina shattered three widely accepted myths: the idea that we, as a nation, do not need to focus on economic inequality and social ills; that we have largely solved the problems of race in America and no longer need social action and policy aimed at achieving social justice; and that there are no collective social ends beyond military defense and national security that are enduring obligations of a responsible federal government.

“If there is a central idea I want to get across, it’s that African Americans, and especially the African American poor, are uniquely disadvantaged—marginalized, if you will—owing to a confluence of conditions, particularly earnings and wealth disparities and by racial residential segregation,” said Bobo, a sociologist with expertise in several disciplines.

Bobo spent the majority of his 35 minutes at the podium presenting statistics that illustrated his points—many of which also appear in an ongoing four-class discussion at Stanford called “Confronting Katrina: Race, Class and Disaster in

Some of the statistics—that blacks and Hispanics lag far behind whites in nearly every measure of wealth—were not new, but others, such as one study that showed 20 percent of whites would choose to live in an all-white neighborhood while less than 7 percent of blacks would pick an all-black neighborhood as a home, spoke volumes. And Bobo blended those cold numbers with poetic narration.

“The searing images of citizens left to fend for themselves have been burned into the national psyche,” he said. “The debate over what those images do and should mean will continue, but I believe the images themselves bear witness to circumstances in America regarding the health of our democracy that are troubling. Indeed, like a physician confronting a recalcitrant patient, Katrina forces a recognition that an illness diagnosed many years ago still requires treatment. That illness, in the heart of American democracy, is a troublingly durable racial divide.”

Instead of statistics, Morgan relied on art and activism to make her points, first describing the social content of hip-hop. “There is critique, there is analysis, there is humor, but there also is frustration,” said Morgan, associate professor of communication at Stanford and executive director of the university’s Hiphop Archive.

As an example, Morgan played video of rapper Kanye West’s now famous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” line from a Katrina relief telethon, itself filled with critique, analysis and frustration. The humor came via the stunned expression of comedian Mike Myers, who shared the screen with West. Morgan pointed out that the incredularity of Myers’ reaction was just as important as the anger—and arrogance—of West’s words.

Morgan also played a rap video by musician-actor Mos Def called “The Katrina Klap,” that overlayed images from a devastated New Orleans and a text crawl with disaster-related quotes with Def’s rap.

“The point here is not to argue for a particular perspective, but look at this notion that the myths Professor Bobo talked about are not acceptable to youths who grew up listening to hip-hop,” Morgan said. “The question becomes, how do you talk about race and fairness in America with examples like Katrina? The question is not how to shove us up or shove us down, or make us be nice. But how do you talk about that [after] Katrina and things don’t seem to be getting better?

“I think we can look around the world and see examples of how things can be dismantled, but in the tradition of hip-hop, how do you build?” she said.

President Jim Wagner, one of three introductory speakers (the others were African American studies’ Delores Aldridge and multicultural programs’ Vera Rorie), placed the evening’s address in the context of Emory’s wider diversity endeavors.

“This is a way of keeping a promise Emory has made to itself,” Wagner said. He was not the only person in Tull to refer to the professors (who are married, though neither brought it up on stage) as a “dynamic duo.”

“It’s a promise to keep talking and to keep engaging meaningfully and advancing the state of our community, particularly around the issues of race and difference,” he continued. “We claim a high degree of diversity, but I think we still have a good ways to go from being merely a statistically diverse collection of peoples to becoming a community of peoples.”