Emory Report
October 19, 2009
Volume 62, Number 7


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October 19, 2009
Exploring race and difference

By Margie Fishman

Intersecting dimensions of human difference — race, ethnicity, nationality and gender — explored through a multidisciplinary lens can yield practical, and even transformative, solutions.

That was the overarching theme of the Oct. 2 Race & Difference Initiative conference “Exploring Race and Difference at Emory: Mapping Current Research and Charting Future Directions.”

The inaugural event featured a group of Emory scholars and other national experts discussing ongoing research, both theoretical and critically applied, on race and other forms of stigmatizing difference. Leaders of campus departments and initiatives, such as the Office of University-Community Partnerships, the Center for Women and the James Weldon Johnson Institute shared insights on how their activities are contributing to a dialogue that spans issues of international migration, civil rights, ethnic conflict and sexuality.

“The concept of race is something we think we all know something about,” Provost Earl Lewis said during his welcome address. “We have a vocabulary that we think we can use. And we employ that vocabulary to engage in social action, to make laws, to prescribe who, what, when and where people can engage. At the end of the day…does that vocabulary work in the same way?”

Michael Owens, associate professor of political science, shared his research on the public’s racially-divided response to government reintegration policies targeting former felons.

“Our nation is like a bulimic,” he said. “We’re binging on bodies.”

Citing Georgia as having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and establishing some of the toughest barriers to re-entry, Owens noted that more than half of African Americans nationally strongly agree that ex-felons should enjoy full privileges of citizenship, while only about 1 in 5 whites share that belief. The difference, he said, can be attributed to how often we interact with ex-felons in our social circles and neighborhoods.

Each panelist took a different approach to examining the topic of human difference, from addressing the rise of NAACP nationalism to how white neighborhood preferences are tied to social class and race. Joseph Crespino, associate professor of history, discussed his biography of the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, a “Dixie demagogue” who profoundly influenced Sunbelt politics and modern conservatism.

Conference organizers praised the event for kicking off a campus-wide conversation on the relationship of race to other forms of difference, a priority under the University’s strategic plan.

Located in a city with an intensifying mosaic of cultures, Emory is poised to “become a national leader in this important and complex area of intersectional scholarship,” said initiative co-leader Martha Fineman, Woodruff Professor of Law.

The Race and Difference Initiative collaborates with several University programs, including the Department of African American Studies and the Emory College Language Center. Last month, the initiative launched a yearlong lecture series, “New Frontiers in Race and Difference,” to bring guest speakers to campus.

For information about this and other upcoming events, visit www.rdi.emory.edu.