50 years after Brown, a time for conversation

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” education as unconstitutional.

Ever since, integration has been the overriding goal of both national education policy and the civil rights movement, and American schools and society are more integrated now than in 1954, thanks in part to official policy set forth by both government and private institutions such as Penn. Yet the continued persistence of racial incidents on college campuses and inter-group friction in the society at large have led some to question whether the ideal of integration is still worth pursuing.

A yearlong series of “Dialogues on Race” organized by the President’s and University Chaplain’s offices will engage students, faculty and staff across campus in an examination of the legacy of Brown and the state of race relations today.

“Race is and always has been part of American reality,” said the Rev. William Gipson, University chaplain. “It is worthwhile to shine a spotlight on it to see if we can improve the vocabulary we use in our conversations on race.”

The first official event of the “Dialogues on Race,” a series of small-group discussions organized and facilitated by Penn undergraduates, began Feb. 25 with two-hour conversations in Houston Hall. Additional student conversations are set for March and April, and similar conversations involving staff and faculty are in the planning stages. An online discussion group will allow the conversation to continue beyond the discussion sessions, and a keynote event March 23 will examine racial integration in higher education. The featured speakers will be President Judith Rodin CW’66 and Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of the book “Why Are All the Black Students Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

Sean Vereen, associate director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, explained that the impetus for the small-group discussions came from the students in the PACE (Programs for Awareness in Cultural Education) program, which he co-coordinates. The discussions were envisioned as a response to recent campus incidents in which racial slurs were used against members of minority groups, most notably a November incident in the Quad involving members of the Onyx senior honor society.

“The incidents helped the students decide it was time to discuss the subject of race on a larger scale,” Vereen said.

Daniel Saat W’05, one of the student facilitators, sees the discussions as a step toward change on campus. “I hope to see this project break down some barriers that exist at Penn and in society as a whole that prevent people from discussing race and racism,” he said.

Vereen also noted that the students recognized the significance of the Brown anniversary in their planning of the discussions.

“Of course, we must recognize that we’ve made progress in the past 50 years dealing with integration and racial reconciliation,” Saat said. “But if the anniversary of Brown teaches us anything, it should be the drastic amounts of work left to do and progress that has yet to be accomplished.”

For more information about the “Dialogues on Race,” visit www.upenn.edu/dialogues_on_race on the web.

Originally published on February 26, 2004