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The halls of Harvard Law School were unusually busy Labor Day weekend as more than 1,000 activists and academics made their way to Cambridge to debate segregation’s present and future in America.
The four-day Color Lines Conference, organized by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project (CRP), was packed with high-profile events, including a speech by a top official from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the presentation of a major study revealing unusually high segregation in Boston-area neighborhoods and elementary schools. University President Lawrence H. Summers was a late addition to the list of speakers (please see related story at right).
Fifty-six panels scrutinized racial and ethnic inequalities in areas including education, health care, housing and the workforce, heatedly debating the best ways to address these problems.
In a press conference last Monday, John Logan of the University of Albany presented the results of a study he led which found that minority children in greater Boston generally live and learn apart from their white counterparts, in statistically poorer settings—and that the inequalities had sharpened in the last 10 years.
“Separate but equal would look like a step forward,” Logan quipped in reference to the long-discarded 1896 Supreme Court rationale for segregating schools and public facilities.
The study is the first in a series of several planned to be publicized through the CRP.
Gary A. Orfield, the CRP’s co-director, said that some participants were calling the weekend’s lively mix of research and realism, speech-making and sociology, “the Woodstock of academic conferences.”
Orfield said that walking through the Law School as it was temporarily occupied by hundreds of people sharing little more than the expertise and desire to discuss fundamental issues of race relations, he was reminded of the Supreme Court’s June ruling that the value of diversity justifies the consideration of race in higher education admissions.
“This whole conference was designed to be very intentionally multiracial,” he said. “It was a kind of a living illustration of the power of what [Justice Sandra Day O’Connor] talked about” in that decision.
Andrew Grant-Thomas, the conference’s director, joined Orfield in lauding the differences among the participants—ideological as well as ethnic.
“Those of us who do this work within academia and outside academia have a tendency to think we have it all worked out,” Grant-Thomas said. “It’s good to meet people with equally strong convictions.”
NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond was watched with rapt attention when he spoke to a packed audience over dinner on Aug. 30.
Bond celebrated the advances of the last half-century even as he deplored what he said was a current tendency among leaders to neglect the ongoing fight for racial equality.
“One of the political parties is spineless and the other is shameless,” he said.
Bond said that activists relied on academic work to give their vision substance.
“We need you,” he said. “We need to be able to say with conviction things we know are true.”
Antonia Hernandez, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, sat next to Bond as she said that grassroots activism was no less important in making the Supreme Court’s decision a reality.
“It’s just a piece of paper if it isn’t coming from the ground up,” she said.
Grant-Thomas said that a number of factors had combined to make the time right for such a comprehensive gathering.
“We live in a time of extreme demographic change,” he said, citing the most recent census data. At the same time, he said, “racial inequalities don’t go away inevitably or without a lot of effort.”
The conference’s organizers said this had led to profound soul-searching in the civil rights movement.
“The concepts and terms being used were obsolete and didn’t fit a radically transformed society,” Orfield said.
“Thirty-five to 40 years ago there was a consensus among ‘right-thinking people’ that integration was good,” said Grant-Thomas, explaining that this certainty had given way over time to unanswered questions: “Is the integration ideal something we want, we still aspire to?”
Both said the conference’s planning had also fortuitously coincided with a huge outpouring of new segregation research occasioned by the University of Michigan’s affirmative action cases.
“We were really near the epicenter of all that,” Orfield said. “That was one of the things that really woke people in the academic world up.”
Orfield also cited the upcoming anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation, Brown v. Board of Education—and the 2004 elections.
“We’re coming up on an election that’s probably going to decide the future of the Supreme Court,” he said.
As a result, Orfield said the CRP had been hit with “a tidal wave of proposals” when it opened its call for papers last year.
Grant-Thomas said that out of 600 proposals it received, the CRP had gleaned 100 to come to the conference, and had then recruited 150 more on its own.
“Obviously we’re tapping into a hunger for thinking of where the country is going,” Orfield said.
He said that in scheduling the conference, the CRP had encountered another pleasant surprise.
“When we realized we could only get enough space at Harvard over the Labor Day weekend, we thought, ‘Who is going to come?’” he said.
In fact, Orfield said that the conference had ultimately had to turn away some attendees because of the huge response.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.
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