41st Anniversary Marion Thompson Wright Lecture
February 20, 2021
One Begins Again: Organizing & the Historical Imagination
Opening Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor
As I think about the wisdom of Baldwin that inspired this year’s 41st MTW theme – when he wrote: “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated” – I can’t help but recognize that most of us start practically every conversation in this fraught moment with the imperative for a reckoning – a racial reckoning with a history of white conquest and its long insidious and violent and destructive trail from European empire building forward to now; and then we try to focus on how to reckon with, repair, and redefine that trail of injustice that is worn so deeply in the American ground – and as, Baldwin said: “begin again.” We try not to abdicate; we try to take responsibility; to organize ourselves, our institutions, our communities, once again, as we are old enough to have seen, as Baldwin said, “the dream slaughtered,” from Brown v. Board to so-called “colorblind” school choice; from voting rights to voter suppression; from fair housing to redlining – and certainly steeped enough in history to recognize how Reconstruction’s threat to white dominance turns so easily to the reassertion of Jim Crow. We also know we can’t hide behind disappointment; we can’t let history’s relentlessly uneven road be an excuse not to organize once again. So here we are – as Clem might well have noted, at it again.
So, as we start again, as we organize for forward-moving reparative action, we do face the stranglehold of history – how the present gets tethered to and woven from its worst elements. Yet we also have the possibility, inherent in historical imagination, to loosen those ties that bind, freeing us to gain a deeper understanding of the strings (our) history still pulls in the present. For as a hero from my field of social psychology, Kurt Lewin said long ago, “the best way to understand something is to try to change it.” Organizing, then, is certainly about creating a new system, a new future, new possibilities, yet it is also critically about uncovering and then cutting the strings of the past that manipulate the present in ways that preclude a genuine reset. In truth, we are surrounded by myths that make it hard for our historical imagination to take off and become untethered in ways that bolster our organizing efforts.
Or, to say it a different way, we need to use our historical imagination to liberate us from the myths (American exceptionalism; land of liberty; up by his – since they really mean his -- bootstraps) that we too often complacently allow to tether our current reality to generations of systemic discrimination and exclusion. We certainly see that in the many practices, de jure and de facto that have defined acceptance of a landscape of residential segregation over generations, built brick by brick on the myth of “fair housing” for all, as Richard Rothstein documented in his pathbreaking work, The Color of Law. We see it in the mythology of support for all in the discriminatory history of public funding for social and educational programs, as in Ira Katznelson’s analysis of the exclusionary formulation of the key programs of the New Deal and Fair Deal era, aptly entitled: When Affirmative Action was White. And, as Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues have persuasively argued, we in higher education have indeed sat complacently for decades on top of The Merit Myth that favors the rich and divides America, solidifying inter-generational patterns of wealth inequality. Not to mention, the traditions of elaborately discriminatory banking and lending schemes, as our cherished colleague, Jerome Williams, whom we just lost but will never forget, forthrightly uncovered in his many studies, even just recently in the distribution of PPP loans in this pandemic.
Indeed, the exclusion of whole communities from access to quality housing, education, and jobs, health and wealth didn’t come about by happenstance. For example, in New Jersey, we have some of the most segregated and therefore unequally resourced neighborhoods and public-school systems in the country, also reflected in large disparities by race, class, and immigration status in post-secondary attainment and economic mobility.
Our efforts now to organize require imaginative solutions to untether opportunity from its historically unequal distribution. It is hard to imagine how things could have been or could now be different, if we don’t take stock of the myths that built our current landscape, and take action, affirmatively, to organize systematically to radically change the systems that perpetuate both the myths and the unequal distribution of opportunity.
The Threat and the Promise of Changing Numbers
As distressing as is the durability of both inequality and mythology, I take heart in the work of our MTW speakers today – remarkable organizers and historians who have set the record straight to free our imaginations for reparative action. I know they will guide us forward in this tricky landscape. I also take heart in the organically changing landscape within which all our reparative and newly imaginative organizing will henceforth unfold. Afterall, the numbers are changing too, as demographer William Frey documents in his volume, The Diversity Explosion. And while, as much as demographic diversity is a threat to some, riling up white supremacists in every corner of our country (and world), armed as they are with the righteous mythology of protecting liberty (for whom?), there is some hope that for once there will be some comfort in numbers accorded to those whom history has repeatedly shunned. As Earl Lewis and I recently noted in a piece after the capitol insurrection about Privilege and Racism: Numbers Count in Many Different Ways, “Numbers can fuel lies and encourage destruction or they can be used to guide a healthy, inclusive, forward-looking democracy.” Let’s organize for the latter, as numbers do matter in good organizing. Let’s use our numbers and our historical imagination to give power to the people, letting everyone count, for once.