On the eve of Black History Month, Mount Holyoke College Professor of Politics Preston H. Smith II, who chairs the Africana studies department, confronts the question of racial and class differences in society with an abiding passion rooted in the Black Power and Pan-African movements. Smith’s research focuses on how and why inequities between classes exist and what structural barriers are in place to keep them from changing.
Here he talks about the importance of Black History Month, his background and research, and what he believes would make the United States a more just and equitable place.
Why is Black History Month important? What can we learn from it?
It is important for all of us to have a moment to reflect on the contributions of African Americans to American culture and society. America still grapples with integrating the contributions and interests of African Americans, so this is an opportunity to reflect on those challenges as well.
Every year I hope that Black History Month serves as an introduction for people who might not otherwise be exposed to these ideas. I hope that they might be inspired to delve more deeply into topics important to African Americans—or at least to come out with a better awareness of topics of importance to African Americans.
It is also a way for African American students and faculty to say, “We are here. Not just here physically, but intellectually and academically. The kinds of of things we care about have to be part of a liberal arts education.”
As far as my role in organizing events and speakers, the student group Association of Pan African Unity (APAU) takes the lead, and since I became chair of Africana studies in fall 2012, I have worked to support them. This year Associate Dean of Students Latrina Denson is working with APAU to coordinate the month of activities and the Africana studies department is playing a supportive role.
Could you describe how you became involved in social justice?
My work has a lot to do with my early experience in the Black Power and Pan-African movements while I was in college. The more radical wing that I was aligned with had the ultimate goal of transforming America to make it more equal for everyone, not just African Americans.
Some academics and politicians claim that we are living in a post-racial era. Is this an accurate characterization?
To say we are post-racial implies that race is not an issue. That is a figment of some people’s imaginations. Race still matters in terms of your chances in life. If you’re not recognizing that, that’s problematic.
Some people will use race to say that class doesn’t matter but I would disagree with that. I would argue that those who are elite and wealthy use both race and class to reduce and minimize the opportunities for working class people.
Instead of post-racial, I would characterize this era as post-Civil Rights. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, and the bulk of the black population finally had their civil rights. The other thing that happened in 1965 was the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America became a much larger and more influential part of our society.
Those two things were important, but they didn’t solve racial inequality. We are still grappling with what that should look like.
How do we work to change that?
To me that happens through politics and political participation. I think that means social movement politics.
Social movements can move the political process forward. I would like to see political discourse reflect more empathy and solidarity rather than the kind of blaming victims and scapegoating that our politicians—who are demagogues—are engaged in.
What kind of questions should we be asking ourselves to make our society more just?
We should ask ourselves what kind of world we want to create.
Do we want to live in a world where we scapegoat people because of their gender or their race, and blame them for the problems that we have?
One of the things that pains me about our society is that I don’t see the solidarity amongst the people. We don’t emphasize what we have in common in terms of our common plight.
We’d be better off if everybody was making a living wage, if every kid was adequately educated. We would benefit not just as a society, but as individuals and communities, if people had not just opportunities to do better in their lives and jobs but opportunities to develop themselves as human beings.
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