Race Beyond Borders: New AGSC-led Initiative to Explore Atlanta’s Role in Global Conversation on Race

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One of the defining characteristics of 2020 was a national realization that despite the progress of the last century, racism is still all too embedded in American society.  

For some, the death of George Floyd and the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement was a wakeup call. For others, it was simply further proof that those in power have been willfully ignorant when it comes to topics like mass incarceration, economic inequality and police violence.  

Underpinning the calls for lasting change, the soul-searching in corporate board rooms and the efforts to assist minority-owned businesses and grow Black wealth was a new consensus: We’ve talked enough; concrete action is needed to finally right the scales. 

But the issue is not as black and white — or as strictly American — as it is traditionally presented, according to scholars who study issues of race, identity and how these constructs have impacted societies around the world. 

Getting to a real fix, they say, requires embracing the nuances that scholarly work on these issues has revealed locally and globally — even if the answers aren’t easy and paradigms aren’t one-size-fits-all.  

Corralled by the Atlanta Global Studies Center, a federally funded higher education hub jointly housed at Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, a group of partners has come together to address the role of “The city too busy to hate” — and the home of Martin Luther King Jr. — in the global conversation of the day.  

“Integrating global perspectives in addressing inequities that negatively affect the Atlanta region is critical at this moment in time,” said Anna Westerstahl Stenport, the center’s co-director and chair of the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech. “Higher education has a strong opportunity here to lead by example through crossing multiple divides across academia, as well as between academia and community and the public and private sectors.” 

Starting Feb. 5, just after Black History Month begins, a virtual launch event will feature local academics exploring “Understanding Race as a Global Concept: Power, Access, and Policy” presenting views that will help shape views of what race actually is — and isn’t.  

Elizabeth West, professor of English and Africana Literatures and Cultures at Georgia State, said her comments will look at this foundational question.  

“I anticipate challenging attendees to rethink how we have come to accept definitions of humans along artificial constructs of race—that are grounded in no science — and how that informs our interactions and engagements in our own society and our interpretations of populations abroad,” said Dr. West, who also serves as the co-director of academics for Georgia State’s Center for Studies of Africa and Its Diaspora.

It’s not the race isn’t a real weapon, but in her view and that of other panelists, listeners should explore the idea that it was purposefully created to perpetuate inequality.  

“Race is a social construct but also embodied in various ways and is constructed for wielding power,” said Pushpa Parekh, another panelist for the launch event, who directs the African Diaspora and the World program at Spelman College and hopes the event series will push innovative conversation into the world and out of the academic realm.  

“Race and racial stratification, as well as racial problems, need to be talked about more openly in order to question the race problem in its current forms and make connections among various structures of oppression in the world,” Dr. Parekh said.  

The opportunities for weaving global issues with local experiences is nearly endless, ranging from the big historical problems like colonialism and slavery to national structures like segregation in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.  

Dorian Brown Crosby, director of cultural orientation and an assistant professor of political science at Spelman, noted that even within a city like Atlanta, racism can be experienced differently based on the person’s origin.  

“I hope to leave the audience with a better understanding of how global and  local racism impact resettled African refugees in the United States,” said Dr. Crosby, who has worked extensively with Somali refugees in resettled in Clarkston, Ga. Planning for Race Beyond Borders has involved multiple meetings bringing together scholars that all have been universally refreshed by the exchange of ideas, even as they noted how vital it is to ensure they aren’t confined to private call.  

“An important tangible outcome for us is to make the great scholarship and expertise we have in our region known. We want to strengthen and make known all the incredible resources and expertise on this topic right here in Atlanta. We want to build a culture, community and friendship that organizations, communities, businesses are aware of and feel they can reach out to,” Dr. Stenport said.  

She added that the events will be free and open to the public and students, while recordings will be logged to create a lasting library of these vital conversations the community can draw upon in the future. 

Other speakers at the event are to include Sheryl Heron, associate dean for community engagement, equity and inclusion and professor of emergency medicine at Emory University; and Julius Coles, honorary consul of Senegal in Atlanta.

The conversation will be moderated by Jennie Ward-Robinson, co-director of operations and outreach at the Center for Studies on Africa and Its Diaspora at Georgia State University.

For more information on the series, visit the Race Beyond Borders page on the Atlanta Global Studies Center website.  

To learn more about the Feb. 5 launch, see the event listing on AGSC or sign up directly here.  

Note: This article written by Trevor Williams first appeared on the Global Atlanta website Jan. 18, 2021. It is re-published with permission


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