16:49 PM

Ohio State hosts discussion on intersection of race and democracy

Series seeks to develop informed citizens

The contentious 2020 election and the current state of U.S. democracy were topics discussed last week during an Ohio State University-hosted event titled “Race and Democracy in America.”

Tina Pierce of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs moderated a conversation between faculty experts Rachel Kleit, associate dean of faculty affairs in the College of Engineering; Wendy Smooth, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Winston C. Thompson, associate professor of philosophy of education in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

The discussion was part of the university’s Education for Citizenship dialogue series. 

“It has been the great struggle of our national history to recognize the rights of a democratic society apply to all Americans,” said President Kristina M. Johnson as she opened the conversation. “Yes, we have made progress. However, after more than half of a century since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still witness corrosive racial injustice.”

Pierce began the discussion with a question about whether or not America is closer to becoming a post-racial nation. The idea seemed possible following the election of Barack Obama as the first black president, she said, but appeared less likely after President Donald Trump.

“The people I think who are saying we are post-racial were not necessarily people from communities of color,” Kleit said. “It’s not as easy as simply treating everyone the same, but really understanding that there are deep structures in society that still function, even if we want to give everybody similar opportunities.”

Thompson agreed. He said fulfilling the promise of America as a society where people are not marked by race, gender or class takes effort.

“What I find really interesting about the ideal, the move towards a post-racial society, is that I don’t often hear people talking about the difficult work required to move towards the more utopian ideal,” Thompson said. “When you have a promise, a promise is a commitment. It’s not a magical invocation. It requires hard work.”

Smooth said the concept of moving to a post-racial nation isn’t an objective to be supported if it comes at the cost of erasing the history and experiences of minority groups in the country.

The discussion also turned toward solutions to build a fairer society and a more robust democracy. Increased civic education, a commitment to truth and empirical data, and acknowledging the nation’s troubled racial history are important.

“We as citizens need to recognize that the problems that we have in this country aren’t problems for one community or for another community, problems that are separate from us, distant from us,” Thompson said. “We have a shared responsibility for addressing these problems and, perhaps with that approach, to think of ourselves as citizens, to address problems that are affecting members of this larger community, we might move towards some greater cooperation in the service of democracy.”

Smooth said faculty at Ohio State can play a role by teaching students to respect facts and critical thinking and take their education back to their communities.

“We have got to figure out how to help [students] translate that learning, that classroom practice, into everyday conversation. Because when they go out across the 88 counties of Ohio, and they go around the world as Buckeye alums do, they have to be ready to have the conversation in an applied space,” Smooth said. “But in the open space of the everyday world, we have to make sure that they can do that kind of translation, so they can go to the Thanksgiving table and hold their own in a conversation – and not a fight.”

The Education for Citizenship Initiative aims to inspire the university community to engage deeply, with integrity and respect, when expressing ideas and beliefs, be it in word or action. The initiative reflects the university motto, “education for citizenship,” and the mission to develop informed citizens who are able to integrate what they’ve learned in the classroom into their community.

Details are available on the Education for Citizenship Initiative website along with resources for respectful and productive dialogue.

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