May 9, 2007: Features
By Theola Labbé ’96
After growing up in a New York City suburb that measured one square mile, Libby Hutton ’09 wanted to branch out when she arrived at Princeton. The New York town where she lived all her life was nearly all white, and her high school graduating class had only one black student, recalls Hutton. “I was hoping to have a more diverse group of friends,” she says.
But once she moved to campus, Hutton was disappointed to find that Princeton didn’t hold the key to forging friendships across racial and ethnic lines. Instead, she says, she found students in her dorm sticking together by their shared associations, and one of the factors that determined friendships was race. She found an opening on the academic side when her adviser suggested that Hutton take a course, “Disaster, Race and American Politics,” taught last fall by a new professor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell.
If the title wasn’t enough to get her interested, from the first day of class, Hutton was hooked. Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies, emphatically told her students that they were free to say whatever they wanted and that it would not affect their grades. She even encouraged the students to disagree with her. “She really tried to make the point that it was a safe space to talk about race,” Hutton says.
The course topics ranged from the leadership style of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, to analyzing the racial divide in media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, to whether constitutional law would be different if there were nine black lesbians on the Supreme Court. Hutton recalls that last topic as generating passionate discussion among Princeton’s normally genteel student body. “She would create a way to turn the issue so it was easier for us to take apart,” Hutton says.
There are more minefields than safe harbors when it comes to talking about race. A common thread running through Harris-Lacewell’s teaching and research is that the perceptions of whites and blacks are so different that they don’t share a common language for the conversation. So while talking about race is more important than ever, Americans are ill-equipped to do it. Take the comments of presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who called rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., an “articulate and bright and clean” candidate, only to apologize later for his remarks. Or the continued dissection of Obama’s degree of “blackness” and his authenticity as an African-American candidate. The analysis of Obama’s racial politics is ironic, Harris-Lacewell says, since the entire conversation is framed around his black race: “The fact [is] that we’re not talking about his foreign policy, his health initiative, even not so much about his position on the war in Iraq. ... Being dissected about your race when you’re trying to have a conversation about politics is exactly what the black experience is.”
Harris-Lacewell, 33, has weighed in on these and other issues in her blog, melissaharrislacewell.com. The site is a mix of warm personal facts, including many about her 5-year-old daughter, Parker (a divorced mother, Harris-Lacewell often brings Parker along to lectures and on class excursions) and scholarly works with titles like “Black Women and Depression.” She wants her ideas to go beyond campus, and so she frequently appears at conferences for nonacademics and discourses on political and other topics on television and radio. In her regular conversations on NPR, Harris-Lacewell has discussed topics as wide-ranging as the Nation of Islam and the war in Iraq.
Speaking on NPR last July, after President Bush addressed the NAACP, she discussed whether the Republican Party could attract black voters (“No. I think the party of Lincoln references ring untrue and almost a little bizarre. ... [Bush’s NAACP speech] is not about getting African-Americans to vote for the Republican Party, it’s about demonstrating to nonracist white voters throughout the country that the Republican Party is a party that welcomes African-Americans”). In another interview, Harris-Lacewell explored tensions that were exposed by the rape and assault charges against Duke University lacrosse players, which later were dropped. While urban universities tend to see a threat of violence stemming from their local communities, she noted, those communities also can be threatened by universities, particularly “through the appropriation of land in black communities; through policies of community policing which tend to keep people in working-class communities away from the resources of campus; so-called redevelopment efforts in urban areas by urban universities. All of which basically produce a form of violence in black and working-class communities, and when these young, white leaders go off and become the heads of corporations and the heads of government, they continue to perpetuate exactly that sort of violence against black, brown, and urban communities.” She says she enjoys her appearances outside the classroom: “It’s flattering and fun to have an opportunity to take the work that I do, the day-to-day drudgery of research, and have conversations with everyone.”
Harris-Lacewell’s focus on black political thought comes from a genuine love and respect for African-Americans and a desire to bring their views — which historically have been neglected — into the American landscape as often and as much as possible. For example, as she watched Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, discuss in March how her cancer had returned, she heard the word “strong” used over and over to describe Elizabeth Edwards, and thought that the couple’s decision to continue with the campaign might resonate with black voters. “Cancer is more prevalent in our communities. And we’re much more likely to have to get up and go to work the next day,” Harris-Lacewell said. “Right now the media isn’t racializing this, but this is going to resonate with the working,
single black mother who has gotten diabetes or a cancer diagnosis in neighborhoods where you couldn’t just go home and recuperate. In neighborhoods where everybody
is going to work every day, this is going to be well understood,” she says.
Harris-Lacewell is in her second full semester of teaching as a full-time, tenured faculty member at Princeton, and students say she has helped them talk about race and forced them to re-examine their own backgrounds and assumptions. She grew up in the Virginia cities of Charlottesville and Chester with a black father, the dean of Afro-American affairs at the University of Virginia; and a white mother, who taught at a community college and worked for nonprofits that helped poor communities. “I’ve never thought of myself as biracial,” Harris-Lacewell says. “I’m black.” But she has white siblings and black siblings (both her parents were previously married), and in the 1970s in the South, the family often was met by harsh and open racism, she says.
That racism left her with an awareness early on that race and its implications were ever-present, she says. But in the decades since, Harris-Lacewell has turned her negative childhood experiences into a scholar’s pursuit of race and political thought. As a sophomore at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., she helped to found the Nia House, the university’s first African-American-themed house, with 14 other black female students. It was there, sitting in the large living room, that she grew practiced in talking about race, politics, and gender. She then went to Duke for her Ph.D. in political science; when she wrote her dissertation on black political thought in everyday places, titled Barbershops, Bibles and B.E.T: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, she knew she had found her niche as a social scientist. The dissertation, which was later published as a book, was “compelling, new, and important,” one reviewer wrote, because Harris-Lacewell brought a social scientist’s empirical approach and research to looking at how African-Americans develop political thoughts in everyday places like barbershops and church.
University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson *93 — like Harris-Lacewell, an African-American scholar who speaks to a general audience in addition to his academic colleagues — met her when she was teaching at the University of Chicago, and Harris-Lacewell invited him to speak to her class. He says that Harris-Lacewell’s blend of solid academia, warmth, and popular appeal makes her a force to be reckoned with. “She is bringing a unique perspective to the political sphere, the intellectual community, and to the public at large,” he says.
Harris-Lacewell is now at work on a new book, tentatively titled For Colored Girls Who Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough. Starting at the intersection of psychology and politics, she looks at issues such as mental health and the myth of the “strong black woman” to analyze the formation of political thought among African-American women. She gave a preview of the book on campus on Alumni Day in February, exploring the racial attitudes of black women, as she walked back and forth in front of the multiracial audience and lectured in her easy, engaging style.
In Harris-Lacewell’s politics and African-American studies class last fall, she focused on the national disaster of Hurricane Katrina, using the event to analyze American politics and the racial divide. As a professor at the University of Chicago, Harris-Lacewell was a co-author of the 2005 Racial Attitudes and the Katrina Disaster Study, which concluded that efforts to rebuild New Orleans could be made more difficult by large racial differences in perception. “African-Americans and whites live in vastly different perceptual worlds,” she explained on NPR in January 2006. “Although all of us saw what happened in New Orleans, blacks and whites perceive what happened very differently.” African-Americans, Harris-Lacewell explained, generally saw the disaster as a story about racial inequality in the United States. “They
continued to see that the botching of [the federal government’s and local governments’] responses was related to the race of the victims. Whites, on the other hand, overwhelmingly reject those notions. They don’t see Katrina as a story about race, and they don’t believe that the government would have behaved differently if, in fact, the victims had been white.”
In her Princeton class, students explored the different perceptions frankly and in depth. Some students say that the class has had an unusual and lasting impact. Sophomore Cindy Hong, for example, who was born in China and grew up in Princeton, says the class’s lessons went beyond just the academic, as she reflected on her own upbringing as a child of immigrant parents and how her life experience was shaped by societal policies based in part on race. Her parents, a mother who works as a bank teller and a father who is a pharmaceutical manager, instilled in her a sense that success in America is largely self-made, Hong explains. But in the class, she learned about forms of racism sanctioned by the government — such as the practice of redlining during the era of the New Deal — that continue to contribute to racial issues today. Hong says that Princeton students are reluctant to speak about race, but that Harris-Lacewell’s class broke the barriers. “I feel a bit more comfortable talking about race issues in the U.S.,” she explains.
Some students in the class, wanting to do more than talk about disaster and race, organized a trip during intersession to New Orleans, where they gutted homes heavily damaged by Katrina and met with local officials. Upon their return, they created “Got Guts” (www.wegotguts.com), a campaign to get others to clean out damaged homes. Aita Amaize ’07 was the lead trip organizer. The daughter of a Nigerian father and a Taiwanese mother, Amaize grew up in Taiwan and had never lived in the United States before coming to Princeton. She says she has become a race-conscious person and is now part of a campus group called Sustained Dialogue, which meets every two weeks to talk about issues ranging from the provocative, stereotype-laden film Borat to the federal civil-rights complaint filed by an Asian-American Yale freshman alleging that Princeton discriminated against him in the admission process. She is also the co-editor of Prism, a student literary magazine that focuses on diversity. “There are so many people whom this issue hinders and affects in a profound way how they’re treated and how they approach their own lives,” says Amaize, a psychology major who is pursuing a certificate in African-American studies. “It’s important to talk about race because for so many people, it’s a big deal.”
Hutton, the sophomore who wanted a diverse group of friends when she came to Princeton, says that the class has changed both her course of study and her perspective. She has decided to focus on issues of race and is taking a class on race and public policy. She finally has the more diverse group of friends that she sought when she came to Princeton, and she’s able to have more honest conversations with them about race. And recently, Hutton joined the board of the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding — as a “little activist in a pearl-wearing package,” she says.
Theola Labbé ’96 is an education reporter at The Washington Post.