Amidst unrest, CSREA leads community in crucial conversation

By Sarah C. Baldwin for IMPACT: Research at Brown

Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America has carved out a critical role in dialogue and research.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Last summer, demonstrations against police brutality, racism, and white supremacy rocked cities and towns from coast to coast. For many white Americans, the mobilization represented an awakening. For people of color — not to mention scholars of this country’s history — the moment felt all too familiar. But this time one thing was different: for many people, denying that racism is a foundational feature of the United States had become all but impossible.

As Brown moved to advance understanding of this profoundly teachable moment, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA) became the heart of campus efforts. Based on its history, it was natural that, starting in September 2020, the center would host, along with other programs, “‘Race &’ in America,” a year-long series of panel discussions with distinguished researchers from around the university.

Established in 1986, the CSREA was one of the earliest academic centers in the country focused on scholarship on race and ethnicity; at Brown, it is a site for research and dialogue about a topic that has arguably never been more urgent. Its move in 2016 to its current location in Lippitt House, in the heart of campus, mirrors the growing centrality of race and ethnicity in American academic and popular discourse. 

“Race is at the heart of whatever happens in our country,” said Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana Studies and, since 2013, director of the CSREA. “If we do not develop a more sophisticated understanding of how race works in American society, we will not be able to produce a just, multiracial democracy.”

What distinguishes racism in America, she says, is the enduring myth that it’s going away. In the post-civil rights era, the fallacy of colorblindness — the idea that if, we refuse to acknowledge race and racial inequality, discrimination will vanish — became entrenched across the political spectrum. The center is using scholarship and discussion to close the gap between the notion that racial and ethnic inequalities are a thing of the past and the glaring truth that they are not.

“Racism has been at the root of our darkest periods, and despite the efforts of many across generations — including civil rights activists, students and scholars — we know that racism is pervasive today, and remains an obstacle to achieving true peace and justice for all,” said Provost Richard Locke. “At Brown, we are committed to revealing and addressing legacies of structural racism and discrimination in our society, and we are fortunate to have significant scholarly resources to draw upon in our work. Chief among these is CSREA, which brings together thought leaders to investigate history and reflect and shape contemporary thought, policy, and practice.”

Timely, relevant and supportive

Amidst unrest, CSREA leads community in crucial conversation
When Tricia Rose accepted the CSREA directorship, she envisioned the center as an “ideas hub” that would spawn new ways of thinking and talking about race.

Rose, whom Ms. Magazine called a “legendary Black feminist scholar,” has spent her career studying Black history, culture and sexuality in the post-civil rights era. She is perhaps best known for her pioneering 1994 book, “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture,” which helped establish hip-hop as a topic of scholarly focus.

In 2015, she was tapped to direct the new “How Structural Racism Works” series, another collaboration between the Office of the Provost and the CSREA. Based on her ongoing research project, the series offers a campus-wide examination — through lectures, discussions and workshops — of the range of normalized and interconnected policies, practices and attitudes that drive racial inequality in this country.

When Rose accepted the CSREA directorship, she envisioned the center as an “ideas hub” that would spawn new ways of thinking and talking about race, and a widely valued campus asset: productive for faculty, important for students, engaging for the public.

“I have always been invested in making complicated ideas that matter in the world interesting, relevant, and engaging. That to me is the point of being a teacher and a researcher,” Rose said. It’s also the spirit that animates the CSREA.

Through programming and rigorous research, she set about “building a community in conversation about race.” The conversation would be both informed by scholars and accessible to all. The center has since convened many prominent intellectuals, activists and artists. One of the first public programs Rose organized, in 2014, took place shortly after a jury declared George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin: a teach-in featuring experts on the targeting of young people of color.

That same year, as its public programming found its audience on campus and beyond, the center began designing programs to support scholars in myriad ways — eventually offering manuscript workshops, writing retreats, course innovation grants and CSREA faculty grants. Intended to cultivate an intellectual community drawn from across Brown, faculty grants provide funding and staffing for campus events and research groups that faculty members themselves devise according to their academic interests. Over the years, these have included performances, films, seminars and lectures on topics as timely and diverse as school segregation, Latina feminism, indigenous language revival, the whiteness of food movements, and refugees and immigration.

Such a grant enabled Elena Shih, assistant professor of American Studies, to hold a manuscript development workshop in 2019 that helped her refine an edited volume she’d been working on with colleagues around the world. The event brought scholars from Jamaica, Brazil, and Ghana to the center — as well as others who joined via technology — for two days of workshops.

An interdisciplinary research hub

Amidst unrest, CSREA leads community in crucial conversation
Rose led a conversation with Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show,” at Brown in 2017.

Reflecting her own multidisciplinary approach, Rose says the center invites people from within and beyond the humanities and social sciences to contribute to the conversation.

“If we were just a center that’s a subset of a given discipline, we wouldn’t need to be able to talk across lots of spaces,” she said. “We’d have a specialized language, and we would go deep instead of wide. But I think it’s much more important to create an interdisciplinary hub for research and learning. Sociologists have to be able to talk to people in public health, who have to be able to talk to historians, who have to be able to talk to people who work in biomed and genetics. A center should bring people together.”

The center also supports fellowship programs to further the work of graduate students and faculty, and, with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, co-sponsors a postdoctoral research associate in race and ethnicity.

Ronald Aubert, current visiting professor of the practice, appreciates the CSREA’s “unparalleled exposure to senior thought leadership as well as the exciting intellectual energy of emerging scholars across multiple disciplines.”

Former postdoctoral fellow Mariaelena Huambachano credits the support she received from the CSREA with encouraging her to continue her research and her work with the United Nations as an advocate of indigenous people’s rights. Participating in a round table discussion as part of “How Structural Racism Works,” says former Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow Yalidy Matos, helped her expand her thinking about how structural racism interfaces with immigration, her area of study.

“ If we do not develop a more sophisticated understanding of how race works in American society, we will not be able to produce a just, multiracial democracy. ”

Tricia Rose Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America

Notable among the CSREA’s extensive menu of research-focused initiatives, which includes first-book events and informal workshops on current projects, are programs that support and showcase writers, artists, and performers. Past art exhibits have explored microaggressions, appropriation of indigenous culture in modern media, and resilience, among other topics.

“Artists have always been the most powerful of voices for helping us see things around us in ways that are often invisible to those of us who don’t have that gift,” Rose said. “They have the capacity to get at the heart of something in a way that engages your spirit and soul as well as your intellect. They help us connect in ways that words don’t.”

In January 2020, the CSREA, along with centers at Yale University, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University, received a $4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand the study of race in the humanities across all four campuses. In addition to creating a faculty fellows program that will bring humanities scholars to the center for race-based research, the grant will make possible new multi-campus courses, free public events, exhibits, and conferences. One of the signatures of Brown’s contribution is a humanities lab, a seminar-like space in which faculty and students can collaborate in innovative, boundary-pushing ways and engage in what Rose calls “disciplined freestyling.” She says the lab will be a highly creative space in which to ask, “What if?”

It’s never over

The CSREA records the vast majority of the events it convenes, and the nearly 200 videos in its ever-growing library can be accessed for research purposes by anyone at any time, because race-related issues tend to be cyclical, receding and recurring across time.

“The conversation evolves,” Rose said, “but it also continues to revolve around a set of issues. You can’t [look at the protests] of summer 2020 and suddenly say, ‘What’s all this racial talk? What’s going on?’ You have to know there’s a long-term conversation about these issues. It’s important to be able to see the conversation unfolding.”

Case in point: The “‘Race &’ in America” series draws on Brown scholars to probe the effects of race and anti-Black racism from a variety of perspectives, such as public health, media depictions and incarceration rates. In her virtual conversation series “Underlying Conditions,” also launched in 2020, Rose engages experts to explore the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color through a variety of lenses, including health disparities and the effects on black businesses.

To maintain connections — and conversations — during the pandemic, the center created the e-newsletter “The Art of the Matter,” and started another that features a video pulled from its archive. And in June 2020, Rose partnered with another public intellectual, Harvard scholar Cornel West, to create “The Tight Rope,” a virtual conversation/podcast on subjects ranging from pop culture to peace and justice.

Rose, who signs emails and letters “joy + justice,” admits to becoming weary at times in the battle for justice and its backlash. These, she says, are “bigger than the human spirit, if you let them be.” But she’s also heartened by the speed with which things that were impossible to change five years ago seem to be changing today.

Of joy and justice, she said, “You can’t have one without the other. We need a joyful approach to create justice. And joy can’t happen in its full sense until we’re really invested in trying to produce a just world. Right?”

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