By Paula Harris
SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY Professor Robert Coleman-Senghor, a 56-year-old African American with gray flecks in his dark hair, leans forward and gazes intently at the sun-struck campus garden, silently formulating his thoughts before speaking in his resonant voice. “People don’t want to talk about race–they feel discomfort–but there’s a need to talk, a need to look at the whole spectrum,” says Coleman-Senghor, who teaches English and American Multicultural Studies at the Rohnert Park campus.
Yet the pending California Civil Rights initiative, which seeks to end racial and gender preferences in affirmative action programs; possible changes in immigration law; and other diversity and civil rights issues are creating confusion, particularly in California, Coleman-Senghor says.
“We are rapidly moving in a more multicultural direction than ever before, but we’re not prepared to deal with it,” he adds.
With this in mind, Coleman-Senghor and several other SSU faculty members are organizing a three-day symposium intended to open up a dialogue on diversity.
The conference, entitled “The Dividing Line: The Legacy of the Doctrine of ‘Separate but Equal’ and the Future of Civil Rights in California,” will also acknowledge the 100-year anniversary of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of segregation.
The 1896 ruling affirmed a Louisiana statute requiring railway companies to provide “separate but equal” accommodations and facilities for “the white and colored races.”
“‘Separate but equal’ was determined by whites in power and it meant separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, and separate places in the train,” explains Coleman-Senghor, noting that the ruling led to a century of apartheid-like conditions in the Deep South that ended only with the ’60s civil rights movement.
Although subsequent Supreme Court decisions have overruled Plessy vs. Ferguson, many say the impact of that earlier ruling is still felt today. “Present-day events are powerfully infused with the forces of the past. The Plessy vs. Ferguson decision has defined the way we think and go about our daily lives,” says Coleman-Senghor. “The legacy of cultural segregation is still here–we still have ‘red lining,’ where banks won’t provide loans to people in certain areas [defined by race]; and we still have covenants and private clubs [that exclude certain races, religions, and genders].”
He adds that conversations about ethnic differences and questions arising from diversity have to be addressed with frankness and persistence. “This has to be a long process; it cannot be given over to Sesame Street, ” he says. “The images of racial harmony on Sesame Street didn’t translate into the attitudes on the street.”
According to Coleman-Senghor, the moment children leave the benign world of Sesame Street and begin school, they are bombarded with other kinds of images and associations pertaining to race, so they struggle with their identity and end up being separated into ethnic groups, primarily for a sense of protection. “In America, a group identity, in racial terms, is everything,” he says.
While Coleman-Senghor speaks of the “enrichment” of diversity and of tolerance for other races, he eschews the “politically correct” idea that race should be ignored completely.
“We don’t want people to be colorblind,” he says. “Being colorblind means that you don’t recognize my difference, which is not necessarily my physiology, but my whole outlook. We’re not blind to people’s religions, nor do we want to be ethnically blind; we appreciate the idea of the diversity of the nation.
“We are a society that operates on the basis of racial differences, and we do not necessarily have to abandon the idea of recognizing racial differences in order to achieve national unity.”
The symposium will focus on roundtable discussions and small group conversations on issues such as “Plessy and the Culture of Segregation”; “Beyond Black and White: The California Model”; “Can the Arts Transform the Politics of Ethnic Difference?”; and “Does Race Matter?”
“We’re not going to do a black/white thing,” says Coleman-Senghor, referring to similar conferences at Harvard and Princeton universities. “We’re Californians and we’ve got more diversity and differences within this diversity.”
He describes the panel of speakers, which include Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans from the business, art, and law communities, as “a microcosm of the community we are already a part of and moving toward.”
Among the many symposium participants, six keynote speakers will frame the discussions: Sherley Ann Williams, critic, poet, educator, and author of Dessa Rose: A Riveting Story of the South During Slavery; Gerald Viznor, poet, novelist, and scholar whose works include Manifest Manners: Post-Indian Warriors of Survivance; Brooke Thomas, author and chair of the English Department at UC Irvine; Angelo Ancheta, attorney and director of the Asian Law Caucus; Frances Aparicio, professor of Romance literature and American culture at the University of Michigan; and George Fredrickson, professor of U.S. history at Stanford University and author of The Arrogance of Race.
“At the heart of Plessy vs. Ferguson is the question of the viability of a national ethos of political and social equality,” says Coleman-Senghor. “We want to ask if it’s possible to achieve a national consensus around the meaning of equal protection and whether or not, as a people, we have the will and means to achieve it.”
“The Dividing Line: The Legacy of ‘Separate but Equal’ and the Future of Civil Rights in California” will be held Friday-Sunday, Oct. 18-20, at SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. For more information, call 664-4056 or see the World Wide Web site.
From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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