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Mudd Center for Ethics Focuses on Race and Justice in America

To ignite serious inquiry and thoughtful conversation about the complex issue of racial justice in America, the new Mudd Center for Ethics at Washington and Lee University will host a year-long lecture series, “Race and Justice in America,” bringing prominent speakers and discussions to campus. The series begins Sept. 22 and is free and open to the public.

The idea for the programming, the first such annual theme sponsored by the Mudd Center, was sparked by the 50th anniversaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. An interdisciplinary planning committee was formed in the fall of 2013 to work on putting together a slate of speakers and events to explore current issues of race and justice in the United States. All the speakers will be at W&L for two days and will be guest lecturers in W&L classes on the second day.

“It seems like the visibility of incidences of conflicts over race, for example in Ferguson, Mo., this summer, is increasing,” said Angela Smith, The Roger Mudd Professor of Ethics, professor of philosophy and director of the Mudd Center. “It seems like an appropriate time to sit down and address some of these longstanding issues about race.

“If you look at the statistics of racial inequalities across education, healthcare, incarceration rates and household wealth, among many other areas, they are massive. It’s a continuing legacy from slavery and the Jim Crow era that we still have not dealt with in this country. The point of this year’s programming is to look carefully at that longstanding legacy. What are some of the causes of the continuing inequality? What are some of the mechanisms that continue to enforce these inequalities? What can and should a just society do about them, if anything?” Smith continued.

Ann Morning, associate professor of sociology at New York University, will give the first talk Sept. 22 on “The Nature of Race: Investigating Concepts of Human Difference.” Smith explained that the planning committee that organized the series wanted to begin with someone who could clarify what we mean when we talk about race. “I think many of us are confused about this,” she said, “which can hamper fruitful discussion. Some people take race to refer to a biological or genetic essence, while others insist that is a socio-political construct that can have certain biological effects—for example, on health outcomes—but that has no meaningful genetic basis. Professor Morning will be giving a talk that addresses some of these competing conceptions.”

Charles Ogletree will give the Mudd Distinguished Lecture in Ethics, “My Brother’s Keeper: Incarceration and African American Men,” on Oct. 1. He will discuss the high percentage of black men who are now either jailed or under some other state-sponsored supervision. Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and Director of the Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University.

“This issue is coming to the attention of public policy makers more and more,” noted Smith. “In fact, you see President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder starting to act on this. One of the big drivers of mass incarceration has been the so-called “war on drugs,” which was initiated in the 1980s and has had a disproportionate effect on blacks. This is due largely to the greater enforcement of drug laws in black communities and to higher mandatory sentences for certain types of drugs, such as crack cocaine over powder cocaine.”

Martha Nussbaum will speak about “Anger and Revolutionary Justice” on Oct. 22. She is the Ernst Freud Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and is a well-known intellectual who has written on issues of justice across the board — racial and gender injustice, and the law and disability.

Nussbaum will look at the role of anger and how, in some of the great social movements of the 20th century, leaders such as Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela advocated for non-violence and, as far as possible, lack of bitterness and anger in responding to great social injustices.

Phillip Atiba Goff, a psychologist from UCLA, will speak Nov. 6 on policing and implicit bias. His talk will be followed by a mini-conference Nov.7 featuring a law professor to talk about how implicit bias operates in the law, a sociologist who will explore implicit bias in healthcare and a philosopher asking questions about who is to blame for these implicit biases?

“With the election of President Obama, some people think we’re now in a post-racial society and that racism is no longer a problem,” said Smith. “I think there’s a lot less overt racism than we had in the past but, as many people realize, racism has taken on more subtle forms such as implicit bias. Oftentimes people don’t even realize that they’re doing it, but they have underlying assumptions or stereotypes that lead them to treat people in discriminatory or unjust ways.”

Smith cited the example of shooter-bias studies, where researchers flash videos of people who are either holding a gun or some harmless object such as a cellphone. The studies show that subjects are much more likely to mistakenly think that the object being held is a gun when the person is black than when he is white.

On Nov. 12, the series will explore the personal experience of novelist Jesmyn Ward, a black woman who grew up in a small Mississippi town. The Paul and Debra Gibbons Professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University, Ward won the National Book Award for her novel, “Salvage the Bones,” about the lives of a black family in Mississippi dealing with Hurricane Katrina.

Ward’s recent memoir, “Men We Reaped,” also the title of her talk, discusses the lives of five black men (one of them her brother) who in the space of five years either died or were killed for various reasons in a small Mississippi town. “Her thought in the book is that, in one way or another, all of these deaths were attributable, though not always directly, to the continuing racial inequalities in America,” said Smith.

In the winter, the Mudd Center will host several additional talks, and will co-sponsor a major interdisciplinary conference with the Law School on the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. The center is also supporting the Staniar Gallery in its exhibition entitled “The Strangest Fruit,” by artist Vincent Valdez.

This first year of programs will continue through April 2015, and Smith hopes it will involve as many disciplines as possible. “Everyone has something to contribute,” she said.

The Mudd Center was established in 2010 through a gift to the University from award-winning journalist Roger Mudd, a 1950 graduate of W&L. When he made his gift, Mudd said that “given the state of ethics in our current culture, this seems a fitting time to endow a center for the study of ethics, and my university is the fitting home.”

For full details of this series, visit: http://www.wlu.edu/mudd-center/programs-and-events/2014-2015-race-and-justice-in-america/public-events.