November 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 7

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My Sorokin Lecture at Passaic County Community College

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Duke University

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” –Karl Marx

I have given hundreds of talks in my career, but few have truly mattered. Most of the time I lecture to largely white middle- and upper-middle-class students, students whose future is all but guaranteed. Therefore, for most of these students, my interventions may be interesting, even provocative, but not significant events that will help them retool their lives. They listen to my indictment of the racial regime of contemporary America and politely agree, disagree, or ignore me altogether. Last year, however, I was invited to deliver a lecture at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and the experience was quite different from what happens in my usual talks.  

I lectured at Passaic College because the organizer, Sonia Brown, took advantage of the ASA Sorokin Lecture Program. This program, originally designed to allow the winner of the Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award to participate at regional conferences, was expanded in 2005 to include as potential speakers “winners of major ASA awards in the past two years” to allow invited speakers “to deliver a lecture at a state, regional, or aligned sociological association meeting, and on an academic campus.” As the 2011 winner of the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award,ASA sponsored my trip to Passaic College.

My audience was primarily minority students of various ages (many of whom were over 30 years old) from poor and working-class backgrounds. My lecture was titled “From Dr. King to President Obama: Racial Vision, Racial Blindness, and Racial Politics in Obamerica.” I spoke about the “new racism,” color-blindness, and about how the politics, policies, and even persona of President Obama did not represent a challenge to the current racial order. The audience agreed with my arguments on the new racism and on color-blindness, but for the most part, vehemently disagreed with my criticisms of Obama. This reaction was not news to me as I have written about the nationalism of the black and minority masses at this historical juncture and how it blinds them from seeing what is in front of their noses. Thus, we dueled passionately for about an hour on mostly the Obama phenomenon.

Following my presentation, I was asked some of the usual questions I get on this matter such as “So, do you support Mitt Romney in the upcoming election?”  (My lecture was just before the 2012 election) and “Don’t you think Obama inherited a mess and needs more time to get us out of it?” I answered these questions with ease as I have answered them many times before, but I did get a few questions that were unique. A member of The Nation of Islam, in response to a comment from an older white male who said that the problem with minorities is that they do not work hard and play the “race card,” suggested that blacks needed to do like Jewish, Chinese, and Indian people and work hard, focus on their communities, and ignore racism as white folks will never give them anything. This generated a truly deep debate. I argued that although I appreciated the need for a version of a nationalist political and economic program for people of color, I was not at all in agreement with leaving whites and white supremacy off the hook. I also challenged this young man on his tacit agreement with the racist premises of the older white male, that is, with the notion that the problem with black is blacks. The debate was spirited and I am not sure if I changed many minds, but interestingly, after the lecture and discussion ended, we all shook hands and talked for another 30 minutes.

I am glad I did this lecture and hope more colleges like Passaic College take advantage of the Sorokin Lecture Program. It is great opportunity for students at institutions with limited financial resources, but it is also good for sociologists who labor at so-called elite institutions. Lecturing at Passaic Community College reminded me why I became a sociologist in the first place: to do work that generated discussion, passion, and, hopefully, inspire some to take action to change the world.

For more information on the Sorokin Lecture, see www.asanet.org/funding/sorokin_grants.cfm. The deadline to apply is February 1, 2014.

 

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