Robeson Conference Draws Civil Rights Leaders

Summer 2009

The election of the nation’s first African-American president does not mean racial inequality is a thing of the past, argued civil rights scholars who gathered in April for the Paul Robeson Social Justice Conference.

The daylong conference, held at Jerome Greene Hall, was sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and focused on the theme “Thinking Outside of Race: Are We Ready?”

“Obama’s genius was to suture ethnicity and race,” said Professor Kendall Thomas, Columbia Law School’s Nash Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture. “But just because President Obama won the election, it doesn’t make the issue of race moot in this country.”

The event’s keynote speaker, current NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President and Director-Counsel John Payton, agreed. “We’re not a post-racial society,” he said.

Payton went on to discuss two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with issues of racial equality. In the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, the Supreme Court will reconsider the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states that have long histories of racial discrimination from redrawing voting districts without Justice Department approval. In the second case, Ricci v. DeStefano, a group of white New Haven firefighters alleged that they were subject to discrimination. They qualified for promotions according to scores on an exam, but the results were thrown out because no minorities qualified.

Panelists at the Robeson conference also discussed ballot initiatives that seek to end affirmative action. Such initiatives have ended racial preferences at public universities and colleges in California, Washington, Michigan, and Nebraska.

“The initiatives take the language of the civil rights movement and hijack that language,” said Professor Theodore M. Shaw, who served as director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 2004 to 2008.

In his keynote address, Payton summed up the day’s discussion. “While there’s significance in Obama’s election, it’s not the whole story,” he said. “There’s a lot more that this country needs to do.”