Ray Baker, a multimedia journalist based out of Washington, D.C., gave a lecture last Friday evening in Paresky Auditorium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs in 1963. His talk, “March on Washington: A Movement or a Moment?” questioned the progress of race relations in America since the famous 1963 political rally on the National Mall. The Society of Griffins, a minority male affinity group at the College, sponsored Baker’s talk.
Qadir Forbes ’15 introduced the lecture by describing the purpose of the night’s talk. The Society of Griffins, according to Forbes, wanted to use the lecture as a “platform for Williams students to engage in African-American discourse about contemporary issues.” The lecture was also designed to provide an opportunity to “reflect on how legislation has affected the lives of blacks and all Americans.” Forbes then went on to discuss Baker’s experiences as a writer and reporter, with an eye towards the speaker’s contributions covering sociopolitical events like presidential campaigns.
Following Forbes’s introduction, Baker took the stage. He introduced himself as both a gentleman and a scholar before he launched into the contentious topic of his speech. Baker announced to the audience that his speech would hail from a collective learning tradition that pushed against the “Eurocentric style of learning” implicit to the auditorium’s positioning of speaker and audience. He encouraged the audience to respond with affirmations as he embarked alongside them on an exploration of the past and present.
Baker then moved to review the past, recounting the social and political histories surrounding the March on Washington. He named the influential activists involved in the event as both supporters and critics. Baker brought up the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whose goal was “not to integrate but to desegregate,” as an example of legislation that pioneered the institutionalization of equal rights for minorities. However, because these policies articulated sensitivity to “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals,” Baker said, they allowed for broader considerations of American privilege. This, among other things like integration, “[was] not intended by the Civil Rights Act,” Baker said.
Baker transitioned into a rapid-fire delivery of facts contrasting statistics summarizing the black American population of the 1960s and present day. He focused on unemployment, poverty, public health care and incarceration in order to draw comparisons. “Economic indicators seem to suggest things have not progressed in an appreciable way,” Baker said.
At this point, Baker shifted to a conversational Q-and-Q format, bringing in topics explored by Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America as a catalyst for conversation. Baker explained the major premises of the book by exploring the relationship among the four social sectors of black Americans: the transcendent class, the middle class, the new black American class and the forgotten class. Baker refracted his analysis through the lens of Robinson’s social sectors. “Do the transcendents have a responsibility to the forgottens?” Baker asked the audience. By using scholarly and colloquial input contributed by a range of individuals from W.E.B. DuBois to Trick Daddy, Baker engaged the audience in an exploration of race in America.
“Have we improved since 1963?” Baker asked, opening the floor to collective contemplation.
Here the collegial tone of Baker’s speech and emphasis on mutual discourse began to contradict his dissemination of information. “This conversation is not an indictment of the United States,” Baker clarified. “This is a presentation of facts. We can all walk away from this with our own conclusions.” But the dialogue that followed this statement relied heavily on Baker’s own interpretation of audience comments. The Q-and-A section favored Baker, as he both made inquiries and expounded on participant’s responses.
Baker concluded his speech with an examination of the relationship between the progression of black America and the choices people make about identity. Has the prejudice against blacks subsided, Baker mused, “or is it like water: no matter what you put it in, it’s still there?” After affirming that goodness is independent of racial or ethnic identity, Baker encouraged the audience not to “forfeit what comes before the hyphen just for what’s after it” and not to “ask permission to be human.” In concluding, Baker left the audience with a final plea: “I challenge you today very explicitly to choose culture over capital.”