Shaw lectures on contextualizing race in America

Professor Theodore Shaw of the University of Chapel Hill Law School discussed issues of race as part of the Davis Center lectures. Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law
Professor Theodore Shaw of the University of Chapel Hill Law School discussed issues of race as part of the Davis Center lectures. Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law

Last Thursday, Theodore Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school, gave the 2014 Davis Lecture in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. His talk, titled “A New Paradigm: Race and Poverty in the 21st Century,” focused on the importance of contextualizing and historicizing race in America, particularly in relation to black descendants of Africans brought to America as slaves.

Shaw was introduced first by Ferentz Lafargue, director of the Davis Center.

“I wanted to choose someone who has not only excelled in their field and has contributed to our national efforts on race, education and civil rights, but to whatever extent possible, a person with ties to the Williams community,” Lafargue said.

Professor of Africana Studies Grechen Long and her father Jerome Long also spoke. Grechen Long remarked that “Ted [Shaw]’s career, like Alison Davis and John Davis, shows the diversity and longevity of African American activism. The Davis brothers were active decades before Brown v. Board of Education, while Shaw came around decades after. Ted [Shaw]’s remarks will shed light on what needs to be done.”

Jerome Long, professor emeritus at Wesleyan, taught Shaw when he was an undergraduate.

“I first knew Ted Shaw when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan in 1973,” Long said. “Ted’s leadership brought students from sit-ins and taking over buildings to the hard work of collaborating with professors across departments to build” the African American studies program; they served together on a committee to improve course offerings with African American content.

After leaving Wesleyan, Shaw attended Columbia Law and became first a trial lawyer for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and then the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. This spring, he started at  UNC as the director of the Civil Rights Center. He is also the Julius Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC.

In the lecture, Shaw first spoke about the history of African Americans, the bulk of which was spent under legal subjugation. He then shifted to how the consequences of this history continue to be present in the 21st century. He closed with personal observations, drawing on his family history and his own life. He did not read his prepared remarks, instead returning to a topic he’d spoken on at Williams before. “I keep singing one song because I’m not done with it,” he said.

In 2007, remarked Shaw, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. We had “many, many events for a colony that didn’t survive.” But in four years, we will come to the “400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in Jamestown involuntary,” said Shaw, and while he plans to commemorate it at UNC, he does not know how it will be remembered across America, because, he said, “we are an ahistorical society.”

“We decontextualize our jurisprudential, social and political discourses,” and “an ahistorical discourse is a dishonest discourse,” Shaw said.

He called Brown v. Board of Education a division point in American history, given that race has always been America’s biggest challenge. “When we think of the things we’re proud about,” he said, we must think of the “founding fathers’ compromise on slavery,” which “sowed the seeds of what would be a long struggle, culminating in the Civil War.”

“You know how that discourse goes,” he said. “Slavery happened long ago. No one involved on either side is alive. You need to get over it.” Shaw said he understands the sentiment, but slavery was an original sin, and “the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow must be expunged, and not by declaration.”

“Nine out of ten days African Americans in the United States have been subordinated by law, ” Shaw said. However, he argued, the discourse assumes that inequality doesn’t relate in day ten to the first nine days. He pointed to the criminal justice system, law enforcement, the income and wealth gaps and voting rights discrimination as examples of the continuing legacy.

Shaw spent a significant portion of the lecture focusing on voter ID laws. “People say, we all have ID,” said Shaw, “But when you think about the right to vote, even if a person doesn’t have an address, if they’re a citizen, they have the right to vote… There are so many people who don’t have a driver’s license. Getting an ID is difficult.” He spoke of his grandmother, who could not get an ID because her birth certificate had burned in a courthouse fire. In Texas, he said, you can use your gun permit but not your ID from a public university as voter ID. “Everyone knows what’s going on there, if they’re honest.”

“There’s still these disparities, and we claim it’s unconnected to those nine out of ten days,” he said. While he appreciates progress worth celebrating, like having a black president, “All of the structural inequality, the legacy of white supremacy, didn’t go away the day Obama took office. We’ll still struggle with that for some time.” He said it is hard to disentangle racism from typical partisan animosity in the attacks on President Obama, but that one only has to “look at the Internet” to see the connection.

Shaw then shifted to personal observations, based on his family history. He talked about how his grandmother used to tell his family, “You’re not black, you’re colored,” due to internalization of racism. “She was right,” said Shaw, “But we had no known white ancestors since the end of slavery.” From genetic and geneological research, Shaw discovered that his ancestry goes back to a white man who fought in the revolutionary war and lived with but could not marry a woman of color, but also to the Vick family of Virginia, “Several of whom were killed in the Nat Turner rebellion.”

“How do I reconcile this?” he asked. “This is who and what we are. I acknowledge every part of me.” He referred to Todd Aiken’s “legitimate rape” comment, saying, “Millions of African Americans on our faces put the lie to what he said. It was surely the rape of slave women that informed how I look today.”

Shaw then shifted to the idea of “diversity” in college admissions. “Bakke v. University of California replaced remediation with diversity.” Diversity is good, he said, but “that’s an interest of universities, not of black and brown students. We cannot reach consciously for children of Jim Crow and slavery. We have to go through back doors like diversity.”

“No one wants more than me to be able to lay down race,” Shaw said. “But there’s still work to do. The new paradigm is not about gouging our eyes out. It’s about seeing race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, everything, and embracing them, dealing with them.”

Lafargue, who was partially responsible for bringing Shaw to campus, thought the message of the lecture was that there is still work to be done on issues of race and poverty.

“As with so many of the events where we bring in speakers, my take away is that we still have work to do. It is harrowing hearing a person who has worked with Thurgood Marshall and witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act discuss current assaults on these pieces of legislation,” Lafargue said.