Faculty discussed violence and history, and expressed optimism in light of last month’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia at a panel hosted by the Office of University Life on Tuesday night.
The events in Charlottesville—which resulted in the death of one counter-protester and two police officers—has sparked conversation on college campuses nationwide. At Columbia, discussions of race were rekindled this semester following the revelation that several white nationalist speakers will visit campus at a Republican student group’s invitation.
The panel, meant to be “an opening and an invitation to more discussion,” according to Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg, brought together scholars from across the University. Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism Jelani Cobb, Dean of Social Sciences and professor of political science Fred Harris, associate professor of law Jeremy Kessler, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History Stephanie McCurry, and assistant professor of sociology Van Tran, all shared various perspectives from their fields.
McCurry began by focusing on Charlottesville in the context of the history of violence against African-American communities in the United States, pointing out that incidents like Charlottesville are nothing new—historical challenges to white supremacy have always led to backlashes. Charlottesville, she said, is simply a “continuation of history, not a culmination.”
Throughout the panel, the professors were largely in agreement. There were, however, brief disagreements—Harris proposed moving Confederate statues to museums, while Cobb argued that monuments ought to be “toppled” and “publicly dishonored.”
Tran noted that, today, the challenge to white supremacy comes in the form of a gradual shift in American demographics, with the minority population posited to become the majority in the next half-century. This shift, according to Harris, may be a potential catalyst for change in a country trapped in its own political structures—structures rooted in conservative ideology that deny the rights of the “other.”
The impact of Charlottesville on Columbia, and to Columbia’s proper emotional response to a divisive national climate, weighed heavily in the Q&A section at the tail end of the discussion. In light of the large and violent presence of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members at the Charlottesville rally, the role of hope and optimism has become ambiguous on a campus known for its liberal activism.
“Why do you feel that we shouldn’t be hopeful about the future,” a Columbia College student asked, “when, with regards to demographic change, we actually see people in highly diverse areas being more positive and accepting of people of color?”
For Cobb, that optimism is a delusion that hides the country’s and Columbia’s history.
“Optimism is the most potent narcotic in America,” Cobb said, to a murmuring crowd. “And what we talk about as optimism appears more aptly described as denial.”