Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
It’s a sentiment about hope, about meeting adversity with compassion. And it’s how Northeastern journalism professor Dan Lothian—former CNN Boston bureau chief and White House correspondent—opened a wide-ranging conversation among an accomplished group of scholars and thinkers during Tuesday’s event, “A Tribute to the Dream: Expressions of race and identity in society.”
The event, attended by a standing-room-only crowd on the 17th floor of East Village, was the cornerstone in Northeastern’s annual celebration of King’s life and legacy.
Noting the university’s stewardship of William E. Carter Playground, the spot from which King began his only major march in Boston, Aoun encouraged the entire Northeastern community to continue King’s fight for equality.
“Just as learning doesn’t end when we step out of the classroom, neither does our responsibility to fulfill Dr. King’s dream,” he said. “This means always asking, ‘How can I make Northeastern—and the world—more welcoming for others?’ By taking ownership of this question, inclusivity becomes experiential. Inclusivity becomes Northeastern. Inclusivity becomes a shining strength in our lives, entwined in all that we do.”
Citing recent comments by President Donald Trump, and invoking a study that noted a shocking disparity of more than $247,000 in the average median net worth between white and black families in Boston, members of the panel said that now is the time to talk more broadly about racism in all its forms.
“For a long time, we’ve had a very narrow definition and conception of what racism is and was,” said panelist Clint Smith, a writer, poet, and scholar of race, mass incarceration, and education. “Too often we think about it as a singularly interpersonal phenomenon, but the last several years have illuminated that racism is structural, institutional, and not just someone lobbing an epithet your way.”
Smith outlined black history in the U.S., starting with the first slaves in 1619, the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the end of the Civil War in 1865, the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and of the Civil Rights Act the next year.
“So, it’s only been 50 years in which black people in this country have even had a semblance of legal and legislative freedom,” he said. “For 350 years prior to that, it was fundamentally legal to disenfranchise, dehumanize, delegitimize the lives of black people. So, if you kick somebody for 350 years, then you stop kicking them for a seventh of the amount of time that you kicked them, it would feel disingenuous to that person to look at them and ask, ‘Why don’t you have the same jobs as me? Why aren’t your educational outcomes as good as mine? Why do health disparities exist as they are?’”
Indeed, America in general “has a fundamental lack of vocabulary for talking about race,” said Akilah Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and part of The Boston Globe Spotlight team. She joined Smith, Lothian, and School of Journalism director Jonathan Kaufman on the panel Tuesday.
Johnson, who covered the presidential election in 2016, said she “wasn’t surprised at all that this president was elected.”
The key, she said, was talking with people outside traditional media circles, and having the language to understand and contextualize race in America.
“Without that, that’s where we find ourselves now, where we have people trying to make sense of a very complicated topic that’s not new—race and racism has been around since the founding of America,” Johnson said.
Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism and a Pulitzer Prize-winner himself, was asked about the impact of journalism that shines a light on racism. He said the goal should not be to shame people into action, but to inspire.
“I think what you try to do is to create an argument of a set of facts out there that are shocking enough that people say, ‘This isn’t the kind of country or the kind of city that we want to live in,’” he said. “Media coverage is the first step; in the end, our job is to put the facts out there, to put the voices out there. But then it’s up to the business community, educational institutions, politicians, to then pick that up and really run with it.”
Several student leaders participated in the event. Lori Nsimpasi, S/SSH’20, president of the Northeastern Black Student Association, emceed the afternoon’s program. Students performed Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” and Grant Green’s “The Selma March” to open and close the event.
Graduate student Christina Lerouge, selected as a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow in 2017, explained in a moving video how she blazed a path to success built upon the foundation of her family’s support and guidance.
Lerouge’s mother, Maryse Georges, joined her on stage Tuesday. Lerouge noted that both her mother and her aunt graduated with their degrees in engineering from Northeastern.
“My mother has always pushed us to be dream-chasers, and to achieve our goals, regardless of the obstacles,” Lerouge said. “Being a young, black, Haitian-American woman has contributed to my blueprint as well. My identity has given me the burning fire and passion to work hard, excel, and serve others in the community.”