Office of Public Affairs

Annual W. E. B. DuBois lecture addresses racism, segregation outside Southern U.S.

Brian Purnell at W. E. B. DuBois Lecture 2017

The University of Southern Maine hosted its 2nd annual W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture on race and democracy on Monday, Nov. 6., discussing the origins and implications of racial segregation outside of the American South.

The annual lecture is heralded as a platform for innovative, solution-oriented speakers to present major intellectual and new idea-based statements on the intersection of race and participatory democracy.

Brian Purnell, Geoffrey Canada associate professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College, gave the keynote address, “The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Race and Participatory Democracy North of the Mason Dixon Line,” to dozens at USM’s Hannaford Lecture Hall.

This year’s event was held as part of USM’s Gloria S. Duclos Convocation, a year-long series of events on the theme of “Race and Participatory Democracy.”

In his address, Purnell argued racism and racial segregation were not limited to the Southern United States, as many Americans are taught to think. Rather, he said, segregation was embraced nationally and many of its principles originated in the North.

“Americans have been taught to see racial segregation originating in the South,” although, Purnell said, though, “The North’s systems of segregation predated those in the South. Northern states well before the Civil War had legalized segregation and disenfranchisement.”

Soon, Purnell said, “Segregation became a national cancer, not simply a regional sickness,” as racially-segregated schools, housing, transportation and businesses sprung up nationwide.

“The North largely frowned, but turned a blind eye,” said Purnell, who is the author of “Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn.

Purnell said the application of “Jim Crow” principles to Northern ideals worked to frame segregation as a racial system. Northerners often defended their own racially discriminatory systems by asserting their cities were not like those in the South, Purnell said, calling attention to the problems of the South while defending and maintaining their own status quo.

“I do not argue that systems of racial segregation that developed in New York are not mirror images as those that developed in Los Angeles. One thing that journalists, politicians, policy makers and citizens … all shared in common, was an investment in not being the South, in not having a systemic problem," he said.

Leroy Rowe, assistant professor of African American history and politics at USM, said Purnell’s lecture helped to contextualize racism and discrimination as it happens on a national scale.

“The social construction of race and how it impacts individuals and communities across America is something that’s not only relevant today, but it also entails a larger narrative about the larger democratic experience,” said Rowe, who is co-chair of the Convocation Steering Committee. “We still struggle with our understanding of race and discrimination as something that is a national phenomenon.”

The annual W. E. B. DuBois lecture was created in part to help students understand the ways that the politics of race work and how institutional racism impacts individuals and communities.

USM’s Department of History and Political Science has also developed an interdisciplinary minor in Race and Ethnic Studies to allow students to explore these concepts in greater detail. The 18-credit minor provides students with a wide array of courses drawn from various programs across the University.

By Alan Bennett, Office of Public Affairs