Panelists reflected on racial and class-based inequality in the first event in a three-part series titled “Ignite the Dream: Race and Socioeconomic Class in America” held Thursday evening in the Intercultural Center Auditorium. The event was hosted by the Georgetown Lecture Fund, the McDonough School of Business and the Georgetown Scholarship Program.
Ignite the Dream aims to create a platform for discourse on the intersectionality of race and class in the United States as well as the importance of diversity on campus. Thursday’s event “What is Race, What is Class?” focused on inequality, specifically in regard to the unequal economic system and history of racial injustice in America.
The four panelists featured in last week’s event were reporter Jenée Desmond-Harris, former Goldman Sachs Vice President Julissa Arce, Senior Counsel of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education Saba Bireda and Georgetown student Ryan Wilson (COL ’12, LAW ’15).
Ignite the Dream organizer Corey Stewart (SFS ’15) said in his opening remarks that the panel sought to provide a space to engage in a reflective conversation on these complex issues.
“It’s simple for us to get caught up in the fray of talking heads and political pundits without stopping to contemplate and reflect and really think about these issues,” Stewart said. “This series is intended to serve as a platform for us all to listen, engage, ask questions and ultimately discuss these topics here and after we depart from this building. It starts with us; it starts with the students.”
Marcia Chatelain, a professor in Georgetown’s Department of History, moderated the panel and began by asking the four panelists about the impacts of race and class on their professional and personal experiences.
Desmond-Harris, Vox’s race, law and politics reporter, said that race has been treated as a topic of anxiety both in her personal life and in her work as a writer.
“I grew up in a mostly white community that was very progressive,” Desmond-Harris said. “But there was a lot of anxiety about talking about race. I grew up thinking that mentioning race was a bad thing, that it was taboo. I found that one of my biggest challenges is that I still bump up against it with readers. Every time I write something I find myself anticipating the comments I’ll get, even if the piece isn’t polarizing.”
Bireda focused specifically on the effects of race and socioeconomic status on the educational system.
“In this country, educational inequity happens along race and class lines,” Bireda said. “Education has shifted from thinking about Brown and the Board of Education to a conversation about kids being cut off from education because they are low-income.”
However, Bireda said that optimism could be fostered in the face of these issues, particularly when considering the increasing engagement of the government.
“We are living in an age where our government has entered the conversation around these issues,” Bireda said. “At the Department of Education I can hardly believe that we are openly speaking about the issues we are speaking about, like implicit bias in the classroom. We are really seeing an unprecedented level of government interaction in this conversation.”
Arce was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico before becoming vice president of Goldman Sachs and then director of development at Define American. Arce drew on her experiences as an undocumented individual and the labels she was confronted with after arriving in the United States.
“I didn’t grow up thinking about race because I was Mexican, just like everyone else in my country,” Arce said. “And then I came here. It’s been an interesting journey to come from a place that’s so homogenous to a place that’s very diverse. And I think that’s what’s beautiful about America, but also one of the things that creates conflict.”
Arce spoke about her work at Define American, a media and culture campaign that seeks to shift the conversation around immigration, identity and citizenship in America.
“When you use the word ‘illegal,’ you automatically dehumanize that individual,” Arce said. “A lot of times when people think of undocumented people they are thinking of individuals who clean your houses, or take care of your kids. They’re not thinking about a Pulitzer award-winning journalist; they’re not thinking about the vice president of Goldman Sachs.”
Wilson said that race and class still remain pressing issues for all those engaged in the current discourse.
“For many of us, making a six-figure salary means we made it,” Wilson said. “But it’s still necessary to remind folks that we need to continue to think about and push these issues even when they move into a new environment, to not slip into the thought that you can have a certain level of education or money to exempt yourself from these problems.”
Wilson said he also saw hope in the responses to recent events that revealed the challenges posed by persisting inequalities.
“But seeing young people not willing to accept the status quo — to not only tweet about it, type about it, but to put our bodies on the line — that’s hopeful,” Wilson said.
Jake Robinson (SFS ’16) said that the panel initiated a conversation important to the university community.
“I’m happy that conversations like this are finally happening in these spaces on campus,” Robinson said. “I think that Georgetown should be pushing more aggressively in order to have these conversations.”
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