I could probably listen to Maya Wiley all day.
To me, she was the real discovery of the first Festival of Ideas, presented by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture over the weekend. Wiley is the founder and director of the Center for Social Inclusion, a research and advocacy group for social justice. Passionate, eloquent, funny, at ease with charts, stats and maps, she is not a journalist like many of the other speakers present (David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, various local journos ). As a former civil rights attorney and a social researcher, she has had much more experience in the trenches, as it were, and as a professional advocate, she has her case studies down. It showed.
The Festival of Ideas was focused on “the future,” although this rather broad topic was broken down into four (barely much) smaller areas: American cities, the environment, global issues and finally, race, class and the law. Wiley was the guest speaker for that last panel, which — surprise — drew the smallest crowd. What made her refreshing was that the other two panels I managed to slip into (American cities and global issues) were dealing with grand hopes and fears. Wiley focused much more on the current realities of structural racism in our cities:
Take a map of any major American city, overlay it with a map indicating where minorities and the poor live and where the jobs are, and you find that real jobs are generally out of reach. If they can, people move where their jobs are (leaving the poor, who can’t move, to figure out how to get to work). At the same time, many companies pursue a well-off market base — or the kind of neighborhood the CEO would like. The industries that remain in poor or minority communities tend to be bottom feeders.
What’s more, through federal, state and local laws and policies, we have, for decades, encouraged environmentally wasteful suburban sprawl and encouraged well-off white suburbs at the expense of racially mixed (and economically disadvantaged) cities. Although people have touted the racial integration of older, ‘inner-ring’ suburbs as an antidote to the more traditionally segregated layout of American metroplexes, Wiley pointed out that the population of inner-ring suburbs is not stable. Which means that we aren’t witnessing their integration, we’re really watching minorities and poor moving in — and whites moving out.
Thus — as Wiley pointed out — when the Supreme Court rules that we should remove race from considerations of admission or employment, the Court is saying, in effect, we should ignore all of these ‘facts on the ground’ as if they are not an inescapable part of daily life for millions of Americans.
Of course, by talking about all this …
— Wiley wasn’t really fulfilling the “future” mandate of the festival. But I had reservations about that topic to begin with. Dallas has always been about ‘the future,’ about selling itself to newcomers, holding out the promise of some idealized community and cultural mecca — and getting people to get that new mortgage.
The future, as they say, is such a wonderful thing to sell; it never arrives. So you can sell it all over again. It’s much safer to talk about the future in Dallas; talking about the present will often provoke an argument. Given that history in Dallas, I, for one, found it bracing to hear Wiley on what our cities actually face — and not a generalized, well-intentioned wish for “shared values” or a “new community.”
Dr. Maryemma Graham speaking at A Legend in His Own Wright
Meanwhile, over at Fair Park, the African-American Museum held A Legend in His Own Wright, a symposium on author Richard Wright. Although a number of speakers at the Festival of Ideas brought up Barack Obama’s election, it was a central fact for the different speakers at the African-American Museum addressing the life and career of the author of Native Son. The sense of renewal offered by the election results (and an awareness that the real tests have just begun) imbued the gathering with a spirit not normally found in such a literary-academic proceeding. As one speaker put it, paraphrasing the process of Obama’s campaign: “Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Now, we must make it happen.”
At one point, it was even put forward that Obama’s election was something of a fulfillment of Wright’s desire to be a “citizen of the world,” a phrase also used by President-elect Obama when he addressed a cheering throng in Berlin during his campaign. But Obama’s use of the expression was akin to Friedrich von Schiller’s “all men shall be brothers,” while Wright, ever the isolated, defiant figure, was content, as Dr. Jerry Ward of Dillard University noted, to be rootless and in exile, “to belong nowhere and everywhere.”