Racism in American Society: Megan Paulson Presents on Issues of U.S. Law and History

Citing examples of racism in contemporary media and law, Megan Paulson, Instructor in History, walked her audience through the historical discrimination against black citizens of America in her presentation on January 31.

Paulson’s presentation, “An Interest Convergence Dilemma,” took place in Kemper Auditorium and is a continuation of the 2018-2019 Madison Smith Presentation Series, sponsored by the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. The series is named after and dedicated to Madison Smith, Class of 1873, who was born into slavery in North Carolina and moved to the North after his emancipation.

A dominant group of any society develops certain cultural narratives in order to justify their underlying rules and structures, according to Paulson. In her talk, she introduced Critical Race Theory, the idea that government laws impact the way certain races are treated. She believes that federal laws have degraded and continue to degrade black Americans.

Paulson said in her talk, “Critical Race Theory comes out of Critical Legal Theory, which really underscores the way in which the law shapes culture…. The theory states that first, racism is ordinary. The interests of the blacks will not be met unless it converges with the interests of white citizens.”

Omar Khan ’20, an attendee of the event, reflected on the application of Critical Race Theory to the current American educational system after Paulson’s presentation, and hopes to see his classes reference this theory more.

“I think Critical Race Theory should be talked about more in our English or History classrooms, because when looking at the fundamentals of the theory, there are components implying racism that are ingrained in our educational system. We should use more of that to analyze some of our texts and historical documents that we see,” said Khan.

According to Paulson, it is important to recognize that discrimination towards black people is built into the legal system and history of America.

Paulson said, “Racism is a story of labor, politics, and economics that control power and wealth. One thing that is interesting about whiteness is that though the exact definition changes over time, its nature of trying to segregate from others is the same. Historically, if we look at slave laws dating back to the colonial era, the legal system starts to identify who is black and who is not.”

Paulson believes that being able to claim whiteness and prove that one is not black carries with it a certain amount of privilege.

“Essentially you are able to prove your freedom. Law is the system of how our country operates. In it, whiteness is property. It is a very specific thing that is a covered and protected status,” said Paulson.

Tyren Bynum, Instructor in English, found Paulson’s argument about the division of races and racism to be true. According to Bynum, they permit racial hierarchy to maintain its form throughout different parts of society.

“The overall message is how insidious racism is within the fabric of this country. How the laws, the history, the air we breathe on a continuous basis permits the racial hierarchy to continue to exist. Although we do not see those at times, it is always there. None of this is organic or natural, but it has all been constructed,” said Bynum.

Paulson emphasized that it should still be every citizen’s goal to help build a more fair country for all races, mentioning a United States 1982 Federal Code, which states that all citizens in the U.S. have the same right as enjoyed by white citizens.

“This means that white citizenry is the norm. In thinking about how to make things better, I want to start with the statement that I love U.S. history. Regardless of how it has disheartening, brutal, and unfair aspects, I love it because it is a phenomenal story. It is one that we all have to create and write together. It is important that we write it together, so that we have the pieces in it that will help us create a more egalitarian society,” said Paulson.

The Smith Presentation Series plans on featuring many more speakers in the future. David Fox, Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies, noted that many of the topics that Paulson discussed will be continuously mentioned.

Fox said, “The charges of the presentations that are organized by the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies is to embed studies of axes of identity, of systems and structures of hierarchy and power, of differences and commonalities across groups and individuals into the academic program.  What is empathy? Inclusion? Justice?  These are some of the questions that the presentations and the department must continue to tackle.”