Author Jeff Chang: Is resegregation the unexamined issue of our time?

Jeff Chang will be speaking Nov. 29 at Berkeley Arts & Letters. Photo: Jeremy Keith Villaluz
Jeff Chang will be speaking Nov. 29 at the Hillside Club for Berkeley Arts & Letters. Photo: Jeremy Keith Villaluz

Hours after Donald Trump was elected president, UC Berkeley students and others took to the streets to protest a man they felt was unsuited to lead the United States. The next day, 1,500 Berkeley High students walked out of school. Across the country, thousands of people rallied against Trump and what they saw as his racist, sexist, divisive message that blamed immigrants and people of color for this country’s woes.

In his new collection of essays, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, Bay Area author, hip-hop historian, and director of the Stanford University Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Jeff Chang reports on and examines the unrest that has exploded onto the streets in the past couple of years. (Chang was also appeared at the Berkeleyside-produced Uncharted Berkeley Festival of Ideas in 2014, in conversation with Berkeley author Adam Mansbach).

Chang’s new book, according to the publisher’s description, “links #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite, Ferguson to Washington D.C., the Great Migration to resurgent nativism. Chang explores the rise and fall of the idea of “diversity”, the roots of student protest, changing ideas about Asian Americanness, and the impact of a century of racial separation in housing. He argues that resegregation is the unexamined condition of our time, the undoing of which is key to moving the nation forward to racial justice and cultural equity.”

Chang will be appearing at the Hillside Club Nov. 29 as part of the Berkeley Arts & Letters series. In advance of his talk, Evan Karp, the organizer of the series, asked Chang about his concept of ‘resegregation’ and other matters.


Evan Karp, Berkeley Arts & Letters: I was preparing for our event and then the election went down, and, like many people, I’m left with a lot of complex questions and anxieties. But if I had to boil it down to one question it would be: what now? To be more specific: how do the election results change the conversation on race (generally) and resegregation (as you describe it)?

Jeff Chang: They don’t, I’m afraid. They reinforce the conversation we need to have. When I was writing earlier this year, I wanted to call attention to the deep, often unspoken, tensions that lie beneath these social divisions. Our country is very divided, and the largely unspoken thing is race. For all the words we expend on race, we never move to the heart of the question, which is: a half century after our last national consensus on racial justice, why are we willing to tolerate so much inequality and separation?

I spent the weekend with college students in Portland (right after the election) and was very moved by their commitment, engagement, ability to laugh at themselves (people say activist types are so serious, and they are so wrong!), at their failures, as well as their successes. They gave me a lot of life and hope. Then I went back to my hotel downtown, and not having slept well all week, collapsed into bed as thousands of people marched down the street below me. Each night I fell asleep to the sounds of tear gas canisters and flash-bang grenades being fired at these crowds just blocks away. Each morning I thought, eight years ago when Obama was elected we danced in the streets — everyone, it was all-inclusive. These days we march, full of fear and anger. I hope that we replace the fear with love, but we should all be angry for a very long time, perhaps especially at ourselves.

Evan Karp: I’m looking forward to talking with you more about that word resegregation. As a nation, have we ever not been segregated, and has there ever been a post-racial America? I grew up in the Southeast (in Savannah, GA), where it is to this day apparent that the federal interstate system was planned largely to serve as a tool of segregation between white and black communities. I use this as an example to ask: What are some ways that we — and sadly here I feel the need to stipulate I mean both our government and we the people — can implement the reverse of that kind of planning, can engineer desegregation both in our streets and neighborhoods and in our hearts and minds?

Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang: It’s true, Evan, some places never desegregated at all. Others might say, well it’s the same old segregation, just in different forms. I don’t argue with them because they are right. But we did have a consensus a half century ago, and the infrastructure that we began to build to dismantle racial injustice and cultural inequity has fallen into grave disrepair. We can begin repairing right there. When fair housing laws, fair lending laws, and voting rights — to name just three parts of that infrastructure — were set into place and enforced, they benefited all Americans. We’ve let those things go, through neglect, disinterest and active destruction. I use the word resegregation because while it implies we have been complicit in the racial division we see now, it also implies that we can do something about it.


Evan Karp: You use the word equity a lot, and I’m grateful for how you’ve distinguished it from the word diversity. Generally speaking, to me, real equity means we each and all start from the same place. How might that be possible, without forsaking (or even respectfully setting aside) our respective backgrounds and identities?

Jeff Chang: I think equity simply means that we all have a fair shot at a good life. I also think the word ‘equity’ points to a different way of understanding society — beyond the systems that rely upon ranking and subordination, division, and displacement, containment and punishment and towards the possibility of real opportunity, exchange, and peace with justice. This is the world we should want, not the kind of a world that Trump offers: one that leads to distrust, disregard, and isolation. When my son and others walked out [right after the election], that’s what they told us they wanted as well. Latino students held signs that said, “Here To Stay.” One young woman held a sign saying, “No one is safe.” Let’s read the future. If we can’t all be seen in all of our humanity, we are all not safe. Those are the stakes of the fight for equity — finding a way to live together with all of our difference, indeed, that our difference is what makes us who we are together.

Jeff Chang will talk at the Hillside Club at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Tickets are available.

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