National Expert Shares Strategies for Working Against Racism

Claire Jeantheau ‘21, Guest Writer

The executive director of Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission, recalling both professional and personal experience, warned against belief in a post-racism “mirage” in a recent Clarke Forum lecture on Tuesday, Feb 2. 

Chad Dion Lassiter, a nationally recognized expert on race relations, delivered the talk “Combating American Racism In The Era of Trump: Towards a Pedagogy of Justice”. The event took place in a livestream on Feb. 2nd in the form of a dialogue between Lassiter and Amer Ahmed, the interim director for Dickinson’s Office of Equity & Inclusivity. 

Lassiter stressed that events like the election of Barack Obama as president did not end racism in America, citing summer 2020’s instances of police brutality as a counter-example. He also addressed the presence of white supremacists at the Jan. 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol. Lassiter believed that media outlets misled viewers by not labeling this most recent event a terrorist attack. Hee faced threats and pushback for writing an opinion piece about his view. 

Lassiter said that the pandemic’s disruption of everyday routine made previously-unaware Americans unable to look away from such instances of racial injustice. At the same time, he cautioned against newly popularized language which positioned racism as an isolated cause. 

“America was founded on the bedrock and the hallmark of white supremacy…even though I talk about combatting [racism], I won’t use language like ‘how do we dismantle…’ because it’s as old as empire!” Lassiter said. “You don’t end racism until you end capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, and those things don’t die.”

Although Lassiter warned against quick fixes on the issue, he also sought to provide advice for fighting racism in viewers’ communities. He encouraged attendees to “dismantle their own ‘isms,’” to be introspective, and to begin with problems in their own families and towns. He also advocated for the expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion focused curriculum in institutions of higher education. Lassiter earned his Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania, which he attributed as the first school in the country to make coursework about racism mandatory for social work graduates.

“We first start with an agreement that we need to have these courses. Secondly…we train student teachers of color to teach these courses, and white professors as well,” Lassiter said. However, he asserted that such a teaching placement “can’t be an intellectual exercise for our white colleagues,” void of understanding of the experience of someone in his position. 

Additionally, Lassiter spoke at length about the influence of his background on his current work in race relations. This came in response to Ahmed, who wanted him to share with students how he aligned his career with his values. Lassiter recounted growing up in North Philadelphia in the 1970s with an “eclectic” family that prioritized education; he remembered being introduced to books like The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Lassiter also spent time as a child in South Central Los Angeles, where he learned to avoid local conflict by assisting gang members with their homework. He continued his exploration while working on research on the racial divides in child health and food access at the University of Pennsylvania’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute.

Carmen Maria Canino ‘22 was “impressed” with Lassiter’s experience and presentation.

 “He is very knowledgeable, he is passionate about the work he is doing, he has overcome many challenges, and he continues to seek justice through his personal and professional life. Truly, I admire him a lot,” Canino wrote. 

 Aidan Huntington ’23 felt similarly about the dialogue.

 “I really enjoyed the experience as it gave me insight into the issues that still plague society today. Though we have come far, we should still strive to go farther,” Huntington wrote.