‘We live within its structures’: Iver Bernstein on modern segregation

American Culture Studies’ timely lecture/workshop series begins Sept. 26

Iver Bernstein, director of American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences, discusses the Modern Segregation lecture/workshop series, which begins Sept. 26. (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos)

The shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., have brought international attention to the racial, social and cultural lines that divide American cities in general and St. Louis in particular.


This fall, the American Culture Studies program in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis will launch a series of lecture/workshops on Modern Segregation. Events begin at noon Friday, Sept. 26, with sociologist Michael Omi, PhD, a founder of racial formation theory from the University of California, Berkeley, who will discuss “Racial Classification and the Instability of Race.” (See details below.)

Iver Bernstein, PhD, professor of history and director of American Culture Studies, co-organized the series. Below, he talks about Ferguson, segregation in the 21st century and the role of the university.

The topic of modern segregation seems particularly urgent following events in Ferguson. Are these workshops a direct response?

These questions were urgent before the Ferguson crisis. Why do we live where we live? What do communities gain from and lose to this almost tribal separation? Now, they’ve taken on an almost agonizing sense of import and emergency.

So the timing is fortuitous. These speakers are world-renowned in their fields. But the series, which is part of the Modern Segregation Program Initiative, has been in the works for more than a year. Ferguson has added intensity.

How broadly do you define segregation?

That’s one of the key questions we’ve set out to address. How do you define the elephant?

Today, in our supposedly post-racial era, we all understand that segregation is a dead end, that it’s a toxic way to organize society — but nonetheless, it persists. We live within its structures. And we insist on bequeathing it to our children.

So one goal is to examine how these structures are maintained in housing, education and employment — but also in language, in culture and in social practices; in our system of mass incarceration; and in a host of other legal, economic and political institutions.

Another question is, now that explicitly racist language and discourse have been de-legitimized, how does anyone justify this thing we call segregation? And what, precisely, is wrong with modern segregation from an ethical standpoint? And how do racial and ethnic segregation interact with — and reinforce — socioeconomic segregation?

Sometimes the public conversation around such issues is more shouting match than dialogue. How do you slice that knot?

This is exactly what universities were designed to do. We are the place to have rigorous, serious and intellectually rich conversations about big problems in all their complexity and magnitude.

Too often we think of the university as just an assemblage of buildings, each with its own sealed-off, hermetic purpose. But we’re living in a moment in which scholars no longer have permission to simply retreat into our usual ways of being and doing. In order to have any kind of comprehensive, satisfying understanding of modern segregation, one needs an interdisciplinary perspective. These questions defy the limits of specialization.

There is an urgent need for the university to be a university — to facilitate a conversation that draws on the best and the broadest talents available.

You co-organized the series with two Arts & Sciences colleagues, Clarissa R. Hayward, PhD, associate professor of political science, and Rebecca Wanzo, PhD, associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies and associate director of the Center for the Humanities. Tell us about the speakers.

Hayward (left) and Wanzo

These are all legends — the gold standard — within the broad area of race, gender and identity studies. Omi challenges binary, either/or, black-and-white ideas of racial classification.

Heather Ann Thompson and Koritha Mitchell examine the dynamics of violence within racial politics, which seems particularly pertinent in the context of Ferguson. Linda Alcoff looks at the comforts of homogeneity.

Danielle Allen, who ends the series, is a kind of Renaissance intellectual who thinks about justice and citizenship in the contexts of both ancient Athens and modern America. Like all our speakers, she’s equally at home in the academy and in the world of public discourse.

Our hope is to bridge that divide — to make real contributions to the body of knowledge while helping our community find language and ways of thinking that will allow us to move forward. This is the university at its best, at its most productive and its most connected to society.

About the Modern Segregation series

The Modern Segregation lecture/workshop series is funded by a Collaborative Research Seed Grant in Arts & Sciences and co-sponsored by the Workshop on Politics, Ethics, and Society (WPES) in the Department of Political Science.

The events:

  • Friday, Sept. 26, Omi will discuss “Racial Classification and the Instability of Race”;
  • Friday, Oct. 24, Thompson, PhD, of Temple University, and Mitchell, PhD, of Ohio State University, will discuss “Identity, Place & Violence”
  • Friday, Dec. 5, Alcoff, PhD, of the City University of New York, will discuss “Segregated Pleasures and the Comforts of Homogeneity;” and
  • Friday, Dec. 12, Allen, PhD, of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, will discuss “Modern Segregation and the City.”

All events begin at noon and will include lunch, except for the Oct. 24 event, which begins at 3 p.m. All take place in Brown Hall Lounge on the Danforth Campus. Registration is free, but seating is limited. To RSVP, email tbehr@wustl.edu. The deadline to register for Omi’s presentation is Sept. 22.

For more information, visit here.