Forums on Race in America to host NYT columnist

For The News-Letter

Charles Blow, a New York Times opinions columnist who primarily interprets public opinion on politics and social justice, will speak in Shriver Hall next Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. as part of the Johns Hopkins University Forums on Race in America.

Blow’s talk will be moderated by Lester Spence, an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Hopkins, who specializes in black, racial and urban politics. The discussion will cover a wide range of topics, including journalism, parenting and Blow’s work in addition to the key focus on issues of race and racism, such as the protests in Baltimore that occurred in April.

Blow joined The New York Times in 1994 and initially worked as the paper’s graphics director. He began publishing a column in The Times that featured charts and data as a form of opinion journalism, but his column has gradually developed into a more text-heavy format mainly on political and social issues.

Spence cited Blow’s shift towards his current areas of interest and his expertise on those subjects as particular reasons the JHU Forums on Race in America invited him to speak at Hopkins.

“Mr. Blow did not start out writing columns about race and racism. He started out as kind of a data person. He would analyze data and present the data in unique ways. And then, if we trace it historically… around the time he started to see more focus and attention paid to police killings of black folk, he started to write more and more about it,” Spence said. “Given his insightful take on these issues, we thought that he’d be a good person to bring.”

Spence stressed that the goal of this event, along with his role as the moderator, is to facilitate the overarching objective of the Forums: active participation in discussion about race, racism and their effects on American life and culture.

“People came up with the idea of the Forums, I believe, around the time of, maybe a bit after, the [Baltimore] uprising, as a way to create a space… to think critically about race and racism and how to operate in society, in general, with applications to how it works in institutions like Hopkins and cities like Baltimore,” Spence said. “The host is just a title. But what I see my role [to be] is to create a space for conversation. So it’s not just going to be Mr. Blow lecturing for a half hour or 45-minutes. It’s going to be us talking and the audience kind of listening in. Then that conversation will spur questions and commentary from the audience.”

Spence also pointed out that the Forums’s specific format for guest talks, favoring discussion over speeches, will provide attendees with multiple opinions to consider. He elaborated on the types of conversation that could arise from his talk with Blow.

“The interplay between someone who is a card-carrying academic and someone who kind of studies this stuff from a journalist perspective, someone who actually works in an institution that has a certain type of racial history, that interplay should basically give students another set of perspectives on how to understand how race and racism function in America, something beyond just kind of a sterile academic perspective,” Spence said.

He explained that even people from similar backgrounds could provide differing opinions.

“When you take two black men, around the same age, who have experienced the world kind of in the same way, who are probably on more the same side than not politically, where are the differences?,” he said. “Because we don’t all think the same… even if we have the same opinion. Say, for example, we both believe that police tend to be really heavy-handed towards black people, we can lead into very different directions as far as how you solve that.”

Spence also emphasized that the talk would be appealing to a wide array of individuals with differing interests. He said those who want to discuss the riots that occurred in Baltimore last April, a major reason for the creation of the JHU Forums on Race in America, would find the talk especially compelling.

“People who are interested in taking my classes, people who are interested in pursuing a career in journalism, people who are interested in understanding how race and racism work in institutions and between institutions, I think would get a lot out of this,” Spence said. “I don’t think we have enough spaces to talk about what happened in April 2015. So anyone who’s interested in what happened in Baltimore in April 2015 and anybody who was around when school was cancelled those last two days, anybody who got that message on campus saying ‘You need to go into the dorms and be safe,’ anybody who’s interested in problem-solving, anybody who lives in a city like Baltimore… They should be interested.”

While promotion for the event was primarily geared towards Hopkins students, Spence stressed that it is open to anyone who would like to attend, citing his desire for the Baltimore community at-large to participate in the event.

“What I’m interested in doing is getting students, getting staff and getting folk from Baltimore to come. I would [like] to have an audience that is half-and-half, and, in fact, I would love to see an audience that was overflowing,” Spence said.

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