Dr. Terrence Roberts spoke at the Pacific Union College on Feb. 1 at the college’s Colloquy Speakers Series. The talk entitled “The Fierce Urgency of Now” reflected upon Roberts’ long history of dealing with the impact of racism in America — even today as incidents of white supremacy continue to upset the popular belief/hope for a post-racial America.
Roberts offered several interesting glimpses of pathways through the maze of America’s complicated racial history, stressing self-awareness, self-education and reconciliation. And indeed, Robert’s own journey in the history of racial conflict is a testament to the difficulties faced by all Americans.
At the age of 15, Roberts was growing up in Little Rock, Ark. when he and eight other students attempted to register for classes in the Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 7, 1957. This group of students was later called “The Little Rock Nine.” They were the first group of African Americans to attempt to desegregate the high school.
The group was confronted by mobs of a thousand whites, kicked, spat upon and otherwise threatened. Ultimately, the U.S. Army was called upon to protect them as they attended school throughout the year. Still incidents of violence continued inside the school building and the following school year, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus closed down all public schools in Little Rock to prevent integration.
Roberts told the students at PUC that he and his family then moved to Los Angeles so he might continue his education.
He attended California State University, Los Angeles and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1967. He received his master’s degree in social welfare from the UCLA School of Social Welfare in 1970, and his Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in 1976.
From 1975 to 1977 he was a member of the faculty at Pacific Union College, and from 1977 to 1985 he was Director of Mental Health at St. Helena Hospital and Health Center. From 1985 to 1993 he was an assistant dean in the UCLA School of Social Welfare then joined the Antioch University Los Angeles in 1993 and served as core faculty and co-chair of the Master of Arts in Psychology program until 2008.
Roberts said his perspective — more than 60 years after his experiences in Little Rock — is that Americans are still learning how to navigate our history of racism in the United States despite progress in civil rights, the representational power of former President Barack Obama and the influence of groups like Black Lives Matters.
“How is it possible that we still discern a difference between the old ways and today? Of a time when segregation was socially accepted and today in the midst of a resurgence of white supremacism?” he asked. “How can we still end up – despite the successes of civil rights — with this ‘montage’ in which there no discernable difference between then and now?”
Roberts pointed out that the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown versus Board of Education which proclaimed that separate-but-equal education was unconstitutional may have changed the laws of the land. However, it could not change the social consciousness of accepted white racism that had preceded the ruling. That social consciousness had existed since 1619 when the first Africans were stolen and imported as slaves to the North American continent.
“What happens to a people,” Roberts asked. “Who are taught that they are superior for 335 years? They believe it! It doesn’t mean that it’s true… but the social construct continues to reside in the minds of those who live in that social awareness.”
Then he added, “And that belief could not be overturned in the three years since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and that September of 1957 when the President of the United States sent troops to escort us into Little Rock Central High School.”
According to Roberts, this same social construct of black inferiority and white superiority persists in the cultural underpinnings of much of the U.S. today. And despite the touted successes of civil rights, it’s imperative to continue to push for the changes that will – over the months, years, and decades – balance the scales for equal rights in both law and social awareness.
To facilitate this change, Roberts’ recommended pathways for students to take are self-awareness, self-education, and a belief in a personal relationship with God. “We must see our path through the lens of God,” Roberts said. “That is how we will be able to see the difference between injustice and justice, right and wrong. This is the fierce urgency of now.”