ANGWIN — As one of nine African-American students who ran a gauntlet of white hostility when they integrated Central high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, Terrence Roberts offered students at Pacific Union College personal insights on race relations in America today.
More than 60 years after Little Rock, Roberts said Americans are still learning how to navigate their history of racism despite progress in civil rights, the election of President Barack Obama and the influence of groups like Black Lives Matters.
Incidents of white supremacy continue to upset the popular belief and hope for a post-racial America, Roberts said at the college’s Feb. 1 Colloquy Speakers Series. The title of his talk: “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”
At the age of 15, Roberts — a member of would later be called “The Little Rock Nine,” was confronted by mobs of 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. The following school year, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus closed down all public schools in Little Rock to prevent integration.
Roberts said that he and his family then moved to Los Angeles to 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.
“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?” Roberts asked students. “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 vs. 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 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.”
“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.”