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Clint Smith: Linking America’s past to the racial disparaties we now see

This award-winning teacher, writer and spoken-word poet will speak in Charlotte about how race-based policies of the past are still playing out in society today.

Glenn H. Burkins
Clint Smith

For those discouraged by what they see happening with America’s social and economic policy, Clint Smith, an award-winning teacher, writer and spoken-word poet, offers a message of hope: Never grow weary or give up the fight.

“Ultimately, we don’t do what we do for ourselves,” he told Qcitymetro is a recent interview. “We do it so that someone else can see the results — whether it’s my kids or grandkids or their kids.”

Smith, who grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Davidson College, will bring that message to Charlotte today (March 14) when Habitat Charlotte hosts its second annual Building Futures Symposium on Affordable Housing.

He is scheduled to speak at 5 p.m. at Central Piedmont Community College’s Dale F. Halton Theater. Admission is free.

Smith’s message won’t be all uplift. He said he will speak bluntly about what he call’s America’s “collective amnesia” – the ability of some to forget our nation’s past and the public policies that were put in place to systematically disadvantage the descendants of slaves, policies that are still being felt today, decades after they were enacted.

“Oftentimes we tend to look at public policy with an ahistorical lens and an ahistorical context,” he said. “I don’t think we can fully understand the cultural and political moment we find ourselves in today — specifically as it relates to the stratification of resources along the lines of race — without understanding the specific public policy decisions that have been made in order to make it so that this sort of inequality would come into existence.”

Systematic exclusion

Smith said those policies are being felt today in every sector of black society, from failing schools to the high incarceration rate of African American males.

As one example, Smith points to the social and economic policies implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt under the New Deal in the 1930s – policies that are widely praised as some the most progressive in American history.

“What we don’t talk about is the fact that when those documents were signed, black people, by design, did not have access to the benefits afforded by the New Deal,” he said. “So they didn’t have access to Social Security, housing mortgages, minimum wage protection, health care. Many of the things that created the bedrock of intergenerational wealth were not given to black people in a very intentional way.”

In addition to spending a year in South Africa working on public health issues, Smith also taught English for three years in Prince Georges County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. He’s currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard, where he’s studying the sociology of education.

Understanding history

Smith said that during his Charlotte visit he will seek to draw a direct line from the city’s discriminatory housing patterns of the past to its current challenges trying to educate black children who live in concentrations of poverty.

“If we understand history, nothing about the way the world looks is surprising, he said. “And part of what I think we fail to do is account for this history.”

Smith said his speaking engagement will be a mix of poems and traditional keynotes.

“I’ll be moving back and forth, using poems as the linchpin upon which to have a broader conversation,” he said.

The title of his speech will be “The Perilous Convergence of Poverty, Injustice and the Affordable Housing Crisis in Charlotte.”

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