Was Eric Holder Jr. listening to Ohio State professor Adrienne Dixson’s speech at Davidson College on Monday?

Holder, the nation’s first African American attorney general, caused a stir among conservatives Wednesday when he urged Justice Department workers to use Black History Month to start a dialogue about race. He called the United States a “nation of cowards” for shying away from honest discussions about race.

That, essentially, was the message Dixson brought to Davidson.

“We may have left the days of formal racism behind by changing our laws and government,” she said, “but racism is still a part of our social system, and we need to talk about its effects explicitly.”

Dixon said the current state of “colorblindness” in America’s public schools ignores the value of diversity and strengthens prejudice. Colorblindess occurs, she said, when a few minority students are expected to represent the views of their race as a whole, when the dialect of Ebonics is discouraged in intellectual settings, or when “color words” are forbidden in an effort to appear politically correct.

To illustrate, she told the comical story of a boy who was sent to an optometrist when he failed to identify the color of his toys. He was simply mimicking his teachers: “Color does not matter.”

Dixson, a graduate professor of multicultural education, was invited to Davidson by the school’s education department and office of minority affairs.

Her topic: Whether the United States has reached a state of post-racial equality in education after the election of President Obama.

Her answer: No.

Despite scattered progress, Dixson said, public education remains largely unequal. Her solution is to break down taboos and get people talking.

“Educational inequality,” she said, “is still an issue with race written all over it.”

She told the Davidson College audience that education has become a property right rather than a human right. When students are schooled according to their neighborhoods, children from poor communities have a lower chance of getting a quality education than wealthier children attending schools paid for by their neighborhood’s taxes. When 24 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, she said, race, wealth and education intertwine to perpetuate a vicious cycle.

As an educator herself, Dixson complains of “racial battle fatigue.” In her classroom, she pushes students outside of their comfort zones to discuss how race is entrenched in America’s institutions of power, education and wealth.

“Whenever I assign reading, show a clip or make a statement to my students I constantly have to check myself to make sure none of my white students will take it offensively,” she said. “In class, it’s hard to tell if their silence is contemplation or discomfort. If we don’t start being comfortable with being uncomfortable, race dialogue will remain taboo, which only gives racism its strength.”

After the lecture, an audience member asked Dixson if she thought Obama’s election would expedite the collapse of racial barriers.

“If my classroom of students pursuing graduate degrees in multicultural studies still can’t cross them, I don’t think we’ve made much progress.” she responded. “I think too many people think we can end the race dialogue after Obama’s election, but that would be a step in the opposite direction.”

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