Campus & Community

Civil Rights Project seeks to invigorate integration debate

4 min read

One hundred years ago, a young African-American scholar and activist named William Edward Burghardt Du Bois published a volume of essays titled “The Souls of Black Folk,” in which he made the assertion, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”

History has proven the validity of his prediction. Du Bois’ “color-line” has shifted and changed as wars, revolutions, migrations, and social movements have swept across many of the world’s societies, but few would deny that color and race remain volatile issues at the dawn of the 21st century.

The centennial of Du Bois’ seminal work provides a significant milestone from which to assess our progress in resolving race-based problems as well as to look ahead at the future of race relations and racial integration. United States judicial history adds its own milestone in the form of the epoch-making Brown v. the Board of Education decision (May 17, 1954), whose 50th anniversary occurs next year.

At this auspicious moment in the history of race relations, Harvard’s Civil Rights Project seeks to invigorate the national debate about the present and future of racial integration in the United States.

The Color Lines Conference, co-sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program, the Harvard Immigration Project, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, will explore the implications of new multiracial realities and challenges.

“I think that this conference will be a remarkable outpouring of new research on the racial and ethnic transformation of American society and its implications for policy and law,” said Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at the Graduate School of Education and founding co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

Scheduled to be held at Harvard from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, the conference will bring together as many as 1,000 researchers, civic and business leaders, journalists, activists, and policymakers to discuss the past, present, and future of racial integration in the United States. Guests will include Julian Bond, Antonia Hernandez, William Julius Wilson, Karen Narasaki, and many other leading figures from a wide range of academic disciplines and professional sectors.

Approximately 120 research papers have been commissioned focusing on such questions as: What are the current economic, social, and legal trends? What future do we want, and how do we shape it? What public policies and private practices are most promising?

More than 40 panels and numerous presentations will explore how major institutions – from corporations to schools to media conglomerates to religious institutions to federal, state, and local governments – are responding to our nation’s racial challenges and changes. The conference will also provide opportunity for informal exchanges.

According to Orfield, the need for fresh data and insights is particularly pressing in light of the growing complexity of our nation’s racial makeup; evidence of persisting, even increasing, racial inequalities; and the simultaneous erosion of civil rights protections and guarantees in courts and legislatures.

Other plans include the publication of multiple volumes of edited papers and commentary; customized publications geared for specific industries, sectors, and institutions; publication, or Web publication, of a monograph for a more general audience, summarizing the conference in a popular, accessible format; broadcast coverage focused on the more policy-oriented panels and plenary sessions; and book and ancillary Web publications for use in college and high school courses of excerpted conference materials and proceedings.

Attendance at the conference is by registration only, but a full range of material will be available on the conference Web site at These will include the Web publication of leading papers, as well as digital video streaming and archiving.