Innovation Ecosystem

Exploring the roots of 400 years of inequality

A talk by Dr. Mindy Fullilove at the School of Public Health promises to connect the history of slavery with today’s pinnacle of inequality

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/6/17
The talk by Dr. Mindy Fullilove provides an opportunity to listen to a different perspective of American history, marking the 400th anniversary of when the first black slaves were brought to America at Jamestown in 1619. The lessons in assessing what Fullilove calls 400 years of inequality have a remarkable resonance with today’s concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a few.
How would the dialogue and perspective change if the members of the I-195 redevelopment commission attended Fullilove’s lecture? How will the dialogue between James Kennedy and Joe Paolino change the narrative around public transportation? Will Brown University President Christina Paxson, who delivered a talk about unpacking the racial disparities in health care last year, attend Fullilove’s talk?
Given Fullilove’s expertise in urban policy and health, it seems a big missed opportunity that no one planned a walking tour with Fullilove through Providence, to capture her observations about the city. The lack of convergence speaks to the silos that continue to exist within the educational and innovation ecosystems. Who will seize the initiative and plan such a tour with Fullilove in the near future, perhaps including students from other institutions such as RISD, URI, RIC and Johnson & Wales?

PROVIDENCE – When Dr. Mindy Fullilove speaks on Monday afternoon, March 6, at the School of Public Health at Brown University, her talk will focus on the upcoming 400 year anniversary occurring in 2019, when the first black slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Her talk is part of the celebration of Black History Month at Brown University.

The title of her lecture, which incorporates the numerical symbol, “<3/5’s: Assessing the costs of 400 years of inequality,” refers to the way in which the U.S. Constitution defined the value of African American slaves as three-fifths of a person when counting the number of residents in a state census.

In an interview last week with ConvergenceRI, Fullilove called the three-fifths clause in the Constitution “a trope of inequality,” given the contradictory phrase in the Declaration of Independence, which said that “all men are created equal.”

“Anniversaries are important times,” Fullilove explained. “They are times for reflection and reconsideration, [such as] the reconsideration of slavery.”

It’s useful, she continued, to use this 400th anniversary to better understand how slavery set up a system of inequality for white workers and black workers alike.

“Slavery leads to death and disaster and the impoverishment of most people and the enrichment of a few,” Fullilove said.

Fullilove drew parallels to the current concentration of wealth in today’s world. ‘In the last 35 years, there has been a rapid concentration of wealth and the growth of economic inequality’ both have reach historic proportions.”

Her lecture, focused on the first slaves arriving in Jamestown in 1619, Fullilove said, can serve as a starting point in the conversation about how “these inequalities for all of us undermine and threaten our democracy.”

“I am literally going to talk about the history of inequality in various forms that continue to plague us,” Fullilove said.

A diverse perspective
Fullilove, a board certified psychiatrist, worked for 26 years as a research psychiatrist. She is currently a professor of urban policy and health at The New School. One of her special interests is the relationship between the collapse of communities and the decline in health.

In 2012, she was elected as a public director on the board of the American Institute of Architects.

Based upon her research on epidemics in poor communities, Fullilove published Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods and What We Can Do About It. Her most recent book is Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities.

Clarity in terms
Fullilove said that she rarely used the word, community, because of the way that everyone uses it and uses it differently.

In looking at cities and how they are organized, she attempts to look at subgroups and how they have been “fractured” from each other, driven often by the forces of racism and greed.

Rediscovering each other
In her hometown of Orange, N.J., like many communities, the town had been “grievously injured” by the construction of a highway, Route 280, through it during the 1960s. There is now a project to ameliorate the highway.

Fullilove has been involved in an effort to help people reconnect, to get to know each other’s work, by inviting musicians from all different communities to perform together, with an international perspective, as a way of sharing and hearing all of the different musical perspectives.

“We also have a group called the University of Orange,” she said.

Competing narratives in a time of resistance
Fullilove also talked with ConvergenceRI about the difficulties in being heard by the people who make the decisions.

“It’s very hard to get [a word] in edgewise,” she said. “They roll out their story. This has been going on since the beginning, trying to challenge what they are saying is truth. It’s been that way since 1619.”

Changing the narrative of inequality is very difficult work, Fullilove continued. “It’s obviously a push-pull situation, with periods of winning and periods of losing.”

The ongoing narrative of inequality, Fullilove said, “continues to plague us. We are swiftly reaching a pinnacle of inequality.”


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