On the eve of the Black Lives Matter Symposium, keynote speaker Khalil Gibran Muhammad delivered an educational address on the effect of Black activists in dismantling the ingrained bias against Black Americans to a packed audience in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. At the public event on Thursday, Muhammad sought to explain the development of racial disparities.

The Harvard Kennedy School professor of History, Race and Public Policy began his speech by explaining the efforts of Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist and activist, noting that her foundation enabled Americans to “see in a clearer lens the work that was required to transform and make possible the full vision of Black life in America,” though he noted that she still was “met with so much of the same resistance” of today.

Continuing, Muhammad explained that “the limits of Black humanity had nothing to do with respectability” but “had everything to do with standing tall and being human.”

He said this served to elucidate the notion that America has fostered a narrative against Black Americans in order to maintain a viewpoint that has lasted throughout history.

However, he stressed that the movement and efforts of Black Lives Matter, the international activist group organized against systemic racism toward Black people, is not only a matter of physical importance but rather a “battle of ideas,” and he explained that the ways that African-Americans “set into motion much of the reformist ideas” have changed since Wells’ approach.

He explained that other activists, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the pioneering sociologist of African-Americans in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century, “challenged the conventional wisdom that Black people were their own worst enemies,” a stance that served to bring the necessary improvements of both the Black and white communities into the foreground.

Comparing Du Bois’ stance with Wells’, Muhammad says that “[Du Bois] tries in his own way to meet both the objective reality of criminality in the community and at the structural determinants that he noticed in society.”

In explaining Du Bois’ point, he said that Du Bois took a different approach to shed light on racism during the early nineteenth century. The sharp contrast between Wells’ and Du Bois’ outlooks stemmed from Du Bois’ distinct position as a “Rhetorical Strategist” which, as compared to Wells, allowed him to address the potential improvements that needed to be made in both the white and Black communities, Muhammad said.

He noted the difference in strategies, as both introduced different perspectives to address the issue of systemic racism, as well as crime, during the late nineteenth century. The importance of differing strategies served to highlight the multi-faceted approach that is required to consistently identify and annul racism and discrimination in all of their forms, according to Muhammad.

Alternative arrangements served to give activists the ability to recognize everyday discrimination in different forms and be better prepared to address them.

As he continued, Muhammad touched upon recent addresses to the complicity of law enforcement and also said that “the first step to understanding what is really going on in our community and our countries is to gather more and better data related to arrests.”

In his conclusion, he explained that the fundamental challenge that we have to come to terms with is best explained by author James Baldwin, who said that “‘[my countrymen and my country] have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.’”

However, the Baldwin quote continues, “‘it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent; it is the innocence that constitutes the crime.’”

Using Baldwin’s quote, Muhammad explained that it is the responsibility of everyone to resolve the conflicts of systemic racism, as it is perpetuated by innocence itself.

Muhammad closed by responding to local policing, asserting, “We cannot have a conversation about what police officers ought to be doing or a retreat against mandatory minimums without talking about an economy that is failing our society.”