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Ivy Leaguers Broaden Minds With New Race Center


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend the last few minutes today talking about some new ideas about race and ethnicity in this country. In a few minutes, we'll hear about a new book that examines how pop culture figures like Jay-Z and Denzel Washington play with and possibly change our ideas about what it means to be a black man in America.

First, though, we want to meet somebody who has plans to do a deep dive into these issues from a new perch at a venerable institution. Professor Tricia Rose first made a name for herself for her groundbreaking scholarly works about hip-hop. Now, she's been named director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. We wanted to know more about her vision for the center, so she's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

TRICIA ROSE: Oh, thank you, Michel. I'm really happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, first of all, tell us about what a center like this is supposed to do.

ROSE: Well, this center is intended to help scholars and students work together to create new ideas and examine existing conditions on issues of race and ethnicity in America, so it's really a research center. You know, most colleges are driven by teaching and then individual scholarship, but this is sort of a space, a kind of hub that we hope will bring scholars together with students and with visitors and with the public to really think together about some critical issues in American society.

MARTIN: Do you hope to influence how we talk about issues where race comes to the floor? I mean, I'm thinking, just in the last year or so, a case like, you know, the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. Are you hoping to influence conversations like that that are in the news, that are on everybody's mind or historical ones or what?

ROSE: Right. Well, I would be thrilled if we could have that level of influence and that is one of my hopeful goals. I mean, look, we have a multiracial democracy with Native Americans, various Asian-Americans, various Latino-Americans, African-Americans and other people of African descent and we make up this huge mosaic along with whites and other ethnic groups and we don't have much of a public, sophisticated conversation about what it means.

Using public issues like Trayvon Martin or even the Charles Ramsey example that just happened where the sort of - why did he go viral? Right? What was going on? Was it just appreciation? Was it a little bit of mockery? What is the nature of how that plays out? A place where you have different types of scholars who are working on all of these issues in an accessible way can be a very powerful source of sort of public knowledge and transformation. So - yes - that would be ideal.

MARTIN: How do these ideas get from the campus into the popular conversation? For example, there's just been a whole generation of scholarship around issues related to Africans in America that most people don't know anything about. I mean, so I'm wondering, you know, how you plan to try to get those conversations from the campus into mainstream conversations.

ROSE: Well, that's my favorite question of all time because it's what I ultimately do this for. I mean, of course, I do scholarship because it's interesting to me, but if it's not either accessible in form or made accessible in form and content, then what is the point? Right? Ideas are meant to be shared. Ideas are meant to help people make sense of the world they're living in.

So, for me, the sort of retreat into sort of private scholarly conversations is something I am deeply personally unhappy about and I think we have a technological moment that we should take deep advantage of. Right? I mean, there's no reason why we can't be - come visit you and your terrific show, which I think is dedicated to complicated social issues in everyday language use the media better, but also use the internet. Right? Lots of technology now makes it much easier for scholars with this kind of commitment to do research together and to participate in the public conversations, so that is a commitment that we have.

And because we don't have disciplines to worry about, we're not just psychologists, we're not just historians, you know, we have to learn to speak to each other in an easier way and share that knowledge with a broader public.

MARTIN: To that end, I'm interested in your work in the last couple of minutes that we have left. You've often been called a hip-hop scholar. That, in part, refers to your well-received books like "The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip-Hop and Why it Matters." There's also "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America."

I'm always interested when people use the term, hip-hop scholar. Do they mean that you bring a scholarly approach to hip-hop or are they referring to something else? Are they referring to a different way of doing scholarship?

ROSE: Well, some people are saying the latter, but that would not be me. I mean I study African-American culture, gender, expressive, you know, culture as in the arts and the social structural issues that people of African descent in the U.S. face. That's what I studied, and hip-hop is a very productive place to think about what's happened over the last 40 years - creatively, technologically, aesthetically, in terms of the arts of it, and also the social issues - incarceration, sexism, communities falling apart for a variety of structural reasons. So for me it's an opportunity to seriously engage with people of African descent. And so the part of my book title, you know, "The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop - and Why It Matters," it's that connection that is extremely important to me. Why does it matter? What's at stake? And I'm hoping the Center can do that for Latinos, for African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Asian-Americans and anybody else who wants to really answer these questions seriously.

MARTIN: Before you let you go, do you have a sense of what your first project will be or how you want to...


MARTIN: What's your first hundred days?

ROSE: Well, you know, my first hundred days is, you know, getting in the saddle. But there are two things that I want to do pretty immediately. One is really compare immigration and incarceration around the question of criminalizing black and brown youths - not just boys, but also girls - and this language of criminalization as a way to think about a whole generation and the profit imperatives behind it. So that's one thing I'm hoping to do. The other thing I want to tackle is hot difficult topics - which I'm calling right now The Third Rail Series. What are the issues that we really need to address - this colorblindness, the idea that discrimination is over, affirmative action, you know, these really tough issues that if we can't figure out how to talk about, well, you know what? We may not be able to get very far. So I wanted to have a serious conversation that is accessible about these critical issues and hopefully impact the conversation at the broader level.

MARTIN: Tricia Rose is a professor at Brown University. Later this summer she's taking up the post as director of the university's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and she was kind enough to join us from the studios on that campus.

Professor Rose, we hope we'll speak again. Thank you for speaking with us.

ROSE: Oh, I would love to. Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.