We are pleased to host author Bruce Jacobs at the Douglass Auditorium for an Author Talk & Mingle
Bruce Jacobs has appeared on NPR, C-SPAN, Sirius, Pacifica, and other networks. He is a featured participant in “Race and Reconciliation in America,” a continuing series of national dialogues convened by former U.S. Senator William Cohen and racial justice advocate Janet Langhart Cohen. He speaks at colleges, organizations, places of worship, and events across the country.
We are so excited to have you coming to Rochester. Where did you grow up? and where do you live now?
b.jacobs: I grew up in Rochester: first on the west side on Columbia Avenue and later on the east side on Harvard Street. I now in live in Washington, DC.
Did you go to college? If so where and what did you study?
b.jacobs: I graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Afro-American Studies. I thought I might go to law school, but in the end I’ve always been a writer.
How do you define race?
b.jacobs: Race is a social construct that society uses to treat people differently according to broad tendencies in physical appearance. Race is purely a social idea, not a scientific reality, but the ways that society uses it are very real, often brutally.
How do you define racism?
b.jacobs: Racism is making judgments of a person or group of persons based on mere beliefs about their race rather than on reality. I think an even more accurate way of putting it is that “racism” is a structural or procedural way of discriminating against people by race (laws, policies), while “racial prejudice” is how racism often plays out personally (for example, though false ideas or hostility toward people of other races in everyday life).
How has your background and upbringing affected how you view race relations in the United States? b.jacobs: When I was growing up, my family’s experience, like that of many black families, was one of American society trying to tell us who we could and could not be. Our parents, especially our mother, taught us and modeled for us that no one could define us or limit us except ourselves, and that if anyone tried to we could fight back and win, even if it was hard. So by the time I was a teenager I’d learned that racism was a sickness, and that those who carried this sickness – and who aimed their warped perceptions at us – were the ones who were deficient.
Where did you get the inspiration to write Race Manners?
b.jacobs: I got the idea by traveling abroad and realizing that since there was a book to help me buy a meal in Portugal, there ought to be a book to help me and others navigate something as profound as racism in everyday American life.
You wrote your book after September 11th, 2001, as a culture and nation is race relations better or worse since that time?
b.jacobs: Actually, I wrote the first edition of Race Manners before 9-11, and I then updated it later to reflect post-9-11 society. I think race relations in the US are generally worse now than pre-9-11. This is partly because of the right-wing politicians and hate organizations who used the aftermath of 9-11 to play up fears and resentments of people of color and Muslims, and partly because of the spectacular fashion in which Donald Trump and the Republican Party have magnified all of this for the sake of his popularity and for the fiscal gain of wealthy political donors who quietly benefit from Trump’s fiscal policies while media focus on the firestorm of Trump’s recklessly hateful stances.
What do you say to people who feel that white privilege is a myth or not a real concept or problem in America?
b.jacobs: When those who are not people of color tell me that white privilege is a myth or an exaggeration, I tell them that their ignorance of what happens to people of color in America is the greatest proof of their own white privilege.
What has the overall consensus been about your book? Do you get people who publicly disagree with your views on how we can discuss race and racism with one another in America?
b.jacobs: The overall response to Race Manners has been very positive. People do often disagree on matters of race, whether related to my book or more broadly, and I think that informed and well-intentioned disagreement is fine. Too often, though, resistance to the grievances of people of color is rooted in prejudice or ignorance. I think a book like Race Manners self-selects for readers who are well-intentioned. People who are emotionally invested in their own racism need much more help than one book can provide.
Have you traveled to a city that is not segregated the way in which Rochester is?
b.jacobs: Not in the United States. One of the continuing reasons for the racial justice movement is the demonization of poor people of color, including immigrants, which reinforces the racial and economic segregation that continues plague so many American communities. Much of this resentment is now created and fed on social media platforms like Facebook and message boards like 4chan, where some users can choose to live within a fact-free bubble of hate speech where they only hear what they want to hear. This is an incubator for fascism and racial hate, both in the US and in other self-styled democracies.
As a black man living in America How do you stay healthy both mentally and physically?
b.jacobs: I express my emotions, I take time to be quiet, I try to eat well and exercise, and I spend time in nature.
What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of your career as a writer and speaker?
b.jacobs: The hardest part for me is the raw fatigue from the continuing social evils we are battling. This has gotten much worse with the Trump administration and its reliance on racism and raw meanness to appeal to its base. I take breaks, and I also do other things in my life besides dealing with racism.
What has been the best experience of your career thus far?
b.jacobs: Having a woman come up to me in a church after I gave a talk and remind me that this work of overcoming racism is a blessed endeavor. No matter how I may succeed or fail, the work of racial justice is the right work, and that work will prevail because authority based on lies always, ultimately, collapses.
Would you ever move back to Rochester?
b.jacobs: I never say never. Rochester is my home town, and I have loved ones and lifelong friends here, and it’s a lively and pretty city, and the fishing is great. But the winters are COLD!
Why should the Rochester community come out to our panel discussion with you?
b.jacobs: I hope that I can give some support and some encouragement to people who are struggling with dealing with racism in Rochester and in the world. We all need one another right now.
What is it that inspires you to keep going as an author and public speaker?
b.jacobs: What keeps me going is that so many other people do so much more in pushing for justice than I do. I know I can do something. And I know we can build a just society because I’ve seen how so many movements that were once pronounced as unwinnable – the fight against slavery, the fight for women’s right to vote, and now the fight for LGBTQ rights, have been and are being won.
What are you working on now?
b.jacobs: I’m working on a memoir and a couple of books of poems.
Is there anything else you’d like the readers to know?
b.jacobs: Yes. Go out and read the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett. It’s a ruthless, hilarious, uprising of a book. And Everett’s many books provide a classic example of how brilliance can transcend a racist society’s rules for a “black writer.”
Please list any contact info you’d like to include (blog, twitter, email, FB, etc):
My blog, aliasbruce.typepad.com, has contact information and links to my articles, recent interviews, and social media activity.