Two Writers Discuss the Legacy of Racial Segregation
Tim Shea, a Yale SOM staff member and author, and Professor Elijah Anderson provided two vantage points on the history and ongoing impact of segregation in the United States.
Faculty, staff, and students convened at the Yale School of Management on March 7 for a conversation that examined segregation in the United States through the lens of one man who rose from a sharecropping plantation to become one of the first Black movie stuntmen in Hollywood. Willie Harris’ story is captured in a book by SOM staff member Tim Shea: Big Man: An Incredible Journey from Mississippi to Hollywood. Shea discussed the process of researching and writing the book in conversation with Zoe Chance, senior lecturer in management.
Shea said he developed a close relationship with Harris over several years and enjoyed a level of trust that provided him unfettered access to many of Harris’ colleagues, friends, and family members. Because of the close collaboration that made Big Man possible, Shea said, it was important for him to give Harris co-author status: “White people have been claiming Black people’s cultural contributions for hundreds of years, and I didn’t want to be part of that tradition,” said Shea.
Harris died before he had a chance to see Big Man in print. But Shea said he hopes that sharing stories like Harris’ will encourage others to capture the experiences of Black Americans who survived segregation before that generation disappears.
Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies, joined the second half of the conversation to provide historical context and share his qualitative field work and personal experience of growing up in the segregated U.S. The author of several award-winning urban ethnographies, Anderson’s newest book is Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life.
Professor Anderson said that many of the same challenges facing Black Americans during segregation persist to this day. The racism is not always explicit; it is often tacit and implicit. “In navigating White spaces, Black people are typically burdened by a negative presumption they must disprove or neutralize to establish mutually trusting relations with others, discrimination that contributes to racial disparities in residence, employment, health, police contact, incarceration, and random insults in public. Racially prejudiced White people are often prepared to draw the color line. Thus, the challenge for unfamiliar Black people is to disabuse such White people and others of the notion that their racial stereotypes about the urban ghetto apply to them personally. This conundrum encourages Black people to perform respectability, or what many Blacks refer to derisively as a ‘dance.’ In White spaces, Black people often feel they are left with a provisional status, or always with something more to prove.” These are among the findings from Professor Anderson’s many years of ethnographic research on race relations in the urban areas of the United States.