More than a half-century ago, James M. Jones arrived at Yale University as its first African American graduate student in psychology.
On Monday, April 16, he gave a retirement lecture at the University of Delaware, sharing highlights of a remarkable personal and intellectual journey that began that day in 1966 and has led to international recognition for his work as a social psychologist in the field of prejudice, racism and diversity.
Jones, Trustees' Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Africana Studies and director of UD’s Center for the Study of Diversity, spoke in Gore Recital Hall of the Roselle Center for the Arts.
Before a large assembly of colleagues and students—past and present—family, friends and professional admirers, he delivered what he told the audience would be “more like a meditation” than a formal lecture.
In the talk, titled “Why and How Diversity Matters: A Personal and Intellectual Journey,” Jones shared some thoughts on the personal and family foundations that helped shape his life, the intellectual ideas that inspired his academic interests, the activities during his career in which he worked to be a catalyst for change, and the importance of understanding issues of race, diversity, equity and inclusion.
“My life and my personal beliefs have informed all my scholarship,” he said.
Showing the audience an image of historian John Hope Franklin’s book From Slavery to Freedom, Jones said the title described his own family’s story. His grandfather was enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, then went on to become a minister and to see his six children, including Jones’ mother all graduate from college.
And, with an ancestry that included African, American Indian and white forebears, he said his family’s story is also one of diversity. He spoke about the “duality” that has framed his life—oppression and opportunity, racism and resilience.
Today, Jones said, prejudice and racism continue to be an institutional part of society. While some saw the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as a sign that racism had ended in America, in reality the election “unleashed racism,” Jones said.
He described research showing how institutions and individuals internalize cultural views of race, leading to prejudice that is embedded in society even beyond a person’s conscious awareness.
“I do not believe racism will ever disappear,” Jones said. “It is woven into our culture and our psyche. … Our challenge is to resist it.”
But, he said, he remains an optimist because throughout his career he discovered that ideas can change institutions, and his own work often reflected that.
“I never saw myself as an agent of change,” he said. “I just followed my instincts.”
In many of his professional accomplishments, however, Jones did serve as a change agent and an effective advocate for inclusion and diversity. Among those many roles were his service as executive director for public interest and long-time director of the Minority Fellowship Program at the American Psychological Association.
At UD, Jones is the former director of what was then the Black American Studies program and helped stabilize and strengthen it into today’s Department of Africana Studies.
The full text of Dr. Jones' talk is available
here. The video is available here.