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Tufts University to offer Africana studies major

Tufts University is designing an Africana studies major for the first time and opening a center devoted to the study of race and democracy amid a broader push to integrate diversity into the school’s academic fabric.

It is an endeavor long overdue, Tufts students and professors said, coming decades after some peer institutions began granting similar degrees, and having centers of research.

Students and faculty live in an increasingly diverse world but participate in few substantive conversations about race and ethnicity, professors and administrators said. Exchanges about diverse communities often stumble into stereotypes, fall prey to hyperbole, or are simply brushed aside, they said.

“Unfortunately, too many people in this country, also in academe, feel that a place or a space to discourse and debate race and democracy is passé. You know, ‘We have a black president, blah, blah, blah,’ ’’ said James Jennings, a Tufts professor of urban environmental policy who will work with the university’s new Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. “So the issue of race and democracy has not become a focused discussion.’’

Students have been pushing for an Africana studies program for about two years, saying it was unacceptable for Tufts, one of the country’s top research universities, to lag behind its peers in having a comprehensive course of study on race, gender, and class. The major could be introduced in the fall, putting Tufts in the company of other Boston-area schools such as Harvard, Brandeis, Northeastern, and University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Tufts Pan-African Alliance, an umbrella organization of cultural groups that advocate for students of color, stood at the forefront of the campaign to create the major. In November, the movement intensified when as many as 80 students occupied the administrative offices, protesting what they said was a lack of progress.

“The experiences of the African diaspora are extremely informative in understanding democracy, specifically American democracy,’’ said Joshua Reed-Diawuoh, a junior who sat on the Pan-African Alliance’s executive board as a freshman. “For so long, and this continues to be the case, the narrative is Eurocentric. We’re really failing ourselves if we don’t incorporate ourselves into these different academic curriculums.’’

The university agreed.

Historically, black studies departments and cultural centers were established after the civil rights and black power movements. In later years, said Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the impetus for such programs waned. “The big push . . . occurred in the ’70s and got pretty big for a while,’’ he said.

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