Liberal Arts dean examines the history of civil rights and civil unrest

Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and professor of African American Studies at Penn State. Credit: Emilee Spokus / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As protests continue across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death, an incident that might seem like a flashpoint was perhaps instead a logical extension of decades of inequality and mistreatment of African Americans, according to one scholar.

Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and professor of African American Studies, recently joined the Democracy Works podcast to discuss his research on social movements among African American communities and how to think about current protests in light of the Civil Rights era.

“The question was not whether something like this was going to occur, but really, when. We know these things have been cyclical. I remember 1992. I remember 2015, as others do,” Lang said. “As a scholar, I've read about the 1960s and know people who have recollections of that period. I think there's an ebb and flow and I think we're at a very strong high tide for this particular activity.”

Lang is the author of two books that look directly at civil unrest among African American communities, “Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75” and “Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics.”

While it’s tempting to compare today’s protests to those that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, Lang said the images of Rosa Parks, the March on Washington and other nonviolent protests might not be entirely appropriate for what’s happening now.

“I think what's important to note is that nonviolent mass direct action as an organizing principle of black protest, that was actually a rather short period,” Lang said. “If we take the long view of African American history, the dominant idea of nonviolent resistance actually represents a short period, and the longer history has been a lot more tumultuous than that.”

Lang also has personal connections to debates over policing and law enforcement. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and had family members in the city’s police department. Ultimately, he is hopeful that opportunities will emerge from what seem to be current moments of tension and unrest.

“One thing that keeps me going is that, as a humanist, that we may yet be able to discover a leverage point to begin to surface alternatives to what exists currently,” Lang said. “Because in every crisis there exists an opportunity, just as every opportunity contains the seeds of a crisis.”

Listen to the podcast episode at or by searching “Democracy Works” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any podcast app.

Last Updated April 15, 2021