The Liberty Conference was hosted by Siena on March 29 to March 31, and was open to the Siena community as well as the community at large. Liberty Con is the Annual Underground Railroad Public History Conference and is in their 18th year, and this year’s theme was “Seeking Sanctuary: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This conference is intended to further the discussion and celebration of the Underground Railroad and to continue to address how the institutions of slavery and racism still affect the country today.
Dr. Eccarius-Kelly, a Political Science Professor, spoke at the conference about the narrative of racial hierarchies and the idea of “othering” in the U.S., then and now. She described “othering” as using names and definitions to groups that create a separation from the speaker’s community with that community. This can be seen in history when those who supported slavery used pseudo-science to “prove” that African Americans were less intelligent, and therefore should remain enslaved, as they were unable to survive without slaveholders. The supporters of slavery distributed this information as if it was real, scientific fact so they could have support from the citizens, who did not know it was fabricated. Dr. Eccarius-Kelly went on to state that this idea of using misinformation is still used today to advance the political stances of some parties. The prime example of this, she described in her presentation, is how immigrants looking to cross the southern border, especially from Central America, are called “illegals” and describes as “invaders and criminals.” She stated that this terminology is used to place these people on a lower level than “true” Americans, specifically white Americans, and make them seem lesser in every way, so they will be excluded from the country. This is to create social hierarchies, that seem natural, as a way of controlling others.
This was a key tool used to keep slaves under control, and Dr. Eccarius-Kelly stated that this is being used again to keep immigrants from Central and South America out of the U.S. today. Dr. Eccarius-Kelly encouraged allies of these communities to reject these natural-seeming hierarchies and work on making sure these communities have a voice. She described political solidarity as bringing together the groups that are affected and working together to formulate responses to the injustices that these communities face. This includes combating the practices of “othering” by spreading information about these communities. Dr. Eccarius-Kelly went on to talk about how allies must remind people that people have the right to come to this country seeking asylum, regardless of ports of entry being closed and the talk of a southern wall becoming very apparent. She ended in a call to the hearts of the people in the audience that these people are coming to the U.S. because they are facing unemployment and violence in their homes, which is not only hurting them, but their children and future generations, as well.
Dr. Eccarius-Kelly stated after the event that this discussion is especially important in the Albany area because it is one of the largest populations of detained refugees in the country. The legal and larger communities in the area came together to provide interpretation and legal assistance on a volunteer basis, including our very own Dr. Eccarius-Kelly, who worked as an interpreter last summer. With the parallels to the treatment of African Americans and Latin Americans in this country with regard to “othering,” and the large population that is in the area, this conversation is especially important to have during Liberty Con and throughout our lives.