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Melissa Nobles: Taking full account of the past

MIT political science professor examines ways societies confront histories of racial and ethnic injustice
Melissa Nobles is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT
Melissa Nobles is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT
Photo: Justin Knight

“All societies periodically have to do soul-searching,” states Melissa Nobles, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. With research that illuminates historic episodes of racial and ethnic injustice, Nobles has developed a deep understanding of how different nations go about the process of self-examination and attempt to right the wrongs of the past. Such efforts, believes Nobles, require rigorous honesty and “making sure all voices are heard.”

A self-described “political person,” Nobles learned early on about speaking up in the public arena. She was class president during most of her high school years in New Rochelle, N.Y., and remembers attending forums in city hall to protest the school board “taking our school’s money away.” The daughter of parents born and raised in the South, Nobles grew up during a racially fraught era. She was riveted by news accounts of the civil rights movement, as well as profoundly interested in the political struggles and history of black Americans.

This passion to understand politics and its relation to race found an outlet during Nobles’ undergraduate years at Brown University in the early 1980s. Through courses on Latin America, she became fascinated with Brazil, a slave-holding country like the U.S. well into the 19th century. The prevailing academic wisdom was that post-slavery, Brazil evolved into a racial democracy with “no sharp lines of racial demarcation,” while the U.S. saw reconstruction, Jim Crow, racial violence and socioeconomic inequities.

But as scholars scrutinized the lives of contemporary Brazilians of color, this disparity began to crumble. According to Nobles, who eagerly absorbed these findings, “all socioeconomic indicators that make democracy meaningful didn’t look so good for them, and in a further irony, things looked better for black Americans.” She recalls thinking, “If I’d been born in Brazil, looking the way I do, I wonder what my life outcomes would have been.”

Questions about racial identity and politics in Brazil intrigued Nobles enough that she headed to Yale University to pursue a doctorate degree in political science. An internship with the Ford Foundation in Brazil solidified her interests, offering an opportunity not just to practice Portuguese, but to witness the nation as it confronted its racist history during national census-taking. “Historically, Brazilians felt a lot of social pressure to choose a lighter category of skin color (on the census questionnaires) because it was more highly valued, and it appeared to have a material advantage,” Nobles says.

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