Dr. Julianne Malveaux with members of the Memphis Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and staff of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change on the campus of the University of Memphis. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Julianne Malveaux uses her background as an economist, educator and author to shape public opinion on issues such as race, culture, gender and their economic impacts. The honorary co-chair of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Social Action Commission, Dr. Malveaux recently keynoted the Memphis Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s Founder’s Day program at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood.

The program was open to the public and as they say in church – she brought a word. She challenged all present to ask if we are “making a difference” and encouraged us to have the “courage to speak and the humility to listen.”

I talked with Dr. Malveaux (we’re both Deltas) and, as usual, she had plenty to say:

Phyllis Dixon

Phyllis Dixon: How did you become interested in the field of economics?

Dr. Julianne Malveaux: Economics is the study of who gets what, when, where and why. I’ve always been interested in who gets a piece of the pie, and always wanted to know why black folks didn’t get their share. Even as a child, the inequities irritated and agitated me.

PD: I see that you are a member of the National African American Reparations Commission, an organization whose mission is to fight for reparatory justice, compensation and restoration of African-American communities. Many people feel it is highly unlikely that African Americans will ever be compensated for our centuries of free labor in this country, and advocating for reparations is futile. Why do you feel this is a worthwhile pursuit?

Dr. Malveaux: Reparations is about more than individuals getting a check. It’s about investing in a community that has been plundered. It is important for us to claim that which we have sowed into this country during slavery and the legacy of slavery. The black/white wealth gap and structural inequities around land, banking and education can only be overcome with intervention. Everyone must understand what we gave up. We are not beggars or looking for charity. It is about making black people whole. The wealth gap and structural inequities are so pervasive, that if black people only spent money on necessities and saved every penny we would still not catch up.

PD: You were invited to Memphis as the keynote speaker for our 105th Founder’s Day Observance. Other Greek organizations were present and also have Founder’s Day programs this month. Are these organizations still relevant?

Dr. Malveaux: Absolutely. It’s positive any time black people come together to advance our cause. Delta Sigma Theta has always been at the forefront of women’s issues. Most of the founders were educators and most Deltas in the earlier years were educators. We must continue that work. Someone was the bridge for us to pass over and we must be a bridge for others. Our founders’ first action was to participate in the women’s suffrage march in 1913. They were not invited, but they knew their voice should be included. We must embrace our past, but also continue the work they started and stand in the gap for others. We must also recognize and utilize the power of our voice.

PD: We just observed Dr. King’s birthday, a holiday that has special significance in Memphis. In a recent column, you issued a challenge to your readers to confront government policies and continue Dr. King’s legacy of lifting his voice and making a difference. Most people desire to make a difference, but may feel because they will never lead a march or bus boycott, they’re efforts don’t matter. What can an individual do?

Dr. Malveaux: On an individual level, how do you spend your money? Who do you support? Who do you vote for? Who do you bank with? Do they support your community? This is how we do resistance. It’s not always easy and can be inconvenient.

Also, we must be persistent. Too often our involvement is episodic and revolves around public incidents – who got shot today, or who got racially profiled. The fact is that we are all profiled, all day, every day, either frontally or subtly. Dr. King stated he had the audacity to believe in freedom, equality and dignity for all people and he worked til he died toward this. He was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers – supporting labor. As individuals we must be bold as he was. Bold does not always mean loud. It means courageous, tenacious and being willing to speak out.

PD: There has been some controversy around your latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy.” Some in the black community take issue with some of your criticisms of President Obama. Why did you write the book and are we better off?

Dr. Malveaux: Black people aren’t better off, but we aren’t worse off either. It was a missed opportunity to advance an aggressive agenda to move us forward. Responsibility also rests with elected leaders who were timid about challenging the President. Even at your mama’s house, you won’t get fed if you don’t bring your plate to the table. We did not bring our plate to the table. Overall, he was a good president and I always had a feeling of pride toward him and the first family. But symbolism is not enough, and his record should be open for analysis.