Community Profiles – Melissa Nobles

Community Profiles – Melissa Nobles

MIT School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences
Great Ideas Change the World

Leda Zimmerman

“All societies periodically have to do soul-searching,” says 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.”

Budding Political Aspirations

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, NY 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 American South, Nobles grew up during a racially fraught era, and was riveted by news accounts of the civil rights movement, as well as profoundly interested in the political struggles and history of black Americans.
Politics and Race
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, the disparity (between U.S. and Brazilian national stories) began to crumble. According to Nobles, who eagerly absorbed the new 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.”…

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