The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday January 26th

Bereket Habte Selassie talks justice, racism, globalization and his new book

Becoming an Emeritus Distinguished Professor at UNC is just one of the accomplishments in the illustrious political and academic career of Bereket Habte Selassie. 

Selassie, an Eritrean activist and a prominent scholar of African studies and law, held a book launch party at Bull’s Head Bookshop on Wednesday for his new collection of essays entitled “Words that Govern and Other Essays on Law and Politics.” The essays are based on keynote lectures he has delivered, and the title is derived from a Benjamin Disraeli quote, which speaks to the nature of language in writing and implementing policy.

Selassie has served as an associate justice on Ethiopia's Supreme Court and a member of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea, working with others to author the constitution from 1994-97. Before coming to UNC as a professor in both the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies and the UNC School of Law, Selassie taught at Georgetown University and Howard University. Selassie has also authored several other books on law and politics. 

The book focuses on topics including the relationship between globalization and democracy, the future of African politics through a pan-Africanist lens and institutional racism in the United States' criminal justice system. In his lead essay, entitled “Crime and Punishment in America,” Selassie calls for a resolution to the “original sin” of America’s issue of targeting men of color with mass incarceration and police violence, citing the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In his discussion, Selassie addressed questions concerning the reconciliation of pan-Africanist ideals with the need for the maintenance of nationalistic identity in African countries.

“I am intrigued by the problems emanating from the fact that we are now a continent of nations that have been defined by colonially-fixed boundaries,” Selassie said.  

Transitioning to speak about the permanence and inevitability of globalization, Selassie stated that globalization must be controlled and global institutions must be democratized. Demonstrating a strikingly humorous but earnest perspective, Selassie began his poignant call to action with a joke about the necessity of caution when a hedgehog or porcupine makes love. 

“We have to organize and get together very carefully, but we organize with a future in mind, with a belief, faith in your idea and objective,” he said. 

Selassie’s petition for youth activism did not fall on deaf ears, as dozens of students attended the discussion. 

Junior Afi Bello spoke of her own interest in Selassie’s history and the lecture’s relevance to her own life as a Togolese American. 

“We should not be discouraged from hope. We still have the hope that we can, in the execution of democracy or in the upholding of democracy, be able to govern ourselves and lift ourselves out of the turmoil that our countries face,” Bello said, recalling the impetus in Selassie’s statements. 

Echoing similar sentiments, Yacob Laine, also a student at UNC, spoke of the hope he thinks will inspire the next generation of activism. 

“Now it’s time for the youth to take charge and control our destiny and our future," Laine said. "There is a lot of potential for change, but it’s all contingent upon education, knowledge, awareness and action at the end of the day.” 


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