EAST PEORIA — Race still divides us as a nation, said the director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, who will speak Thursday at the Illinois Central College Performing Arts Center as part of a two-day conference on racial equality.

Ted Shaw, a law professor at UNC who speaks widely on the subject of race, kicks off the Peoria Summit on Racial Justice and Equity that continues Friday, when the featured speaker will be Meghan Burke, a sociology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and author of "Colorblind Racism."

The program runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday.

"We are now at the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to this country," said Shaw, referring to the first arrival of slaves to the Jamestown colony. "I think about what that means for our country. For some 350 years — up until the 1960s — African Americans were almost exclusively defined as slaves or the victims of Jim Crow segregation — even in the North," he said.

"We, as a country, have come a long way. There's been tremendous progress on the subject of race. Some would point to the election of an African American president as an example. There was talk at one time of the nation even being colorblind," said Shaw.

"I'm not sure who would say that today. I think there's been some retrogression in recent years with a series of racially discriminatory incidents, some of them deadly. Massive inequality still marks the lives of many African Americans," he said.

"I see a divided country, both in terms of partisanship, race and ethnicity. But I'm a prisoner of hope. We can't give up. We have no other choice but to make the country what it should be, a more perfect union, the aspiration of our founding fathers," said Shaw, adding he was aware of the problems that Peoria is facing.

"I've long known Peoria's reputation for struggles with racial division and poverty. These are national problems, but Peoria, in scale, has achieved notoriety," he said.

When "Silent Sam," a statue on the UNC campus that honors the Confederacy, was toppled by protesters last year, Shaw, who chairs a faculty committee involved with making a decision on where the monument will land, recalled a speech made by Julian Carr, a former Confederate soldier and white supremacist, at the statue's dedication ceremony in 1913: "One hundred yards from where we stand, less than 90 days after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady and then rushed for protection to these university buildings."

Shaw said the statue, "clearly a monument to the Confederacy and white supremacy," won't be restored to a place of honor on the North Carolina campus. "In some ways, we're still fighting the Civil War," he said.

Two panels will discuss racial issues at the summit. On Thursday, the panel consists of ICC professors Anthony White, Elizabeth Baldridge and Titania Vargas, ICC student Bobby Burch, Farris Muhammad, chief diversity officer for Peoria, and Derrick Booth, director of social and emotional learning at Peoria Public Schools.

Friday's panel consists of ICC professors Ralph Murphy and Julie Clemons, ICC student Annasia Abner, retired journalist Pam Adams, Laraine Bryson, CEO of the Tri-County Urban League, and Demario Boone, chief of school safety administrator for Peoria Public Schools.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.