When racial bias occurs it is customary to suggest that such practices are out of the norm or something only done by an individual out of touch with prevailing social values, but racism is part of American social ecology, often as unrecognized as the air we breathe.
That contaminant of racism in our national atmosphere has become more sharply noticeable, however, since the generalized uprising of hurt protest following the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting death of Michael Brown in August last year. We are beginning to see that it all connects, that each incident relates to the others.
Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon and now Bucknell University’s recent racist outburst cogently demonstrate that such incidents are widespread in American higher educational institutions. On March 20, 2015 three Bucknell students on the campus radio station during the “Happy Time show” made racial slurs. The following is from an account released by John Bravman, Bucknell University President.
Student 1: “Niggers”
Student 2: “Black people should be dead.”
Student 3: “Lynch ‘em!”
The three students who made the statements have been expelled as of Monday March, 30, 2015. According to sources close to the University administration their fraternity[s] have revoked their memberships.
Over the past few days, Bucknell University administration and a concerned group of students and faculty have worked to formulate a response to avoid the status quo of silence on campus. The violence advocated in the language of this and other incidents points to a set of greater truths.
1. Racism is rooted in violence that seeks to silence those it targets. Many are inclined to avoid discussing race and racism, but silence only hides and misdirect racist acts and language so as to convince us racism does not exist. While the onslaught of news describing people of color murdered by police may be shocking to many who don’t experience police brutality or harassment, they are unsurprising to people of color and yet these occurrences are often labeled as isolated or as the victim’s fault.
In my own classroom, we recently discussed the brutalization of Martese Johnson, a student at University of Virginia who was beaten by Alcohol Beverage control officers, who falsely charged him with “public intoxication and obstruction of justice,” contradicting every eyewitness claiming the opposite. One of my students snickered with another student. When I asked what was funny, she said he had a fake I.D. I later forwarded to her the article pointing out his I.D. was not fake.
This interaction bothered me until I began to reflect on Jennifer Trainor’s — author of Rethinking Racism — discussion of how racism is rooted in emotion tempered by social norms, culture and history. What my students were reflecting was, “there had to be a reason, because the police would never do this to us.” And indeed they would not, because those students are white, from communities with wealth. At the same time, these episodes undermine their faith in the status quo, as they should. This is unsettling for many, as schooling and work trains people to accept social norms and be happy about it. Those who suggest that things are otherwise are frequently silenced and labeled as complainers.
2. Racist language and acts of racism are mechanisms of stratified justice radically favoring the wealthy while dividing the rest of us. Historian Joseph Ellis, in his book Founding Brothers, points out in a chapter entitled Silence, that the Founding Fathers agreed that the rigorous and morally oriented debate on slavery would not be mentioned until that generation’s death. This founding act of silence gave generations to come the sense that slavery was simply part of the culture, when it was actually highly contested but silenced in favor of political expedience to satisfy the economic interests of wealthy landowners- who were the only citizens with voting rights. Today we rarely mention the ways a small wealthy class benefit from laws that protect them, while convincing a larger portion of Americans to believe in a dream that will never benefit them—a phenomenon frequently updated from the days of slavery to today.
Citizens United is the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to be considered individuals and their political donations part of free speech, allowing countless hundreds of millions of new and highly influential dollars into election campaigns on behalf of candidates who vote just the way the corporate donors want them to. Why then if corporations are individuals, there is no criminal prosecution for corporate polluters or for those financiers who caused the 2008 market crash? At the same time, corporations profit from massive incarceration of people of color and the legal system across America, including Ferguson, is complicit. The mayor of Ferguson continues to deny what the U.S. Department of Justice study finds, (despite racist language in emails) that racism is a key part of the criminalization of Blacks. I argue that this silence allows violence against people of color to continue.
One Drug Enforcement Agency officer recently reported that he was told to avoid white neighborhoods. For many who resist this line of thinking, the myths of fairness, democracy (despite the evidence that the US no longer meets many indicators for a robustly democratic society), and idea that they too will have the American dream is played upon by unscrupulous politicians who evoke fear to get elected. We are divided. We are thus conquered.
3. Finally, we need a national conversation to listen and truly hear the daily experience of the least among us, in order to challenge the silence of racism, change our behavior and deconstruct the institutions that reinforce racism. Dr. Betty Reardon, a close mentor and peace educator, often says that if you were born and raised in this society, it is impossible to be untouched by racism. We are all involved in some way and should thus all struggle against this systemic flaw. Recently the Truth-Telling Project invited people from across the US to Ferguson to share their experience of police violence and its context. The Truth-Telling Project connected local residents with community organizations who are empowering their own communities to learn our tragedy can inform transformation. The underlying thought of this project is that before reconciliation or healing can occur, police practices, and the root causes of racism and economic inequality must begin to change. As well, personal stories and experience contain truth that can guide our actions toward structural change.
While racism is inseparable from the American experience, we have to revisit the past, listen to the experience of others to challenge the violence and language that leads to it if we are to realize the possibility of democracy and dream of an America that works equitably for all who touch these shores.
Visit www.thetruthtellingproject.org to upload your video expressing your experiences and hopes.
Dr. David Ragland is from North St. Louis, MO and is a Visiting Professor of Education at Bucknell University.