In the wake of the ongoing debate about racism in the American justice system, a racial justice teach-in was held in Smith Auditorium last Wednesday featuring panels discussing the many facets of racism.
The panels were made up of faculty, students, alumni and local community organizers speaking on topics such as the psychology of racial identification and the experience of race and racism.
“Over the last year or two as news of the many prominent cases of young, unarmed African American men, like many people, I’ve been very upset about it,” David Witzling, associate professor of English and organizer of the teach-in, said.
These prominent cases include those in Ferguson, M.O. and New York City over the deaths of black men by police force which have stirred up a national conversation on racism and policing. Michael Brown was an unarmed black teenager killed in a police shooting in Ferguson on Aug. 9 of last year, which sparked widespread protests throughout the state and the nation. A grand jury chose not to indict his shooter, however two federal civil rights investigations were launched into Ferguson police force. Similarly, Eric Garner died after a police chokehold on Staten Island on July 17 of last year. The police officer involved in the incident was not indicted by a grand jury.
“I was very quick to think that students and faculty on campus ought to do something to discuss what seems to be a pattern happening with American society,” Witzling said.
Jawanza Clark, an assistant professor of religious studies, led a portion of the teach-in on Martin Luther King Jr. and the politics of respectability. During his talk, Clark described the trend among African Americans and other minorities to feel as if they have to act a certain way to have a place in society.
Clark relates the theme to a famous Bill Cosby routine in which he encourages young black men to “pull up their pants.”
“[Cosby] used to represent sort of a black politics of respectability position, which is that if you just go to school, speak English, pull up your pants and present yourself as ‘respectable,’ then you won’t be treated in these ways,” Clark said.
“[Cosby] sort of embodies that idea. I think sometimes white students get confused when they hear black people articulating those ideas. It’s a problem that black people internalize these racist assumptions.”
During another portion of the lecture, Witzling offered introductory remarks and a lecture. Witzling and others discussed some statistics on racism in the American justice system and the factors which may contribute to these trends.
“I’ve been long interested as a teacher and a scholar in the history of race relations in this country and in getting students to think about how racial identities are formed and the persistence of racism in our society,” Witzling said.
Students and staff alike were impressed by the presentations at the teach-in, and many felt that the forum was constructive and hoped for similar conversations in the future.
“I thought it to be very important because [this type of conversation] truly does mobilize social change,” Bridget Avila, a senior communication student, said. “It also shows a huge diffusion of our campus of our campus groups and individual students creating unity and leadership in order to make a change.”
Avila said, “There was a lot to discuss and more events like this one should occur on campus more often.”
Overall, Witzling hopes that students will feel encouraged to speak out against social injustice without fear of causing unnecessary conflict, but instead a productive discussion.
“What I hope comes out of the discussion is that students feel empowered to talk more about how they feel about racial difference and racism,” Witzling said.
“I think the sense of community at Manhattan and the desire, for the most part, to be kind to one another and form a true community is a great thing,” he said. “I do think that people are less inclined to talk about problems that they face either on campus or out there in the world, because it might seem like talking about problems dealing with race or racism may seem to be causing a conflict or starting trouble.”