My Rant: Why we need to talk about Ferguson at Eastern Kentucky University (and other colleges that lack diversity)
Let me give you a sense of who the students are at EKU. Our students mostly hail from White rural communities in Eastern Kentucky (our service region) where many have only seen Black people on TV. Very scary because of the well-documented history of media bias against Blacks (recent examples highlight this continued trend).
Our service region students are placed in classrooms with mostly people like them. Many of our students can go for semesters without ever being in the same room with a person of color, an international student, a student from an urban area, etc. (just because we aren’t diverse, doesn’t mean we can’t talk about race. White folks are a race too you know!).
Let me tell you who our Black students are on campus (a very small percent by the way). They hail from the urban centers in Kentucky (Louisville and Lexington). Our student-athletes who make up a disproportionate majority of our Black students also hail from areas with high minority populations and most come from outside Kentucky (Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, etc.).
The conversations in the classroom become interesting (especially if you happen to get Black students which I often do because they enjoy taking classes with people who look like them – hence the ever increasing need to really focus on diversifying faculty which we don’t take seriously). They become interesting because there is usually a racial distinction in perspectives (most White students side with the officer and militarized police response – most Black students support the protestors, detest the actions of the police, tired of seeing Black people killed by police, etc).
You can imagine how interesting the classroom could become when discussing something controversial like Ferguson. But the classroom is where these conversations need to be. They should not be left in the hands of the media to unpack.
Now let’s discuss the issues transpiring that inspired my colorful response to EKU profs on Facebook.
So a professor begins by making this statement: Now I’m neutral on Ferguson, so what do you think about what’s happening? (this happened outside my dept btw) This could have been a way for students to be comfortable discussing their perspectives. There is a power dynamic in the classroom. But these particular examples were problematic because the students weren’t given any readings; they weren’t given a lecture on social movements, social change, or protest; they weren’t told about contemporary police practices or the racialized history in America. Nothing.
From the examples told to me, they wanted students to formulate an opinion based on what they’ve watched on the news, seen Tweeted or posted, etc. Reckless! Dangerous! Scary! Now if the class was a Media in Society course, ok – but these courses were introductory Sociology courses. But the conversation is uncomfortable because the only Blackface in the room is not talking and people don’t want to say much. Then you get that brave soul that say’s: cops aren’t racist; the officer feared for his life, etc.
As an aside, this is my response when people say cops are/aren’t racist: No cops aren’t racist. But they behave in a racialized manner. If you think about the Bible, it’s not sexist. But it behaves in a very sexist manner. The verses are very gendered leading to gendered and sexualized practices. Need examples? Certainly!
Genesis: Eve cursed – hence women cursed.
Exodus: wives are property and they belong to their male master; polygamy ok.
Leviticus: women must atone for how nasty they get during the menstrual cycle and childbirth. Death for homosexuality; burn daughters for their transgressions.
Numbers: Census lists only men – women not counted in population; fidelity test for women only; kill all women who aren’t virgins.
Deuteronomy: stone rapist and rape victim (yeah this one bothered me as a victim of rape. It wasn’t my damn fault!).
Judges: kill more women keep the virgins.
Corinthians: women must be silent in church (very hard for me :).
Ephesians/Colossians: wives submit to husbands (thank God I married a feminist).
Timothy: women must be silent, no authority, can be saved with having babies.
You get the point I’m trying to make. I digress.
These are comments that stem from the mediated outlets these students are consuming. In the Black students head, they have a whole different set of responses that differ from their White counterparts. Many of the Black students have witnessed and have been victims of police violence in their communities.
Fortunately, in a few of these cases I’ve heard about, there are White students who disagree with the actions of the police or disagree with the police response in the aftermath. But then the professor chimes in with their opinion (well it’s not really about that or there’s more than race) and then they are quiet because no one wants to challenge their professor (well they don’t challenge White professors – I get challenged all the time – literature shows us that professors of color get challenged a lot). But the professors begin saying they are neutral, but their comments don’t indicate that.
And why be neutral on a position anyway? You can discuss both sides regardless of your perspective. As a professor of criminal justice, I know the literature on police practices and can discuss exactly why the officer responded as he did (actions totally justified). I don’t end the conversation there, to do so would be reckless, irresponsible and would totally ignore the literature I know about policing the Black community (historically and contemporarily).
Now if you’ve read a book you’ll know that in poor White areas where the majority of our students come from, they come from areas where the police are harassing them. This is where comments like this come from: police aren’t racist, they harass us too; the issue is about class, not race; well if yall stop acting like thugs and pull your pants up, police wouldn’t mess with you.
Now as I’m trying to talk about the issue in Ferguson, it’s really distracting to hear these comments because I have to address them and it detracts from what’s happening in Ferguson. I feel like as soon as I bring race into a conversation, my students immediately challenge it because they can’t see the world using this lens. But they were all happy and in agreement when I talked about poverty in Appalachia – government neglect in Appalachia – but as soon as I talk about urban poverty, they get mad (we’re poor too; the government ignores us too; we don’t abuse welfare like they do, etc).
Black students who come from these urban centers have a distinct reality too that gets ignored because it’s not the majority opinion at EKU. And we wonder why we can’t diversify our faculty, staff, and students.
But we have to be careful about dismissing the racialized aspect of Ferguson just because you don’t see it that way. Go read the decades of research by Sociologists. This is documented. The disproportionate treatment of Black folks by the police is a reality even in Kentucky.
That one Black student in your class who doesn’t interact is not stupid. They are uncomfortable everyday having to assimilate to your way of thinking for fear of doing bad. Then that student gets bad grades on papers because you finally see their perspective and you are mad because this is not what you taught them (happened to me so much as an undergraduate at EKU). The response on the paper as a student showed me said these words verbatim: “I told you the issue in Ferguson is about class not race – why would you situate your entire analysis on race” (actual comments on a student’s reflection on Ferguson).
How is a student supposed to respond to that? I’ll tell you. They come to my office to vent and cry.
“I’m scared of the Boogeyman, ahem, I mean, I have to protect myself from any threat no matter how Big and Black”
This blog was originally posted at Uprooting Criminology:
Since the events unfolded in Ferguson, MO, I’ve struggled to find the appropriate words to say – the appropriate academic words rather (trust me…I’ve said plenty!). I tend to shy away from speaking out publicly as events are unfolding no matter how serious they are or aren’t. For instance, I didn’t speak about the Cheerios interracial couple commercial until months after social media calmed down. But this is different. I’ve lost sleep over this incident (among other recent controversial police shootings like the young man that got shot in WalMart for purchasing a gun and waving it). I’ve argued on Facebook over this (something I rarely do). I’ve found myself tuning in to the news more frequently. This is different for me? Why? I’ll tell you why.
Because I realize that Mike Brown is my husband. Mike Brown is my son. Mike Brown is my brother. Mike Brown is my student. Black men in my life have tons of police stories (almost all negative). But none of them have yet ended in violence (mostly arrests). But that does not mean it can’t or won’t. And that terrifies me.
So what do I say? What do I talk about? What do I add to a conversation that already has the top voices chiming in?
Well, I’ve finally found my inspiration after reading several Facebook posts by former police officers. They essentially state that in the same situation, they would have reacted as Officer Darren Wilson – shooting as many times necessary to eliminate the threat. A summary of those posts below:
"As a retired police officer, I would have shot him also…The police are not out there to see who can wipe who, but to keep the peace. With a person the size of Mr. Brown, there is no doubt I would have taken the same action. Police officers have an old saying; 'I would rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.' "
After reading this, I was curious – do current police officers think the same way? I just happen to have new police recruits currently training in my midst. Kentucky’s future boys/girls in blue train next door to my office building. So having a friend that works with them, I told that person to ask as many as possible (N=8) – I know, small sample. It was short notice! But still very telling: would you have responded as Officer Wilson did? They all said yes! And only one racialized his answer: “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is in the trailer park or the projects, I would have shot his ass.”
I was floored. I was shocked. Let me tell you why.
The immediate response to shoot and kill is a response of desperation, and not one that is rooted in training and/or protocol. There are less-lethal options for an unarmed person and to me, that did not seem to occur with Officer Wilson. He reverted back to his fears of the Black other and responded in that manner. The fear of Black masculinity took over. He was scared of the Boogeyman.
Yes White people get shot too. Yes women get shot too. But Black masculinity has always been punished most harshly through criminal sanctions and legal outcomes. Many black men have responded by resisting the eternal state of inhumanity and have fought back (if you have seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, recall Malcolm’s father yelling “I am not a boy. I am a Man” to the KKK terrorizing his family – this is resistant masculinity). But this got Mr. Little killed. And Mr. Little’s are still getting killed today. Many Black’s cry foul because they see examples of their White male counterparts engaging in the same aggressive behaviors with different results. Example here and here.
Black men have continually resisted oppression and attempt to assert their masculinity in a society that strips away their sense of manhood…There is a correlation between white southern manhood and slavery where white men established their masculinity by using slavery to make black men inferior to them (Gray 2014, p. 51).
The trend continues today.
The mere presence of Blackness incites other males to lash out aggressively towards this form of masculinity under the veil of self-protection or protection of some valuable other (historically, the White female, currently, it’s under the guise of protecting communities). The same narrative is present in police officer’s narratives of how they would have responded to Mike Brown or others like him. That fear of the Boogeyman takes over – the stories you’ve been told, the images you’ve see on your TV screen, the tall tales you share among your peers…you make that real in your head when faced with it.
Now another reason I hesitated chiming in to this conversation was because I didn’t have anything meaningful to offer. There have been numerous blogs posted highlighting class issues, race in America, the intersection of race and class, history of policing racial minorities, history of tense race relations in Ferguson, etc. All great and very much needed. There was even an awesome recent statement issued by Sociologists. Please read it here.
But I want to solve the larger problem not analyze and theorize about it. Yes Ferguson needs healing. But I want to make sure this doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Will marching help? No. We’ve seen the militarized response that arises from marching. Will calling celebrities to silent protests help? No and, it’s not their responsibility. Will informing citizens of their rights during police encounters help? For White’s in some cases maybe, but overall, probably not (it could help some, but the Black body would still be present hence a clear and present danger). What will help?
The only entity capable of making meaningful change is the institution of policing. This entity has not changed much over time. It’s become more militarized. It’s become more punitive. It’s become harsher. Let’s try something different this time.
So how do we do this?
1. Diversity Training for Police
a. Diversity training for police officers is awful. For those policing marginalized communities, they know nothing of the communities they serve. Don’t just put this important task into the hands of the person who took a sociology course in race relations. Hire an actual professional and make sure the training is on-going. One time in the academy? The lesson won’t stick.
b. And I don’t mean the type of diversity where you don’t mind killing anybody like this guy here.
2. Educational Programs Need Adequate Curriculums
a. Universities with Criminal Justice/Police Studies Programs need to critically examine their curriculums to ensure students who want to become Criminal Justice practitioners have adequate education regarding the history of policing minorities, controversial police practices, diversity and multiculturalism, etc.
3. Diversify Police Forces
a. A concerted effort needs to be made to diversify police forces. Communities like seeing women and people of color. And it helps in times like this. And from the small research I’ve done into police shootings, disproportionately, they involve White Male officers. Maybe, just maybe, the response would be different with less testosterone or more melanin (just saying).
4. Take Community Oriented Policing Seriously
a. Let’s try community policing again. Cops get out of your cars. Citizens are not enemy combatants. They are people who want to talk to you. We stare at you driving by for a reason. Yes we’re probably pissed, but get out and talk to us.
5. Train Police Officers with Whom They Fear
a. Cops are scared of big black men? Why not have big black men train with them! From witnessing policing training, it’s average bodies training with average bodies. This is probably why White guys get a pass when they’re talking shit to police. It takes cops forever to pull Tasers out with them! Let’s have cops actually train with the individuals who pose the biggest threat for them.
6. Community Workshops by Cops
a. Cops need to hold workshops for the community informing them of their rights when they are pulled over. The cops need to do this. Citizens also need a venue to inform the police why they are fearful and distrustful (leading some to not comply, be more aggressive, etc). Citizens also want to know if they can record the police or what the laws are surrounding filming police. They want to know what kinds of questions they can ask. They want to know if they have to allow an officer to search their car or person. They have the right to know and cops should tell them.
7. Stop Killing Unarmed Citizens
a. Cops need to articulate that they don’t want to kill citizens (at least I hope they don’t). It needs to be understood that killing is the last resort. I suggest the campaign #NotInOurTown where cops actually protect the community! Wow, what a thought!
8. Make Police Protocols Public
a. Although much of this is an individual officers discretion, there are certain training protocols in place when something happens. We need to know what kinds of circumstances warrant being shot.
b. In the event of a peaceful or violent protest by the public, we should know exactly how our local police will respond. We need to know when non-lethal weapons will be used, when they will arrest, when National Guard will be called in, etc.
I’ve been deeply invested in this given my husband’s experiences with police and security personnel. I realize that his experiences may have been negative because he’s the boogeyman. His 6 foot 3, 350 pound body is what they fear. My son could easily become the boogeyman and I don’t ever want them criminalizing his corpse as they have Mike Brown, Kajieme Powell, Trayvon Martin, Frank Alvarado, Eric Garner, Kendrec McDade, Ervin Jefferson, Yvette Smith, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury Jr, Sean Bell, Victor Steen, Angel Ruiz, Steven Eugene Washington, Alonzo Ashley, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Tavares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, John Crawford III, Osman Hernandez, and many others.
My son’s tribute to Mike Brown was the Langston Hughes poem, “I Too Am America.” I think it’s an appropriate ending. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10101004079748413
Gray, K. L. (2014). Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the Virtual Margins. Elsevier.
Manifest...My Reality: Seeing the World through the eyes of the 'other'