IU panel opens dialogue on racism in America

Guest post courtesy of IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Three years after the death of Trayvon Martin, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement — and just three weeks after the U.S. Justice Department reported that police in Ferguson, Mo., regularly used unconstitutional practices disproportionately affecting African-American residents — an IU panel emphasized the remaining racism in the U.S.

The discussion was organized to encourage a dialogue around racial issues in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and other recent incidents of alleged police brutality. While the panelists all spoke to various intersections of race and the criminal justice system, they agreed that discriminatory judicial and criminal systems are actively perpetuating racism in America.

“I am a scholar and Indiana is a top research university,” said Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, associate professor of history and gender studies at IU Bloomington. “If an open discourse about such a painful topic does not happen here, then where?”

It’s Not So Black and White: Talking Race, From Ferguson to Bloomington” featured panelists Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor of criminal justice at IU; Valeri Haughton, Monroe Circuit judge; and William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. The panel was moderated by Jeannine Bell, professor and Louis F. Neizer Faculty Fellow in the Maurer School of Law.

William Jelani Cobb

William Jelani Cobb

In addition to the prepared remarks from the panelists, artistic protest was featured. Nyama McCarthy-Brown, assistant professor of contemporary dance at IU, performed a dance with her son, Kasim McCarthy-Brown. Diana Velázquez, graduate student in Latin American studies at IU, debuted an original song, “Ain’t the 1960s.”

About 500 students, faculty, staff and community members packed Alumni Hall of the Indiana Memorial Union for the program. The audience was also invited to participate in a justice fair after the panel, featuring 60 campus and local groups.

Owusu-Bempah spearheaded the discussion with an emphasis on racial profiling and the impact of social injustice on the psyche of black America. He challenged the audience to think of famous criminals. Then he dug deeper, asking them to think of a famous black criminal and guessed that most could not.

“After a crime is committed by a black offender, all blacks pay a price,” said Owusu-Bempah.

In contrast, white Americans are not punished or stereotyped for the offenses of other white Americans. Owusu-Bempah said stereotypes assigned to the black community have permeated the justice system and are leading to higher numbers of convictions for African Americans through policies like stop and frisk.

He called for three changes to address these injustices: Create true accountability in the police force, hold elected officials accountable and initiate reconciliation in which communities and police forces recognize and reverse their role in perpetuating a racist status quo.

Haughton spoke to topics closer to home. She lamented the small numbers of black and minority police officers in Monroe County. But she also commended Bloomington for adopting practices like the use of body cameras as early as 2013.

“I’m proud as a member of this community that we have citizens willing to take action and come to programs like this,” said Haughton. But she stressed that these sometimes uncomfortable conversations need to continue regularly in order to see real progress.

Broadening the picture of race in America, Cobb spoke to the role that race has played in the history of the U.S. and what it means to live in a so-called “post-racial America.”

“Race usually pops up in our public dialogue in a moment of crisis,” said Cobb, referencing the recent video of a University of Oklahoma student leading a racist chant. “But race is inextricable from the history of this country.”

Instead of a steady improvement in civil rights, Cobb illustrated that Americans have often seriously faltered, describing racial history in the U.S. as “an EKG with peaks and valleys.”

Cobb rejected the idea of a current “post-racial America.”

“We have entered into a period of contingent citizenship,” said Cobb. He described this as a counterfeit version of citizenship for the black community. That is, just like counterfeit money, black people’s citizenship looks the same as white citizenship, until they try to use it.

The panel was financially backed by 23 campus and local organizations and departments. Myers commended the university and community for their recognition for the need of an open discourse on race and their resounding support of the event. All of the organizations that were approached to help agreed to fund the event, said Myers.

This panel does not conclude the discussion of race on the IU campus. Related future events include: “Decoding the Race Baiting of Modern Media” with NPR TV critic Eric Deggans at 7 p.m. March 30 in the Moot Court Room of the Maurer School of Law and “The Art of Protest: Past, Present and Future” at 7 p.m. April 8 in room 251 at IU’s Radio and Television Services building.

A video of “It’s Not So Black and White” will be available online.

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