Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Do Black Lives Matter to Higher Education?

by Tracy Lachica Buenavista, California State University, Northridge and Maria C. Ledesma, University of Utah

We have been charged to write a blog to be distributed to and read by students and colleagues in the field of higher education. The intention behind the blog is to engage educational researchers to better understand, consider, or address a contemporary topic, as well as the way in which we might approach our work. If we are lucky, our blog might inspire others to think more deeply about their own work. Thus, for our blog, we want to call attention to higher education scholars and practitioners to think about why Black lives matter and how their work reinforces (or does not reinforce) this sentiment.

Omnipresent in contemporary debates around police brutality, surveillance of black and brown bodies, and the myth of the American Creed, is higher education. Take for instance the following contemporary moments of social injustice that prompted rampant protests regarding the devaluation of Black lives.

Michael Brown was just 18-years old when he was chased down, shot, and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Before his murder, he was on the verge of beginning his postsecondary career at Vatterott College – a proprietary institution with notable donors such as Mitt Romney and with a history of targeting low-income and working class students of color. While debates emerged regarding the relevance of Brown’s college plans amidst police violence against Black bodies, we feel it is important to acknowledge his higher education aspirations in context of the dismal postsecondary opportunities for Black Americans. We question the way in which Brown’s aspirations were used to assign increased value to his life, and the ways that for-profit institutions prey on hope, while offering only limited opportunities for communities already placed at risk.

Martese Johnson, a 20-year old student at University of Virginia, suffered a head injury after he was unjustly accused of public intoxication and using a fake I.D. to enter a bar frequented by UVA students. He was brutalized by officers with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), an entity responsible for regulating the state’s alcohol industry and policing alcohol crimes, and with similar enforcement powers as police officers. Johnson’s victimization became national headlines only after video was released that captured the graphic violence ABC officers unleashed against Johnson as he bled and pleaded with his perpetrators. Johnson, who is an active student leader on campus and a member of various honors organizations, reminded us that the racial macroaggressions committed against students of color in postsecondary contexts are not divorced from the larger maltreatment of Blacks in the U.S. History reflects how, too often, Black lives are considered expendable. And how their absence in higher education is pathologized to blame the victim rather than questioning and holding accountable the very systems that produce such disparate outcomes in the first place.

Freddie Gray was 25-years old when he was illegally arrested by police, subjected to a fatal spinal cord injury, and died while in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray is the latest high profile victim of police brutality. Indeed, in the course of the last year the death, or more aptly, the murder of Black lives has become a type of public spectacle. Whether by T.V. or computer screen, anonymous voyeurs tune in to bare witness, albeit from a safe distance, no accountability necessary, to stare at state sanctioned violence. Unpleasant truths are easy to ignore if these are not your reality. But once you see them, once you know of them, are they not your responsibility?

In response to Gray’s death, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels released a statement calling for an investigation into Freddie Gray’s death. Among other things, he said, “Our university takes seriously the opportunity and obligation of our role as an anchor institution within Baltimore. But as the events of the past week remind us, there is more to do.” Echoing President Daniels, we also believe there is much for us in higher education to do to emphasize and teach how and why Black lives matter. Such a task belongs to us all, not just to faculty of color or to African American and/or Black Studies Departments. Black lives matter across all fields and disciplines; they matter just as much in the sciences as in the humanities. If we are to live up to higher education’s democratic aspirations, Black lives should matter to us all.

Indeed, if the Black Lives Matter movement is to be more than hashtag social activism, we believe that we in higher education also bear a responsibility to ask ourselves:

What is the state of Black lives on your campus? 
Do Black Studies exist on your campus? 
How is the diversity of what constitutes Blackness reflected in the curriculum and programming at your institution? 
(How) Are Black students, faculty, staff, and administrators being recruited and retained? 
What are the ways in which your institution socially, politically, and materially supports Black students, faculty, staff, and administrators? 
What relationship does your institution have with Black communities if at all?
What have you done to respond, address, and/or participate in the Black lives matter movement? 
How has this movement informed or inspired your work?

We challenge you to think about how you, your community, or institution, are concretely working to answer these questions and to make Black lives matter on your campus. We acknowledge that addressing injustice can be overwhelming, however small acts are as important as revolutionary actions. And, in the end “what you allow is what will continue.”

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