'Social change is very difficult to bring about'

Elon University professors and students filled McKinnon Hall on Aug. 27, 2014, to discuss race, privilege and justice following the Missouri police shooting death of an unarmed black man and subsequent protests that have galvanized the nation.

Hundreds of people turned out for a panel conversation Wednesday night in McKinnon Hall as Elon University faculty shared expert insights into the forces shaping national public opinion on the police shooting of an unarmed black man in Missouri three weeks ago.

The event, “Lessons Within Ferguson, Mo.,” afforded students and alumni an opportunity to ask professors about the race, justice, privilege and the increasing militarization of police forces today in the United States. Moderated by Associate Professor Naeemah Clark of the School of Communications, faculty panelists were:

  • Professor Jim Bissett, who has researched American social movements and school desegregation Alamance County, North Carolina
  • Assistant Professor Ken Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll and an expert in public opinion and public policy regarding crime, education and local economic development
  • Assistant Professor India Johnson, a psychology department faculty member who teaches on and researches social inequality and factors that contribute to social change
  • Assistant Professor Robert Parrish, a law faculty member with experience as an oral historian and archivist, having worked for the Center for Documentary Studies’ Behind the Veil project, which produced “Remembering Jim Crow,” a compilation of interviews with African Americans born between 1900 and 1940
  • Sandra Reid, a lecturer in the Department of Human Service Studies whose professional career includes experience in juvenile justice and delinquency prevention

Racial strife entered the forefront of national conversation following the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, who died when a white police officer fired his service weapon despite assertions that Brown had raised his hands. Autopsies show Brown was struck six times.

Police officials were quick to identify Brown as a suspect in a convenience store robbery just a short time earlier, though questions remain about whether the police officer knew Brown was a suspect. No video of the shooting exists and federal investigators are now examining the case.

Fernandez opened the Wednesday conversation by addressing questions he was asked regarding the nature of the protests that have since rocked Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Are those protests a good thing in the attention that has been drawn to the issue of racial inequalities and disparate police treatment in the United States? After all, haven’t other black men been killed by white police officers with far less attention paid to their stories?

“For this case, the answer is clearly no,” Fernandez said of whether the increasingly violent protests have been a good thing for advancing social justice. “The goal here is to reform police behavior. I think the average resident, citizen and voter looks at the protests and says, ‘What a shame that unarmed teenager was shot, but I’m sure glad the police are there to keep control of the riots.’”

Before things change, however, those in power must also be willing to change, speakers said.

“Social injustice occurs in our lives because the people committing that injustice benefit from it,” Bissett said. “Social rights activists realized that marching isn’t enough … it does help build community and sense of worth, but if you think about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Ala., they weren’t just marching. They were marching downtown to boycott stores or they were marching to the courthouse to register to vote.”

Johnson spoke of the subconscious biases everyone possesses. She described research that determined black men, regardless of whether they were armed, were more likely to be shot than white men in a video experiment. The race of the research participants made no difference.

The findings indicate that people must do a better job of challenging their preconceptions of who is a threat and who is not, she said.

“Think how individuals are represented. Changing stereotypes, which is really hard to do, is critical in being able to unpack situations like this,” Johnson said. “We’re all here and we acknowledge that we’re biased. I tell my students this all the time. Everyone is biased, and it doesn’t matter if you swear up and down that you’re not. You don’t have to believe a stereotype for it to influence your judgment.”

Stereotypes exist in all parts of the country, panelists said. What happened in Missouri could easily happen in North Carolina. Parrish noted that police are permitted to stop anyone they see if they possess what the law calls “reasonable articulable suspicion,” which is simply the suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

“In Elon, Greensboro, Durham, New York City, Chicago, reasonable articulable suspicion has now become a proxy for skin color,” he said. “It’s relatively the same anywhere. The same kinds of concerns permeate our culture and society right now.”

The media narrative about the fatal Missouri confrontation was a large part of the discussion. Clark pointed out the Brown “was not a perfect person” and that attitudes about the shooting started shifting once a storyline emerged that he might have done something wrong. That rankled Reid, who reflected on lessons she often shares in her classes.

“It was OK when we thought this was a tragedy because this young man was on his way to college,” Reid said. “Then we start hearing this other narrative about how he was possibly the person who committed an offense. … But it does not matter if he stole something or not. He’s still a human being and there’s value in that. At the end of the day, he’s a person, and so is that police officer. I think we have to be careful … how we place value on people’s lives.”

Elon’s event featured junior Mia Watkins, who comes to the university from Ferguson. In speaking to the audience, Watkins described growing up in a community where she felt safe and the pain she experiences when witnessing media distortions of her hometown.

Watkins also asked her classmates to contemplate what can be done to help ensure similar tensions won’t flare on campus.

“What can we do to make sure we don’t reach that breaking point? Yes, we have slogans to say that we ‘belong,’ but what can we do to make sure everyone feels that way?” Watkins said. “Let us work together to make sure that whatever lies beneath the surface here doesn’t disrupt the inclusive environment we are working so hard to create.”

Co-sponsored by the Multicultural Center and the Council on Civic Engagement, the evening program attracted so many students that Moseley Center administrators expanded the open space in McKinnon Hall that had previously been closed by a moveable room divider.

The night included brief remarks from Assistant Professor Jason Husser, the university’s Faculty Fellow for Civic Engagement, and Elon senior Joe Incorvia, the Student Government Association executive president.

“Issues with the potential to become divisive always share one common thing: they are inherently difficult,” Husser said in remarks about Ferguson. “Dialogue about change can represent legitimate threat to many stakeholders. However, we simply must try. … As individuals, workable answers are often higher than our personal grasp. But, as a community, we can build structures to reach heights otherwise unattainable, places where collective solutions exist.”

Incorvia likewise commended the campus community for efforts to raise awareness and help educate others about the events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting. He emphasized that SGA seeks to create a unified community and support students in their quest to be global citizens.

“Our goal is to create a community where all members feel safe and comfortable and are able to thrive in an environment where they belong,” he said. “I hope that we are all able to come away tonight with more perspective on what is happening in Missouri, how it affects our community and society, and an understanding of what we as students, citizens and community members can do to create a welcoming environment on campus.”

The program both opened and closed with comments from Randy Williams, special assistant to the president and dean of Multicultural Affairs at Elon University, who praised students for their interest in learning more about Ferguson while sharing a story of his own experience as a black man.

Shortly after turning 16 and receiving his driver’s license, Williams and his friends were taken aside by a friend’s uncle and told that if they were ever pulled over, they should turn off the vehicle and place their hands up in clear sight because some police officers were prone to shooting black men. The warning was “one of the biggest splashes of cold to the face.”

What made the experience more profound, he said, was that the uncle was an active member of a police force who knew the culture of some white police officers.

“The shooting death of Michael Brown has likely caused some level of response within you, just as I had a response,” Williams said. “It is my hope that tonight’s event has been informative for those who were less informed and somewhat therapeutic to others of you who may be confused, worried or concerned.”