Professors raise alarm, call for action at ‘State of Blackness’ panel

Four members of Elon’s faculty discussed current events in politics, education and law at an event marking the 30th anniversary of Elon’s African and African-American Studies program.

Faculty members from across Elon University cited recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and several states’ laws as signs of growing threats to civil rights and equality for members of the Black community during a recent panel discussion.

“From my position as an educator, the state of Blackness in regard to public education, particularly in K-12, is in crisis and has always been in crisis,” said Cherrel Miller Dyce, associate professor and executive director of DEI at the Jo Watts Williams School of Education. “The school-to-prison pipeline, the opportunity gap, the anti-Blackness all shrouded in false rage about indoctrination: There are schools that center the needs of Black students and there are those that criminalize, degrade and marginalize our babies.”

“The State of Blackness: Education, Politics and Law” was held Oct. 3 as part of a yearlong series of events marking the 30th anniversary of Elon’s African and African-American Studies program. In addition to Miller Dyce, panelists included Wendy Scott, professor of law and associate dean of special projects; Jessica Carew, associate professor of political science and policy studies; and Sheila Otieno, assistant professor of religious studies and distinguished emerging scholar in religious studies. Around 100 students, faculty, staff and local residents attended the 75-minute discussion, filling the McBride Gathering Space to capacity.

Sandra Reid, senior lecturer in human service studies, moderated the discussion and asked each panelist a question tailored to their areas of expertise before opening questions to the audience.

Students left the event thinking about ways to engage in conversations around anti-racism and opportunities to take action in their lives and communities.

“What they said and having what I discuss in class and think about every day resonated with me,” said Cameron Harris ’24, a political science major. “I know I want to be a lawyer so that I can work to fix these policies and make it better. This gives me inspiration to do more. We have the resources, and we can do it, we just need to come together and make it happen.”

Topics discussed included:

U.S. Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College

In June, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by factoring race in undergraduate admissions processes.

Scott, a nationally recognized scholar of constitutional law and school desegregation, parsed the court’s decision and emphasized that there are still instances when governments and institutions can consider race.

The decision “prohibits race-based admissions processes designed to ensure diversity,” and the court ruled that “diversity is not a compelling governmental interest,” Scott said. Students can discuss race in essays and universities can consider that information for admissions, though Scott argued that view treats Black students as one-dimensional and assumes they all would want to discuss their race.

Scott warned against the chilling effect following the decision.

“Most people aren’t going to read the opinion, but everyone hears, ‘You can’t use race anymore.’ That’s not what the decision said, but it’s being viewed that way,” Scott said.

Governments “can continue to use race-based efforts to remediate specific instances of past violations of the Constitution,” Scott said. “For example, Alabama’s redistricting decisions. Why? Because there is specific evidence of discrimination based on race. You can still consider race if you can demonstrate a connection between past events and current discrimination.”

“When you’re a civil rights lawyer on the wrong side of the court’s opinion, you have to find those nuggets.”

The role of school boards and administrators in supporting Black students in the current political climate

“If you’re Black and you have some sense, you need to run for school board,” Miller Dyce said. “That’s where policies and practices are decided by people who are not proximate to our children.”

Miller Dyce expounded on biases and discrimination within public education, citing statistics showing disparities in the numbers of Black teachers and administrators and the disproportionate rates of suspensions and criminal referrals faced by Black students as early as pre-kindergarten.

She urged school boards to “listen to educators about what is happening in the classroom and not the news cycle,” and said board members need to “take an equity stance when making policy and practice decisions. … The decisions they make should be based on disaggregated data to … see how racism is affecting the academic futures of Black children.”

She said school administrators need to make an honest assessment of how racism appears in schools, districts, curriculum and hiring. Many Black teachers leave the profession and “80% of teachers are white, female and middle-class.”

More effective higher education is needed to combat racism and anti-Blackness within public schools, she argued.

“We fix systems and not kids. We need to train teachers to fix the systems that uphold oppression,” Miller Dyce said. “We don’t need any more harm to Black bodies because of your unwillingness to [acknowledge] you might be anti-Black. You need to get out of your spaces and be in Black-centered spaces so they can teach you what you don’t know.”

The politics around DEI and Black studies in education

“Anti-woke to many people is actually anti-Blackness,” Carew said.

Carew described laws being passed that prohibit speech and education, particularly in Florida, but also in at least four other states. In North Carolina, laws will soon go into effect that prohibit employers requiring diversity statements and mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training after the General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

“Laws are being passed to tell teachers, ‘You may not talk about this.’ That’s the approach that’s happening,” Carew said. “Florida is banning ‘divisive content’ that ‘makes children feel guilt, anguish or psychological distress’ as if there aren’t already Black students experiencing psychological distress. They are attacking diversity, equity and inclusion programs and mandating that you can’t require diversity statements or have mandatory DEI training.”

She criticized the submission of bills to states and localities by national organizations and corporations influencing or restricting education policy, which is largely controlled by state and local governments.

“This isn’t grassroots,” Carew said, emphasizing an urgent need for continued education around inequality and racism embedded in political and educational systems.

“Knowledge is power. We’re seeing an extreme attack on education,” and “a great deal of work needs to be done so that everyone is capable of understanding the truth we have beneath the systems in the United States,” she said.

The role of religion in the Black community’s push for civil rights and reforms

Otieno spoke about the centrality of churches and religion in Black movements for peace and justice in the U.S. dating back to slavery.

“Religion for us is a political act,” Otieno said. “It was only in religious spaces that Black people had a voice. They were spaces of resilience and spaces of resistance for us.” The movement “doesn’t begin at the protest or sit-in, or with a manifesto, it begins in a space where I notice my humanity. These spaces bringing us down — political, legal, educational — we’re being put back together in religious spaces.”

Though the prevalence of religion in the Black community and the U.S. at large has declined, Otieno believes that people are considering new ways of thinking about what it means to be human.

“Where is the movement of the spirit now? The spirit be moving regardless of the church as an institution,” Otieno said. “How do I consider myself as a human? That may be the most religious question of all. We’re entering these conversations in different spaces. When we say, ‘Black lives matter,’ that sounds like church to me. Maybe we’re making our own church that looks different but is church nonetheless.”