‘Rhetoric or Reality’

One of the final Portland State of Mind events for 2016 was a panel discussion titled “Black Lives Matter: Rhetoric or Reality?” The Portland State Black Studies Department hosted the event which featured core faculty on the panel. The speakers included Department Chair Dr. Shirley Jackson, Associate Professor Ethan Johnson, Assistant Professor Derrais Carter, Adjunct Instructor Turiya Autry and Inaugural Director for the School of Gender, Race and Nations Winston Grady-Willis. The five led a discussion and addressed issues of race, education, police brutality and political activism.

Black Lives Matter has gained nationwide attention for its activism efforts since its founding in 2012. The movement calls attention to the ways in which the black community is deprived of basic human rights. The group speaks out against injustices such as the killings of black Americans through police brutality and an American criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. The Washington Post‘s statistical database tracks this disparity and police shootings across the country against all races.

The faculty panel provided a historical framework, explaining that movements like BLM are rooted in the historical activism of groups like the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement.

Educators on the panel stressed the importance of black studies in the curriculum, pointing out that PSU has yet to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

“This institution does not have an ethnic studies/racial studies requirement and has not since forever, as far as I know,” Johnson said. “What that means is that black studies is not valued, there is no institutional value placed on what we do.”

Johnson pointed out the scant availability for black studies tenure-track professors at PSU. However, professors Carter and Jackson believe the students are just as accountable for the improvement of the black studies curriculum as the school’s administration. Jackson spoke about what she would like to see from her students.

“I don’t want them to be satisfied with just what is,” Jackson said. “I don’t believe students are without agency; I believe they have lots of agency.”

An audience member brought up the issue of equity, noting that many young students do not have access to black or ethnic studies in elementary, middle or high school.

Audience member and PSU alumni Heidi Sipress spoke about the importance of ethnic studies in her field of social justice organizing. She acknowledged the systematic Eurocentric focus of the school system.

“These kinds of classes, this kind of education, can help break that down and offer up a fresh perspective and provide you with information that you’re not getting,” Sipress said. “One of the strengths of the Black Studies Department here at [PSU] is the way that they talk about analysis of the system and how capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy and those other spheres of oppression are interacting at any given time.”

Panelists also discussed the arming of campus police. Each member of the faculty panel spoke to their own sentiments regarding the presence of armed police on campus. Carter expressed an uncertainty that police would be the safest resource for him to call in an emergency.

“I am afraid of the police even in a time that I would need them the most,” Carter said. “I do not trust them to show up on the scene and read me as equal—such that they understand that I am a victim.”

Carter was not alone in mistrusting an armed police force on campus. Other movements like Don’t Shoot PDX and Disarm PSU have their own community presence and call attention to the disproportionate rate at which police shoot people of color. Activists in these movements emphasize that Don’t Shoot PDX and Black Lives Matter are separate entities with their own unique goals and guiding principles.

The panel responded to questions about the hope they have for future black generations given the racial tensions that exist in contemporary society. Autry urged crowd members to ask themselves important questions about how to bring about change.

“In the face of histories of oppression, genocide, violence, how do we share positive interaction in contexts where we are engaging on deeper levels intellectually, spiritually, emotionally?” Autry said. “I think there’s something powerful to a classroom, to a room like this collectively putting energy towards wanting the world to be different than it is.”

Autry added that this cannot be done with the intent of seeing immediate results, and that change doesn’t occur overnight.