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    The Michael Brown Shooting: Why the Requirement for ‘Perfect’ Victims is About Race

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    By the time Norma L. McCorvey was 21, she had abused drugs and was on her third child. While carrying that third child, her scheme to falsely claim she was raped in order to obtain a legal abortion put her in the path of attorneys seeking to challenge U.S. abortion laws. Those attorneys who would make her (as “Jane Roe”) the lead plaintiff in a landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that would make abortion within the first three months of pregnancy legal for all women in America and halt the deadly practice of amateur, underground abortions: Roe v. Wade. Subsequently, McCorvey, despite her background, became a national symbol of women’s rights and the fight against female oppression.

    photo-2-for-ferguson-blog-post

    via Twitter/PhillyPhill

    Was McCorvey an angel? No. Was McCorvey free from teenage and young adulthood missteps? No. Was her right as a woman to make decisions about her own body worthy of justice and defense –regardless of her sketchy background story? Yes.

    Enter Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, MO (2014).

    An unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson. Community uproar and demand for accountability, justice and legal recourse for police brutality followed the shooting. Then on the day Ferguson police officials released Wilson’s name to the media, they also released a video allegedly showing Brown stealing cigarillos from a convenience store right before his shooting. Several days later, it was ‘leaked’ that an autopsy revealed Brown had marijuana in his system on the day he was killed.

    The message being sent from the video and marijuana leak was clear: Brown wasn’t an angel. Therefore, because there were no wings found on his dead body, the legitimacy of the community and others fighting for his rights and seeking justice against police brutality should be questioned.

    Those looking to understand why McCorvey’s backstory did not alter public and court perception about the need for justice in her case while the exact opposite plays out in the Brown case need only know this: McCorvey is white. Brown was African-American.

    Sure, a situation in both the lives of McCorvey and Brown intersected with a long-standing discriminatory American policy/law, thus garnering demands for change. The difference is that in America, there is an expectation steeped in racism that African-American victims of injustice and/or those African-Americans fighting for justice should be beyond reproach, while white victims or justice fighters can be ‘flawed’ or ‘complex.’

    Just look at the African-American symbols of injustice in some of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court cases and justice movements in history: James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi; Rosa Parks, who brought national attention to Jim Crow laws on public transportation; little pigtailed Ruby Bridges, 6, who stoically endured racists and violence while integrating a white Southern school; and Mildred Loving, the other half of the couple in Loving v. Virginia that struck down laws against interracial marriage. These people were so squeaky clean that if they were a floor, you could eat off of them.

    Meanwhile, America is quite comfortable with its white heroes, leaders, and activists being flawed. What does it matter that Thomas Jefferson had essentially a second family with his slave Sally Hemings while President of the United States? Why should politician David Dukes let a little fact that he was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan stop him from being voted in by the American people as a Louisiana State Representative? Who can forget the Oscar-winning performance by Julia Roberts of Real-life Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich. The film portrays Brockovich, as a struggling single mother, who was able to expose corporate environmental crime after being hired by a boss who, when first meeting her, was able to overlook her dressed with certain upper body parts hanging out to see her ‘passion’ and ‘potential.’

    As the Brown case illustrates, even teenagers are not spared from this ridiculous double standard. For teenagers doing teenager stuff resonates quite differently when that teen is African-American. I can speak from past professional experience working in a treatment center serving white, rich kids, that marijuana use is not exclusive to African-American teenagers. Many of those kids had lied and stolen to support their drug habits. Some have been violent right before my eyes toward their parents seeking help for them. But with these teens – as with the infamous “affluenza” teen, Ethan Crouch, who killed four people while driving drunk and was sentenced to not-so-hard time in a treatment center – we are supposed to understand that not being fully mature, teenagers need our support, understanding, and second chances because they have – “potential.”

    By contrast, the news that Brown may have had marijuana in his system, whether true or not, has been used to illustrate his being unworthy, a “thug” (aka, N-word), not deserving of empathy, but very deserving of being shot at least six times (twice in the head) by Wilson. One need only read Twitter feeds, listen to commentators on television news programs, or read the comment section of virtually any newspaper covering the story to see examples of this thinking.

    Then the video of the alleged cigarillo ‘robbery’ was released, and the judgment was swift and decisive. “HP” wrote in the New York Times comment section that the video has convinced her “that incident is no longer between a Gentle Giant and rogue cop. It is between a felon and a cop.” And then in the same comment section, “David” of Chicago reminds us that Brown could reasonably have been expected to act aggressively toward Office Wilson because “as any psychologist will tell you, past behavior predicts future behavior.”

    So, Brown, whom authorities have verified did not have a criminal record, is now labeled permanently in death as a “felon.” But, of course, that’s a fair assessment because, as “David” points out, what was done in your past is always what you will do in the future.

    But, again, such reasoning only applies to African-American victims.

    When then 20-year-old Caroline Giuliani, daughter of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was arrested in 2010 for shoplifting at a Sephora in Manhattan, the worst she was called was “rebellious” (New York Post). The New York Daily News even went so far as to try to milk sympathy for her plight by calling her a “Poor Little Rich Girl,” while even interviewing a psychologist on what could motivate someone like her to steal. They even included a photo of her as a cute little girl to further drive home the point of her innate innocence to readers. Absent were the references to predictions of “future behavior” of the then Harvard student –– flawed, but worthy of a chance at a bright future. And unless my ears and eyes are failing me, I missed that psychological assessment in media accounts of Brown’s alleged cigarillo swipe.

    The double-standard extends to those who are fighting against injustice, as well. Lest we forget, the Occupy Wall Street Movement took over – let me repeat – took over a park in downtown Manhattan for months, met police efforts to shut them down with righteous resistance. They disrupted as they raised awareness about economic inequality between the 99% and the One Percent. Yes, people were tear-gassed. Yes, people were arrested. Yes it was mayhem. Yes it was chaos. Yes it was an uprising watched worldwide. These people meant business. Now, there was some public and media resentment toward the movement, including Newt Gingrich famously telling the large hipster contingent of the movement to “go get a job right after you take a bath.” But unless my ears are failing me, I don’t recall these activists being referred to as “animals” deserving of being murdered by the police, despite whatever flaws critics thought Occupy protestors possessed.

    But “animal” has actually been mild compared to other things said about African-American protestors in Ferguson. Some Americans have consistently questioned the protestors’ right to speak out about injustice toward the black community by whites because of “black on black crime,” looting,” and other irrelevant topics. In other words, how can a race of people, whose issues and actions are ‘complex’ and not perfect like their grandmother’s sweet potato pie, think they have the right to demand justice against police killing unarmed black men and women? That’s like saying white Americans should just sit back and accept the murders of loved ones at the hands of serial killers because the vast majority of serial killers are white males.

    But, then again, one can’t really expect a logical assessment of Ferguson protestors from people who view them as racially inferior people whose lives are not worth much at all. “If looting and firebombing, destruction of property and violence is their reaction to everything, perhaps we haven’t shot enough?” asked “Kevin,” of Kansas, on a New York Times comment section, without any shame.

    But not every white person in America is drinking that Kool-Aid. Some get the double standards in both word and deed. One poignant Ferguson protestor sign carried by a white male captured on Twitter read: “At 18 Yrs old in Festus, MO, I shot a cop with a BB Gun. Why am I still alive?”

    People who are looking for perfection from fighters for justice are living in an alternate reality. For as history has shown, those who are willing to risk it all to right a wrong or correct injustice are not usually those who have the most to lose in the way of big and shiny things like cars, houses, boats, and the corner office. It is usually those with nothing left to lose, nowhere to go but up. And life at the bottom ain’t no crystal stair. Therefore, the people at the bottom will not be perfect. They may look the brother in the now famous Ferguson protest photo, who slings a fiery object back at police with one hand while holding a bag of potato chips in the other. But they will be courageous.

    Author James Baldwin, himself a participant in the black Civil Rights’ Movement of the 60s, understood this formidable combination when he said: “the most dangerous creation in any society is the man who has nothing left to lose.”

    But don’t’ be misled that this powerful fact is lost on those participating in the smear campaigns of Michael Brown, Eric Garner before him, Renisha McBride before him, Jordan Davis before her, and Trayvon Martin before him.

    Their goal in focusing on the imperfections of victims and protestors is to silence minority concerns through de-legitimization. Their goal is to create a smoke screen to blind others to the obvious injustices. Their goal is to steer the discourse off-topic in hopes that it will remain there and never find its way back.

    It’s an old tactic. It’s a pretty transparent tactic, but people still accept it in America.

    The reason is as clear as black and white.

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    T.M. Bonner writes regularly about social justice and social policy issues for her blog, "The Girl From Jane Addams," featured on WordPress, Blogger, Google+ and Tumblr. She brings a unique perspective to the intersection of media and social policies adversely impacting African-Americans and other oppressed minority groups as an MBA (Media Management) and a former daily newspaper reporter. She is a writer, an entrepreneur in social policy and media living in New York City.

    Diversity

    Why Political Science Can and Should Lead Diversity Efforts in Higher Education

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    Diversity is big business in the academy. Foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, and Robert Wood Johnson support academic efforts to diversify the professoriate; and colleges and universities across the country are investing significant resources in diversity efforts. Furthermore, the academy has begun hiring chief diversity officers, following corporate sector trends — 60% of Fortune 500 companies have chief diversity officers among their top-executives.

    Although the numbers of women in political science have shown modest growth over the last two decades, the number of women of color in the field has largely remained flat. Political science scholarship on minority representation in U.S. legislatures sheds light on this professional conundrum, too. This literature shows how organized women, racial and ethnic minorities, and their allies can promote diversity and inclusive practices to bring about lasting change in political science, other disciplines and higher education more broadly.

    An Opportune Moment for Political Science

    Research on social movements shows that, when windows of opportunity arise, activists must have the resources to change the status quo and push for policy breakthroughs. I suggest that heightened attention to institutional diversity across academia presents an opportunity that political scientists can and should seize by presenting themselves as credible stakeholders who are well-equipped to: steward institutions’ newly available resources, run innovative pilot programs, and produce returns on institutional diversity investments for both students and faculty.

    Student demands will be a key resource in these efforts, but administrators can often “wait students out” — stalling student diversity efforts until a new cohort must begin afresh. Political Science is uniquely positioned to lead institutional change by using research from the discipline to encourage student activists to investigate the issues, formulate long- and short-term goals, determine the scope of their influence, identify allies and opponents, construct informed arguments, and make specific demands with measurable outcomes. This informed activism can help students leverage their status over time as students, alumni, and donors to move towards shared goals for departmental, disciplinary, and institutional change.

    Political Science is attracting many undergraduate women majors. Women are faring as well as men on the discipline’s job market. They are approaching pay equity with male colleagues and increasing their presence in the ranks of full professors. In 2010, women of color comprised 13.5% of female political science faculty, more than double their share in 1980. Although this improvement remains relatively modest compared to the nearly 300% increase in women faculty over that span, the progress for women of color is promising and can act as a foundation for future diversity efforts. Nevertheless, many challenges must still be addressed — including burdens of balancing tenure-track and family responsibilities, “inhospitable” institutional climates, and research norms that discount women’s contributions to collaborative work.

    Building a Diversity Infrastructure

    Sheer numbers are the first requirement for building diversity infrastructure. With sufficient numbers, members of gender and racial caucuses can promote further change and build organizational capacities. Research on the impact of diversity in Congress shows that the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses encourage information and resource sharing, enhanced communication, and collective action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities. Through caucuses, task forces, and organized voting blocs, minority legislators have kept low-salience civil rights issues on the congressional agenda despite waning public interest. Women’s and racial and ethnic caucuses in national and regional political science associations show that female political scientists can capitalize on their numbers to act as disruptive-insiders to further diversify faculties and challenge discrimination.

    Buy-in from political science department heads who name search committees and from faculty making influential recommendations will be indispensable for furthering these efforts. Departmental objectives can be linked to university diversity efforts. Male faculty members should be encouraged to serve on diversity committees and act as change agents.

    Thinking beyond individual departments, women’s caucuses and ethnic caucuses in political science associations could share resources and knowledge and coordinate agendas. If increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the discipline is to be achieved, then women’s caucuses will need to work closely with race and ethnic caucuses in the discipline. Although universal sisterhood may be a worthy ideal, faculty women of color cannot be cast as handmaidens rather than full partners in the work of transforming the discipline.

    Mentorship is Not Enough

    The number of women of color entering political science faculties has stagnated, and many minority faculty members leave political science departments for more hospitable interdisciplinary centers. Recruitment and retention should therefore be top priorities — and that is going to take more than just mentoring programs.

    Mentorship is a common answer to the challenge of recruiting, supporting, and retaining minority faculty. Mentoring, however, only teaches people how to survive in institutions. It does not necessarily attract more people to enter institutions, and it does not help them change institutions. Although the very presence of black women on academic faculties and in front of classrooms changes the academy, that is not enough. Despite widely shared good intentions, the discipline cannot rely on mentoring alone to help women of color overcome racism, sexism, and other systematic obstacles to their advancement. At best, mentoring will help women faculty of color expand their social networks, establish important professional relationships, and better navigate minefields. At worst, mentoring will help some individuals survive and advance, while maintaining longstanding power disparities in the discipline. Mentoring obviously cannot ameliorate the impediments that routinely challenge and undermine women of color at all ranks of the professoriate. Political science must lead the way in identifying and deploying all of the strategies that can bring broader progress in universities and disciplines.

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    Diversity

    The Impact of Institutional Racism on Capitol Hill

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    The 116th Congress, the current meeting of the legislative branch of the United States federal government, is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. Black, Latinx, Asian/ Pacific Islander, or Indigenous members now account for 22% of Congress, a record-breaking trend on Capitol Hill. This represents an 84% increase over the 107th Congress of 2001 to 2003, which had 63 diverse members. Although racial and ethnic diversity among lawmakers has increased over the years, Congress remains disproportionately white when compared to the overall U.S. population.

    Social Solutionist Dr. Angela Henderson suggests that the lack of diversity of legislators on Capitol Hill is directly tied to institutional racism. Skilled in research and statistical analysis, Dr. Henderson examined demographic data from the 116th Congress to better understand the relationship between systemic inequities and racial and ethnic disproportionality. Dr. Henderson translates research into action-oriented solutions that will eradicate institutional racism and increase diversity on Capitol Hill.

    “The best way to change the future is to understand history.”

                     – Adam Ramer 

    The requirement for candidates to raise significant funds for their congressional campaign compounds the homogeneity on Capitol Hill. Due to the effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and unequitable wealth distribution, the lack of monetary inheritance within communities of color present significant barriers. Monetary inheritance within a family provides financial stability for future generations to thrive and take advantage of wealth-building opportunities. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center article, the income of households headed by Black people continues to lag behind households headed by white people. In 2014, the median Black household income was approximately $43,300 while the median white household income was about $71,300. The study also found that household heads with higher levels of formal education tend to have higher household incomes. However, the Black-white-gap in income occurs across all educational levels and indicates a lack of equitable opportunities for communities of color.

    Decades of racial discrimination, segregation, and disinvestments in communities of color have left families with fewer resources when under financial pressure. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted The New Deal to combat a housing shortage and to increase housing stock. In reality, this program was a state-sponsored system of segregation that pushed Black and Brown families into urban housing projects. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration furthered segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages within Black and Brown communities, a practice known as redlining. The Federal Housing Administration justified racial segregation by claiming property values would decrease if people of color bought homes near the suburbs. Although the New Deal was repealed in 1939, it has left behind ongoing stagnant racial inequities and deep wealth gaps between Black and white communities.

    Debt negatively impacts all families but is especially burdensome for families of color. Research suggests that while only 15% of white households have been late with debt payments, 27% of Black households have been late with debt payments. Without a social safety net or alternative financial means, more and more Black families may be at risk of taking out additional loans at high interest rates to pay their living expenses. This leaves fewer assets and means for families to support and assist their children with basic life necessities, such as housing, transportation, and/or college tuition.

    “There can be no learning without action, and no action without learning.”

              – Reg Revans

    According to Dr. Henderson, we can take the following steps to push back against the effects of institutional racism and increase leadership diversity on Capitol Hill:

    1. Community Rites of Passage Investment: We must strategically invest in our youth of color early, particularly investing in youths of color who are on a political track that requires financial means to succeed. Given that it takes a village to raise a child, our community should collectively craft solutions and invest in opportunities for our children to do so.
    2. Mentoring, Internships, and Fellowships: All professions, including political social workers and researchers, should challenge themselves to mentor and provide internships and fellowships to youth, undergraduate, and graduate students. These programs and opportunities, such as Emerge Virginia, will help students get acquainted with working in Congressional or State offices.
    3. Political Training Programs: This learning opportunity will help students develop skills around campaign messaging, fundraising, campaign budgeting, and all tactics pertaining to running for office.
    4. Political Action Committees (PAC): Support PACs, U.S. organizations that raise money privately to influence elections or legislation.
    5. Social Work Political Campaign Courses: Every social work program around the country should offer a course about social workers and political campaigns. This course should provide social work students with a year-long intensive training on politics, etiquette, debating, and different ways to prepare them for work in this realm.

    In order to increase leadership diversity on Capitol Hill, we will need to create more opportunities for people of color. Acknowledging the challenges and barriers they often face such as limited professional networks and political clout, we have to be intentional about bringing people of color into these spaces. We have to ensure that we are equipping youth and communities of color with the connections and resources needed to build wealth and maintain sustainability. As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley urges, “we have to be disruptors, innovators, and we have to shake the table.”

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    Diversity

    How to Create Inclusive Environments for Black Students on Predominantly White College Campuses

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    Predominantly white institutions of higher education in the United States routinely point to rising enrollments of students of color as evidence of their commitment to racial diversity and inclusion. Indeed, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollments of minority students have increased exponentially. Across all types of institutions, the percentage of white college students enrolled in the United States fell from 84 percent in 1976 to 58 percent in 2015.

    Even so, Black enrollments in selective colleges and universities have remained consistently low for the past two decades. Regardless of shifting percentages, however, enrollment numbers are poor metrics for inclusivity. They say very little about the social integration of Black students once they arrive on predominantly white college campuses.

    Inclusivity depends on more than enrollment rates, it is about enrolled students coming to feel that they really belong in campus communities where they are valued and accepted. The prevalence of anti-Black incidents and the growing presence of white supremacist groups on college campuses suggest that America has not achieved true inclusivity for Black college students — and may be losing ground in some places.

    The U.S. Department of Education reports that the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016, right after the election of Donald Trump. Further, there have been high profile media reports of white students or college staff people who call the police on Black students and staff for engaging in routine activities such as sleeping in a residence hall common area or eating lunch on campus.

    Predominantly white institutions can cultivate more inclusive environments for Black students by moving beyond just numerical diversity. They should focus instead on subtle dynamics of campus exclusion, and the extent to which students feel they belong and are well mentored and supported.

    Mechanisms of Anti-Black Exclusion on Predominantly White Campuses

    Sociological research points to discriminatory dynamics for Black students on predominantly white campuses:

    Segregated white socialization. Anti-Black prejudice in the United States has long been reinforced by racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, and churches that make it possible for white students to arrive on college campuses without ever having interacted meaningfully with Black peers. With academic tracking, many white students can also be educated in predominantly white classrooms even in racially diverse public schools. As a result, many white students and faculty arrive on college campuses holding unchallenged racist myths and misconceptions about Black people.

    Hostile racial climates. Scholars find that a hostile racial climate leads to feelings of marginalization and isolation that harm achievement and retention for minority students. Greater numbers of minority enrollees do not necessarily lead to cross-racial interactions, or necessarily challenge dominant racial ideologies and master narratives. Black students experience hostile campus climates through everyday racial slights and the failure of faculty and administrators at historically white institutions to enact policies to counter racial and ethnic harassment.

    Assumptions flowing from college admissions policies. College admissions policies can contribute to the marginalization of Black students by creating presumptions that many of them may be less meritorious than their white and Asian peers. The Black–white SAT test score gap feeds into racist notions of Black intellectual inferiority and informs false narratives of affirmative action programs as discriminatory towards white and Asian applicants. Yet research confirms that GPAs are a better predictor of college performance than SAT scores; and many test scores have been found to rest on racially biased assumptions. Apart from assumptions spread by admissions rules, recent scholarship also suggests that some admissions officers discriminate against prospective Black students who are oriented towards social justice.

    How to Fight Black Exclusion on College Campuses

    Providing supportive and inclusive spaces for Black students is particularly important in the current social context. The following are suggestions that can be used by predominantly white institutions.

    • Develop new metrics for success. Stop using only numeral diversity in admissions or graduation rates as the primary metrics for progress. Instead, focus as well on measuring the racial climate on campus and student feelings of belonging and attachment to the institution.

    • Train people in how to discuss racial issues. Provide professional training for faculty on how to lead effective conversations about racism in their classrooms and as advisors. Provide similar training to administrators, staff, and student leaders.

    • Establish both safe spaces and brave spaces: Recognize that Black students need safe spaces on predominantly white campuses where they can have a reprieve from anti-Black racism. Simultaneously, create cross-racial “brave spaces” for all students to develop authentic and sustained interracial interactions, while providing them with tools and support to do so effectively.

    • Spread anti-racist narratives: Find multiple ways to counter harmful anti-Black stereotypes. For example, Test Optional College Admissions policies are already being used at many of the most competitive schools in the United States. And classroom curricula can also be used to further deepen students’ racial literacy. Additionally, universities should forcefully identify antiracist values as a core feature of their institution’s identity.
    • Anti-discrimination and harassment policies: Develop clear policies and procedures that outline consequences for discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, and other social identities. These policies provide accountability that is critical for combating hostile racial climates.

    Read more in Bedelia Nicola Richards, “Faculty Assessments as Tools of Oppression: A Black Woman’s Reflections on (Colorblind) Racism in the Academy” in Intersectionality and Higher Education: Identity and Inequality on College Campuses, edited by W. Carson Byrd, Sarah Ovink, and Rachelle J. Brunn-Bevel (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

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