Activist and author Shaun King sold out Rackham Auditorium Monday night for his speech exploring the mixed reactions on campus following the 2016 presidential election. The event was hosted by the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives as part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
Austin McCoy, a Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan, opened by talking about activist groups on campus and his goal to empower marginalized people. McCoy ended by saying “Black Lives Matter,” “Black Queer Lives Matter” and other variations of the slogan, receiving cheers from the audience in response.
King then began his speech by describing his hopes to instill new perspectives in the socially active audience.
“I am not necessarily here to inspire, because I believe in a lot of ways that you are already inspired,” King said. “Tonight I am here to really teach you a lesson that will give you a new lens through which to see the world.”
King described what he felt after viewing the video of Eric Garner, a Black man strangled by the police in New York in July 2014. The video, which showed a police officer strangling Garner despite Garner telling the officer he couldn’t breathe, went viral, sparking protests around the country.
“What I saw was Officer Daniel Pantaleo, NYPD, choking Eric Garner to death,” King said, “It shook me.”
King came to understand the killings of Garner and other young Black men by the police through the work of German historian Leopold von Ranke, who believed humanity was not steadily progressing as most people believe, but rather progress within humanity was much more varied and went through highs and lows.
According to King, von Ranke is credited with compiling the first comprehensive history of the world. Today, he said, the most common mistake humans often make is equating human progress with technological progress.
King applied von Ranke’s theory to the recent 2016 election, agreeing that humanity is not a straight path to advancement, and the election of Donald Trump as president shows a dip in the progression.
Reactions to the election of Trump have been mixed on campus. Student organizations such as BAMN — the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary — recently led a march protesting Trump.
“Humanity is not this steady inclining progression where people are just getting better and better and better and better,” King said. “Humanity is instead of series of peaks and valleys.”
King said much of the surprise people felt after incidents such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide came from this falsehood that humanity is constantly progressing.
“For months, maybe years, we have walked around deeply confused at what we are experiencing because what we are experiencing doesn’t feel like the way we thought 2016 and 2017 would feel,” King said, in regards to the negative reaction to Trump’s win as president.
The event also touched on the history of institutional discrimination against Black people in the United States. The high incarceration rates in the United States — especially among African Americans — King added, is largely due to the Nixon administration’s goal of criminalizing Blackness without explicitly announcing it.
“I hear people all the time say our justice system is broken,” King said. “What they tell us is that this system is not broken, but it was built to function this way.”
King reiterated that the peaks and valleys in history have caused things such as the end of slavery, the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and the election of a Black president.
Social Work student Dominique Hollis, who attended the event, said groups of people need to come together in order to overcome the dip King described.
“We need to expand this conversation to recognize that while yes, people of color are greatly disenfranchised … dissociating from members of the white community who are reaching out of desperation at times when they vote for people like Trump does not get us out of the dip,” Hollis said. “It only gets us deeper because we are not involving those parties in the conversation.”
If people don’t act like society is in a dip, according to King society will never emerge from it.
“Innovation disturbed the primary power structure and in response to the innovation, we are now living in the dip,” King said.
Rackham student Paula Luu said she had different expectations for King’s speech following the Women’s March and felt disappointed by the lack of answers.
“I came here wanting to better understand the how: how movements have been moved forwards in the past, and how we can build off, what I feel, is a lot of national energy,” Luu said. “I don’t feel like I got that today.”