LSA panel discusses combating systemic racism, representing people of color

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 8:20pm

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Courtesy of Navya Gupta

LSA hosted a virtual panel via Zoom Tuesday afternoon to discuss ways to support the community through the nationwide protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd. The conversation was moderated by Jessica Garcia, LSA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager. About 500 people attended. 

LSA Dean Anne Curzan spoke about the University of Michigan community’s strong desire to fight racism and violence against Black people. She spoke about the importance of centering the voices of people of color and combating systemic racism.

“I know that members of our community, especially our Black faculty, staff and students, are experiencing pain, anger, fear and exhaustion,” Curzan said. “The fact that Black people in America need to assert that their lives matter is deeply troubling and completely unacceptable. Black lives matter, it should go without saying, and yet it couldn’t be more important right now to say it.”

Curzan emphasized the need for the LSA community to be willing to put themselves in uncomfortable positions and have conversations about racial oppression in order to manifest change.

“As a college, we accept responsibility for continuing to provide resources and opportunities for this education,” Curzan said. “And we must be ready to engage and act. This work will require energy and bravery and determination. We must also be willing to have hard, honest conversations about the history of racism in this country and anti-Black violence, about macro and microaggressions against people of color, including on our own campus, and about systemic racism.”

LSA junior Thomas Vance spoke about how initially he wasn’t surprised by George Floyd’s killing, but seeing the nationwide protests convinced him to contribute to the fight for justice by donating to the cause and spreading information. Vance also discussed how he has been participating in conversations about racism and police brutality in the Black Student Union.

“What felt overwhelming was the international response,” Vance said. “While I wanted to disengage at first, the amount of support that it seemed like the community needed caused me to get a little bit more engaged.”

LSA alum Justin Gordon spoke about how all participants in the protests have different roles to play. He said he has been working on curating a soundtrack for the revolution and has been contributing by supporting those who want to protest by looking after their children in their absence. 

“(I’m) giving people music to protest to, giving people the music to take their socks off after they’re done protesting,” Gordon said. “They might be bruised, (but) they can listen to the music, and they can dance with partners, friends and family and know it was all worth it. I’m creating art so when people are bleeding from the side of their head or get mace all in their eyes or they are tired, they can have something to give them some encouragement.”

Elizabeth James, program associate in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies, said she is praying for the spirits of victims of police brutality and noted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community in Detroit. 

“The Black community is being bombarded with death,” James said. “Death is a crossing over, it’s a natural occurrence, but it isn’t a natural occurrence (in the cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor). It’s something that should remain shocking, it should not numb us, it should be something that we stop. (We should) really take mark of what is happening with each person who is leaving us and being taken from us.”

Jeffrey Morenoff, professor of sociology and director of the Population Studies Center, spoke about how he has been trying to educate himself about the injustices faced by people of color.

“I have been engaging in a lot of deep, personal reflection about my own white privilege and the way it informs my everyday interactions and behaviors,” Morenoff said. “(I’ve been) thinking about how deeply saddened and depressed and angry this moment has made me and how little progress I’ve seen over my lifetime in striving for racial justice.”

DeMario Bell, mentorship program manager for alum engagement at the LSA Opportunity Hub, spoke about how he has been reflecting on the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1955. 

“For the past couple of weeks, I felt pain, hurt, exhaustion, personally,” Bell said. “My friends have felt that. My Black colleagues have felt that as well. We know just based on the data that police manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. There are two standards of policing, one that's reserved for Black and brown people, and then there's one that is reserved for white people, and it's completely unfair.”

The panel further emphasized the importance of ensuring the protests against racial injustice continue and do not become a temporary trend.

Vance agreed the protests must be sustainable, and people simply acknowledging the problem isn’t enough. He said people, brands and organizations need to be proactive about fighting racial inequality. 

“The biggest issue I see right now is people perceive allyship or allyhood as something that is only reactionary but people are not willing to be proactive about it,” Vance said. “So it's like one of the white people that you follow on Twitter will address you as ‘Dear Black friends, I will do better.’ And that really makes people uncomfortable because it's like you could just individually reach out to those people if you're really friends. But if you feel like you need a template to say sorry or your activism is limited to 280 characters, it's insufficient.”

Bell also highlighted the importance of diverse leadership in University management to ensure all students feel represented.

“It is important for each department here at LSA to re-examine who is on your leadership team,” Bell said. “It is important for Black and brown people and all people of all marginalized communities to see someone who looks like them. I would encourage us to really start thinking about who has a seat at the table and whose voices are we allowing in and whose voices are we not allowing to be part of the conversation.”

Bell said that the University needs to engage with Black and brown alumni and give them the opportunity to be heard. He said they need to be invited back to campus to share their experiences on navigating social identities in the workplace. 

“I think, quite frankly, the University owes Black and brown alumni an apology for just the sheer fact of ignoring their contributions that they can make to the University, whether a major gift or not,” Bell said.

Curzan closed the conversation by emphasizing the importance of working together as a University to overcome systemic racism and give people of color a voice.

“We have work to do,” Curzan said. “We have work to do in the college and at the University, and I am deeply committed to that work.”

Daily Staff Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at itznavya@umich.edu.