Brown University Ferguson Teach-In: A Recap

The Ferguson Teach-In that took place at Brown University during the first full week of school (9/9) gave five professors the mic and a stage to contextualize and attempt to explain recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

It is no coincidence that this talk (part of the “Transformative Conversations Series”) was a partnership between the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Taubman Center, the very same institution that invited Ray Kelly to speak last fall. The Watson Institute, which, by the way, just announced plans to integrate with Taubman, also co-hosted.

These motions for dialogue are examples of University “neutrality” politics, and there are always politics in being “apolitical.” The presence of the Taubman Center and Watson Institute took away time from more potentially radical/activist interpretations of Ferguson. Though no one on the panel was pro-police-brutality, “neutrality” watered down the Teach-In to make it palatable for white audiences. Significantly, James Morone of the Taubman Center spoke first.

The powers that be have finally realized that racial tensions aren’t simply going to disappear. Though obviously not the end of the road by any means, Transformative Conversations may be the administration’s first step towards campus-wide dialogue about difficult structural topics. Shout out to the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA) for giving us space to engage with these ideas in a productive way during the Teach-In.

However, recognizing that racial tensions happen on a large scale across the nation is a way of continuing to ignore demands of people of color and activists on campus. For example, the media’s depiction of black rage as irreverent and unfounded is reminiscent to the way the Brown administration responded to the Ray Kelly incident last fall.

The possibility remains that this can be re-addressed in the future, but that has yet to be seen.

Professor James Morone, professor of political science and the newly appointed director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, spoke first. His sensationalist introduction focused on mentalities of fear and the rising numbers of POC in the United States.

When he said, “Great change brings great anxiety,” his statement implied that everyone in the audience had anxieties about racial justice. However, he may have underestimated the number of non-white bodies in the audience that did not agree. By making his remarks from only white people’s perspective, even if unintentionally, it became clear for whom Morone, and by extension the Taubman Center, initially directed this Teach-In.

He also made an extremely over generalized comment that essentially equated white immigrant groups (the Irish and Italians, for example) with the Asian “model minority” stereotype in regards to assimilation processes. This association ignored differences between the identity groups in terms of power and privilege. It also made it seem as if the “model minority” label applied by the white power structure is positive stereotype, as if being a “model minority” was a step closer to the ultimate goal of “whiteness.” Tying his earlier points back to Ferguson, he presented the militarization of police as a way to reassert white dominance out of fear of loss of control. Needless to say, his 10 minute speech was all over the place. It was clear that positive intent was there, but his white-fear focused monologue failed to mention Mike Brown’s name even once.

Professor Bogues, head of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, spoke next. He used an eloquent metaphor describing Ferguson as a “flashpoint” in the revelation of truth. For him, these cataclysmic events separate “those who think they know, and those who feel and experience.” This highlighted the justified rage felt by students, particularly students of color, that has been delegitimized by the University as well as the rage that has been demonized in Ferguson.

Bogues also addressed the irony of a Black president that presides over an increasingly militaristic state, both in terms of surveillance and brute power. Bogues demands a significant amount of respect when he speaks and you could feel it in the room. However, his argument emphasized the structural oppression of only Black men without addressing how these structures affect other folks within black communities.

A little later, Dr. Stefano Bloch, a Mellon Fellow in the Urban Studies Department, spoke about the militarization of police in one of the most innovative interpretations of the events in Ferguson to date. He explained that their outfits and actions put them within the legal definition of a gang, challenging pre-existing stereotypes of race, crime, and space.

The police in Ferguson precipitated violence with their attire, including apparel, military-industrial-complex hand-me-downs, and grooming.  Going to a peaceful protest with riot gear often pushes protesters, not the other way around. “The police are living up to their gadgets,” he said. Protestors then feel they cannot reach out to the police as individual human beings rather than inhuman arms of the state. Ironically, police would be safer without the added gear. What would have happened at Chicago’s 1968 DNC, for instance, if the police had shown up without arms? Though we will never know what would have happened if history changed, Bloch’s framework has important policy and social justice implications for the future.

Professor Marcia Chatelain, who is in the History Department at Georgetown, discussed her #Fergusonsyllabustwitter campaign. Dismayed that her colleagues refused to draw connections to racially-charged current events, citing reasons like “It happened over the summer, so I don’t have to teach it” or “I teach the 1800s,” Prof. Chatelain decided to do something about it. Through social media, she encouraged the academy to discuss Ferguson in their classrooms, thus challenging customary white-washed syllabi in colleges and high schools around the country. Social media connects educators who want to include these events that traditionally have been ignored in American educational institutions, and hopefully also allows marginalized student voices to be heard as well. Props to Prof. Chatelain.

Prof. Tricia Rose, head of the CSREA, spoke last. She emphasized how microscopic media coverage has become, focusing on the details of the shooting of Michael Brown rather than the structural forces at play. She cited the idea of “racism without racists:” even though most [white] people don’t identify as racists, and generally policy no longer has blatantly racist language, racist attitudes and policy-making still persists. This directly influences police actions against people of color. But the media dances around or blatantly denies these structures, leading to mass misunderstanding of the forces at hand. “Our illiteracy has consequences,” she said. “Not knowing is not a luxury we can afford any longer.”

Seeking knowledge is something that should always be encouraged, as Prof. Bloch and Prof. Rose discussed in the later Q&A period. Learning is a privilege and a gift, as is disseminating that knowledge. Something as complex and emotionally charged as Ferguson can be framed in a multitude of ways–as evidenced by this Teach-In. Whether that framework involved the over-militarization of police or the redlining in Black districts, these scholars all discussed longstanding racialized dynamics of power and privilege through the lens of what has erupted in Ferguson.

At the end of the day, people from all different backgrounds came together for this event. This Teach-In’s attendees weren’t just race-related event regulars, though they showed up as well.  A frank conversation about Ferguson occurred from different angles. In that sense, the Teach-In achieved Transformative Conversations’ mission.

Hopefully, in the future, these goals and discussions will be redefined to connect current events to campus activism, race issues, and progressive thinking as well. Though it can be said that these connections can be made by the students on their own, they may or may not be made with the same critical lens. Students need the space, time, and tools to deal with these issues frankly in their everyday lives just as they do with the connected issues in Ferguson.

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