In the wake of racial conflict in the city of Ferguson, Mo., Tufts’ Center for the Study of Race and Democracy hosted a discussion, titled “Ferguson as Metaphor: Racial Equality in the 21st Century,” examining ongoing movements toward racial equality last night.
About 30 students and faculty packed a small room on the top floor of the center’s building to share opinions on the aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9. Associate Professor of Urban Education Sabina Vaught began by comparing the movement that followed Brown’s death with that which followed the 1991 beating of Rodney King.
“When I was an undergraduate, there was this moment of rage, and there are these moments throughout time,” she said. “We keep arriving at these moments, and we keep asking the same questions.”
Professor of History Peniel Joseph, who led the discussion, invited Tufts senior Zuri Anderson to speak on her experience as a Ferguson resident. She said the racialized shooting was representative of existing tensions in her community, which was 75 percent white when she was born but is now 67 percent black — of her white friends from childhood, “every single one of them” has moved away.
“This wasn’t an isolated incident,” she said. “I have incidents in my family. My brother has been arrested by Ferguson cops for nothing.”
Anderson was at home when the shooting took place, and she felt the media over-exaggerated the extent of looting and rioting. That was nothing, she said, compared to the consistent violence exerted on the people of Ferguson.
“One QuikTrip burning down, and hundreds of years of oppression,” she said.
Considering the Ferguson police force’s intense response to the unrest, Jonathan Diaz, a first-year student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said he is concerned about the militarization of police without a formal auditing system. He comes from Hartford, Conn., which he said now has a tank at its police’s disposal.
“What’s the last time we had a riot in Hartford?” he asked. “What are they planning against?”
The discussion broadened into an analysis of the pressing need to face racial inequities.
“We have huge racial segregation right here on this campus,” Joseph said. “In America, we are so segregated, but we’re also in denial about that segregation.”
Vaught cited such militarization of police forces as a symptom of “global patterns of white domination” that are ever-present.
“The thing that our pedagogy doesn’t teach us is that race is central to everything,” Joseph added. “There’s no such thing as a race card — it’s everywhere.”
He explained that the road to change is not easy.
“Historically the state has tried to do enormously oppressive things,” he said. “People have transformed that state, but it’s always a tug of war.”
Part of the evening centered on discussing how to bring up issues of race in academic settings. Diaz said he sees problems with things his classmates and professors say, but he is unsure how to bring them up.
“I don’t know how to address those things, being the only … person of color in the classroom,” he said.
Joseph noted that it is actually easier to create dialogue at places like Tufts.
“Higher education is such a select group,” he said. “Here people are presumably open for dialogue.”
Joseph contrasted this with public school districts in Missouri, many of which shut out discussion of Brown’s death and the ensuing protests. A Lesley University student, however, said she also feels unable to talk about the issue at her school, explaining that many of her white classmates react defensively.
“How do we bring it up on a campus where we don’t have a center for race and democracy and we don’t have these conversations?” she said. “Some people feel very alone.”
Community Health Program Director Jennifer Allen said she saw no way of avoiding discomfort when discussing race.
“The truth of the matter is, it’s always going to be difficult,” she said. “There are awful things we have to talk about.”
Tufts sophomore Jonathan Moore argued that scholarship on race issues can actually impede activism.
“Sometimes we feel as though this discussion becomes legitimate when you bring it into the classroom,” he said.
Anderson concluded that, while much of the American public has short-term memory issues and has moved on from Ferguson, the discussion must continue and activists must remain persistent.
“It’s a movement for marathon runners, not the 100-yard dash,” Joseph added.