Beyond the posters

You’ve probably seen the “wrench/gun” images that were plastered all over campus starting Thursday night. They depict a white hand holding a wrench juxtaposed with a black hand holding the same wrench. The word “wrench” is printed below the white hand, and the word “gun” is printed below the black hand.

We are students who organized in these efforts, and here’s why: We are acting out of concern for the community member who was mistakenly reported holding a silver revolver on Professors Row, and out of concern that the series of e−mails we received that day might have gone unquestioned.

Let us be very clear from the start — our intention is not to protest the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) or the individuals involved with this specific incident. Actually, we’re not protesting at all. We commend both the caller and TUPD for striving to keep our campus safe. Instead, we created our posters to encourage active dialogue across the Tufts community. We are a group of students who are deeply concerned with society’s accepted interpretation that so easily replaces a ratchet wrench with a gun in the hands of a black man. Let’s challenge ourselves to focus on the big picture.

Several hours after the e−mails were sent, the “wrench/gun” posters appeared on campus. The conversations that we have had and that our peers have had about this poster and the incident itself have varied. Responses range from support to laughter to anger and annoyance, with some claiming that we are being hypersensitive and are “playing the race card.”

It is productive to reflect upon this event within the larger context of other campus incidents. In 2006, The Primary Source published a Christmas carol, which verbally attacked the 52 black students of the class of 2010. Though the university declared the publication to be guilty of “harassment and creating a hostile environment,” in the end, no editorial restrictions or responsive reconciliation were instituted. In 2009, a student verbally assaulted, physically attacked, spat at and threatened to kill 13 members of the Korean Students Association, and earlier this semester, homophobic slurs and attacks appeared. And only days ago, a Tufts community member was singled out and alienated while going about his daily routine.

While these discriminatory incidences are the most memorable ones on campus, equally significant and damaging instances occur on a daily basis at our university. Tufts hosts a great deal of diversity, but our attempts to embrace it are not always fully realized. Consider not only the multiracial community that exists on the Hill, but also that Tufts is diverse in terms of geographic origin of its students and their socioeconomic status, religious affiliation and sexual orientation. Look around campus, in the curricula, student organizations, athletics, Greek life, etc.; notice how differences are not always recognized and embraced equally.

We would like to use this space to continue the dialogue and put words behind the visual campaign that got the campus talking. We believe that this incident cannot be looked at as one single misunderstanding but should be considered in the context of historic and continued racism against people of color through seemingly legitimate and legal methods. These include the various “three strikes” laws enacted throughout the country, as well as the disparity in the sentencing of crack and powder cocaine possession, which over−incarcerates those possessing minor amounts of crack. The reality is that black men are criminalized and over−incarcerated in our society. The reality is that one in three black men born in the United States today will be locked up during their lifetime based on current punitive criminal law, oppressive social conditions and existing trends.

Tufts is not immune from these social realities. Last Thursday’s incident is very much connected to a long and painful history of people of color who are racially profiled, deemed threatening and cast as criminals. The danger of connecting blackness and criminality is visible across the country in the realities of those who have been searched, incarcerated, shot and killed for simply reaching into their pockets to take out a non−threatening object such as a cell phone or a wallet.

Last Thursday’s incident was brief and did not result in physical harm, but we cannot deny its significance within a larger context of racial profiling in society. Both Columbia University Provost Claude Steele, in his recent and widely acclaimed text “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us,” and Associate Professor Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in his psychological research on race, have contributed evidence to the reality of “weapon bias.” This term refers to the tendency of people of all races to, in a split−second decision with unclear evidence, more often perceive an object to be a weapon in the hands of a black man than in the hands of a white man. For this reason, the race of the person who reported the alleged gun is irrelevant. Furthermore, the minute details of the object — adjustable or ratchet wrench — are not relevant to the macro issue and social reality of racial profiling and weapon bias.

The e−mails, posters and long discussions on Facebook challenge us all to reflect and think critically about our own identities and how they define our experiences, the context of last Thursday’s incident and its racial significance, and what implications this has for our community at Tufts. What we have now is an opportunity to start thinking and talking about making this campus more of a community and a safe and warm place for all — students, faculty and staff — across all spectra: social life, curricula and beyond.

Correction: The byline and biography accompanying an earlier version of this op-ed piece misspelled Geoffrey Gaurano’s name.