Friday, July 8, 2016

Awakened in the Wake

In the wake of the recent events in which Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were the victims of police brutality and 5 police officers and 7 others were injured in a sniper shooting, Professor Hanson acknowledged the events and assured us we would get an opportunity to discuss it later before starting his lecture on racial inequality. After the Civil War, the Plessy v. Ferguson case set the precedent for the "separate but equal" doctrine that the South adhered to and used to segregate the society. In search for opportunity, many African Americans moved north and into cities, known as the Great Migration. During the war mobilization, there was more work available, and blacks were able to achieve a stable middle class, inspiring the Harlem Renaissance. However, the movement did not last very long and dissipated soon, leading to deindustrialization. Through the G.I. bill for white soldiers after World War 2, suburbanization occurred due to more widespread college education and lower costs for houses.

After race riots in L.A. and other cities, police were forced to become more brutal to keep order. However, the 1980s and 1990s saw new vitality in cities and gentrification occurred, forcing poorer families further out from cities by driving rent upwards. Gentrification, which is also occurring in the Bay Area, is the process of wealthier people populating poorer areas for lower housing rates and creating a better environment through their wealth.

Once Professor Hanson finished his lecture, Dr. Salmanson advised us to try to be open-minded and to be aware of intersectionality, or the communities a person is a part of. He also encouraged us all to set up a safe space to discuss or consider these issues, as they make affect some more strongly than others. We then wrote down our feelings on the recent events on Post-Its, which were then posted on the wall anonymously. It seemed as though a lot of people were anxious or nervous in regard to the increasing frequency of these types of events that lead to death. Once all of our feelings were adhered to the wall, we walked  by them, looking at the various reactions people felt.
Part of our wall of feelings
After we each had a chance to see all the emotional responses people had, our guest, Dr. Imani Perry, a graduate of both Yale and Harvard and now a professor at Princeton University, was introduced to us and she began to talk to us about the tensions between blacks and the police, going back 100 years. She stated out by elaborating on one of the articles she had us read ("A Report from Occupied Territory") that revealed the situation during that time in that area. "Occupied territory" was used to describe the surveillance and police militarism that offered no support or counsel to residents. The Harlem Six incident was blamed on Malcolm X for his advocacy of violence. She also went over the other article she had us read ("King's Last March") by providing us with the detailed details leading up to his death. He led a march for better working conditions. but some of the younger demonstrators began looting, turning one of his marches violent, for the first time. The next morning, after delivering a speech, he was assassinated, resulting in nationwide riots.

Dr. Perry then started talking about how after Reconstruction ended in the South, the legal system was used to exploit blacks for free forced labor. They were incarcerated more and controlled by police due to the criminalization of vagrancy, and unlike slavery, where owners had an incentive to keep slaves alive and well, such was not the case for the labor camp workers. Furthermore, it was not only a problem in the South, but one in the North as well, as blacks were prevented from getting homes or subjected to mob violence. She also pointed out that language could have racial connotations that could also lead to legal repercussions. Even kids were labeled as delinquents or pre-delinquents by police in anticipation of becoming rule-breakers. However, most people have broken the rules, although most offenses go unpunished, and blacks receive a disproportionate amount of surveillance and suspicion. Oddly enough, police officers are incentivized to make more arrests or discover more crimes through the organization and are awarded for doing so. Her advice to conclude the lecture was to interrogate language, be attentive to gaps, and analyze structure.

Following her lecture, Dr. Perry decided to hold a Q&A discussion, which many people certainly took advantage of. I got the opportunity to ask a question, so I asked for her opinion on whether we would be able to resolve the tensions between police and blacks without a radical upheaval of the current system, to which she responded that she believed radical change would be needed. On a closely related topic, I wondered whether the self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence and growing mutual distrust between people and the police could be alleviated, and if so, how we would go about achieving that, given that neither side would want to be the first to disarm, due to the vulnerability that would result.

Later, after lunch, we headed downtown to visit the African American Museum in Philadelphia, which contained history of the effort made by African Americans to free themselves as well as examples of racial injustice nowadays, such as the racial profiling that police officers do. I didn't realize the full extent to which blacks are targeted by police until I heard the testimonials at the museum that some had been stopped over a hundred times.
African American Museum in Philadelphia
Inside the African American Museum in Philadelphia
Bells outside the museum, with a penitentiary across the street
While I had been aware that blacks were targeted disproportionately to other races, I hadn't quite known the disparity was quite so large. It seems strange that about 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, there is still a racial inequality that exists that doesn't seem to be getting much smaller. All these recent events help to shape my perspective though, as I've learned more and more about the social issues that give some people an unfair advantage over others. Hopefully, the rest of the general population is learning from these occurrences as well to raise awareness about social justice.

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