Seeking Truth Together: Challenging the Silence Racism Creates
By David Ragland
April 02, 2015 "ICH"
- When racial bias occurs it is customary to suggest that such practices are out
of the norm or something only done by an individual out of touch with prevailing
social values, but racism is part of American social ecology, often as
unrecognized as the air we breathe.
That contaminant of racism in our national atmosphere has
become more sharply noticeable, however, since the generalized uprising of hurt
protest following the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting death of Michael Brown
in August last year. We are beginning to see that it all connects, that each
incident relates to the others.
Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon and now Bucknell
University’s recent racist outburst cogently demonstrate that such incidents are
widespread in American higher educational institutions. On March 20, 2015 three
Bucknell students on the campus radio station during the “Happy Time show” made
racial slurs. The following is from an account released by John Bravman,
Bucknell University President.
Student 1: “Niggers”
Student 2: “Black people should be dead.”
Student 3: “Lynch ‘em!”
The three students who made the statements have been expelled
as of Monday March, 30, 2015. According to sources close to the University
administration their fraternity[s] have revoked their memberships.
Over the past few days, Bucknell University administration and
a concerned group of students and faculty have worked to formulate a response to
avoid the status quo of silence on campus. The violence advocated in the
language of this and other incidents points to a set of greater truths.
1. Racism is rooted in violence that seeks to silence those it
targets. Many are inclined to avoid discussing race and racism, but silence only
hides and misdirect racist acts and language so as to convince us racism does
not exist. While the onslaught of news describing people of color murdered by
police may be shocking to many who don’t experience police brutality or
harassment, they are unsurprising to people of color and yet these occurrences
are often labeled as isolated or as the victim’s fault.
In my own classroom, we recently discussed the brutalization
of Martese Johnson, a student at University of Virginia who was beaten by
Alcohol Beverage control officers, who falsely charged him with “public
intoxication and obstruction of justice,” contradicting every eyewitness
claiming the opposite. One of my students snickered with another student. When I
asked what was funny, she said he had a fake I.D. I later forwarded to her the
article pointing out his I.D. was not fake.
This interaction bothered me until I began to reflect on
Jennifer Trainor’s — author of Rethinking Racism — discussion of how racism is
rooted in emotion tempered by social norms, culture and history. What my
students were reflecting was, “there had to be a reason, because the police
would never do this to us.” And indeed they would not, because those students
are white, from communities with wealth. At the same time, these episodes
undermine their faith in the status quo, as they should. This is unsettling for
many, as schooling and work trains people to accept social norms and be happy
about it. Those who suggest that things are otherwise are frequently silenced
and labeled as complainers.
2. Racist language and acts of racism are mechanisms of
stratified justice radically favoring the wealthy while dividing the rest of us.
Historian Joseph Ellis, in his book Founding Brothers, points out in a chapter
entitled Silence, that the Founding Fathers agreed that the rigorous and morally
oriented debate on slavery would not be mentioned until that generation’s death.
This founding act of silence gave generations to come the sense that slavery was
simply part of the culture, when it was actually highly contested but silenced
in favor of political expedience to satisfy the economic interests of wealthy
landowners- who were the only citizens with voting rights. Today we rarely
mention the ways a small wealthy class benefit from laws that protect them,
while convincing a larger portion of Americans to believe in a dream that will
never benefit them—a phenomenon frequently updated from the days of slavery to
Citizens United is the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows
corporations to be considered individuals and their political donations part of
free speech, allowing countless hundreds of millions of new and highly
influential dollars into election campaigns on behalf of candidates who vote
just the way the corporate donors want them to. Why then if corporations are
individuals, there is no criminal prosecution for corporate polluters or for
those financiers who caused the 2008 market crash? At the same time,
corporations profit from massive incarceration of people of color and the legal
system across America, including Ferguson, is complicit. The mayor of Ferguson
continues to deny what the U.S. Department of Justice study finds, (despite
racist language in emails) that racism is a key part of the criminalization of
Blacks. I argue that this silence allows violence against people of color to
One Drug Enforcement Agency officer recently reported that he
was told to avoid white neighborhoods. For many who resist this line of
thinking, the myths of fairness, democracy (despite the evidence that the US no
longer meets many indicators for a robustly democratic society), and idea that
they too will have the American dream is played upon by unscrupulous politicians
who evoke fear to get elected. We are divided. We are thus conquered.
3. Finally, we need a national conversation to listen and
truly hear the daily experience of the least among us, in order to challenge the
silence of racism, change our behavior and deconstruct the institutions that
reinforce racism. Dr. Betty Reardon, a close mentor and peace educator, often
says that if you were born and raised in this society, it is impossible to be
untouched by racism. We are all involved in some way and should thus all
struggle against this systemic flaw. Recently the Truth-Telling Project invited
people from across the US to Ferguson to share their experience of police
violence and its context. The Truth-Telling Project connected local residents
with community organizations who are empowering their own communities to learn
our tragedy can inform transformation. The underlying thought of this project is
that before reconciliation or healing can occur, police practices, and the root
causes of racism and economic inequality must begin to change. As well, personal
stories and experience contain truth that can guide our actions toward
While racism is inseparable from the American experience, we
have to revisit the past, listen to the experience of others to challenge the
violence and language that leads to it if we are to realize the possibility of
democracy and dream of an America that works equitably for all who touch these
www.thetruthtellingproject.org to upload your video expressing your
experiences and hopes.
Dr. David Ragland is from North St. Louis, MO, writes for
PeaceVoice, and is a Visiting Professor of Education at Bucknell University.