Our service region students, who mostly hail from white rural communities, are placed in classrooms with mostly people like them. Many of our students can go semesters without ever being in the same room with a person of color, an international student or a student from an urban area.
Let me tell you about our small percentage of black students. They hail from the urban centers of Lexington and Louisville. Our student-athletes, who make up a disproportionate majority of our black students, hail from areas with high minority populations. Most come from outside Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, etc.
Conversations in the classroom become interesting if you happen to have black students. This is because there is usually a racial distinction in perspectives. White students generally side with the officer and militarized police response – most black students support the protestors, detest the actions of the police, tired of seeing black people killed by police, etc.
You can imagine how interesting the classroom becomes when discussing something controversial like Ferguson. The classroom is where these conversations need to take place, however, instead of being left in the hands of the media to unpack.
Why be neutral on a position? You can discuss both sides regardless of your perspective. As a professor of criminal justice, I know the literature on police practices and can discuss exactly why the officer responded as he did. I don’t end the conversation there because to do so would be reckless, irresponsible and would totally ignore the literature I know about policing the black community, both historically and contemporarily.
Many of our students come from poor white areas where the police are harassing them. This is where defensive comments come from, such as: “Police aren’t racist, they harass us too,” or, “The issue is about class, not race.”
It’s really distracting to hear these comments because it detracts from what’s happening in Ferguson. I feel like as soon as I bring race into a conversation my students immediately challenge it because they can’t see the world using this lens. They are all happy and in agreement when I talk about poverty and government neglect in Appalachia, but as soon as I talk about urban poverty they become defensive.
Eastern’s black students also have their own distinct reality that often gets ignored because it’s not the majority opinion at EKU. We have to be careful about dismissing the racial aspect of Ferguson just because you don’t see it that way.
The black students in your class who don’t interact are not stupid, but uncomfortable everyday having to assimilate to different ways of thinking. The unfair treatment of black people by the police is a reality even in Kentucky.
Dr. Kishonna L. Gray
College of Justice and Safety