UMD professors discuss racism on campus, consider policing reform at town hall

Dr. Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at this university, addresses viewers at Tuesday's town hall, held over Zoom. (Madison Peek/For The Diamondback)

By Maddy Peek and Kanika Mehra

Staff writers

In 2007, Dr. Joseph Richardson was followed by University of Maryland police for four blocks while driving on campus, he said, in what he describes as one of his most “memorable” interactions with police. 

The African American studies professor was pulled over and arrested for “failure to produce an identification,” even though he presented his faculty ID, he said. Richardson, who was dressed in a suit in preparation for a presentation he planned to deliver later, ended up spending the entire day in the Prince George’s County jail. 

The case took a year to get to court, Richardson said. And less than five minutes into his hearing, all charges were dropped, he said. Still, two years later, he said, the same officer pulled him over again at the local CVS. 

“If we’re discussing issues around race and class, my class, nor my education, nor status on the campus could outrun being a Black man in America,” said Richardson. 

Richardson was one of many professors to speak Monday evening at a town hall hosted by this university’s behavioral and social sciences college. Panelists, who included professors in the sociology, African American studies and government and politics departments, discussed the nationwide protests, racial equality on college campuses and policy measures that would abolish the police. 

[“Beyond tired”: UMD students organize protest against systemic racism, police brutality]

This university, like the rest of the country, has a great deal of work to do before true equality can be achieved, the panelists asserted. 

In a statement responding to Richardson’s experience, Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas, University Police spokesperson, wrote that the department takes complaints of possible misconduct by its officers “very seriously.”

“Our mission is to serve the University Community, protect life and property and enforce the law while upholding our Constitution,” she wrote. “Community – police relationships are essential and our community is entrusting us with their safety.  And we don’t take this for granted.

Protesters mobilized nationwide after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minnesota man who was killed in police custody in late May. The demonstrations have prompted discussions of race in many communities, including this university’s. The administration released a statement soon after his death, committing to creating a more inclusive atmosphere on campus.

“Stop writing statements and sending out ‘thoughts and prayers,’” said Kanisha Bond, a government and politics visiting research professor, when asked by an attendee how the university should proceed. 

Bond, a panelist, encouraged the university to invest money into making the campus a more diverse place and to make it safer for those who live there. 

[UMD refers those involved in post mocking George Floyd’s death to Student Conduct Office]

In an email, Natifia Mullings, a spokesperson for this university, shared resources the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is offering — including teach-ins and other events — in an effort to address racial injustice. “Words aren’t enough. We have to act!” a statement on the office’s website reads.

Many panelists took time to honor the late Jonathan England, a professor in the African American Studies department who died recently and, panelists said, had a monumental impact on the campus. 

Jason Nichols, a lecturer in the African American Studies department at this university, described England as “one of the greatest educators this university has ever seen,” and a man “who has devoted his life to equity and justice.” 

England was planning a related event for July that will now be held in his honor, the moderator, sociology professor Rashawn Ray, said. 

The town hall began with speeches from cultural leaders on campus, such as professor Hoda Mahmoudi, who is director for the Baháʼí Chair for World Peace at this university, and Dean Kim J. Nickerson, who serves as assistant dean for diversity in the behavioral and social sciences college. 

The panel addressed issues pertaining to the nationwide discrimination against African Americans, as well as the university’s own failings. 

“We will know that Black lives matter in academia when we stop allowing Black faculty, students and staff to be marginalized and dehumanized by microaggressions and real acts of discrimination,” said Nickerson in a statement about discrimination and marginalization of the Black community in academia at this university.  

In addition to drawing on their own experiences, faculty members were given the opportunity to highlight their research on race in social sciences, which has become increasingly pertinent as “two pandemics” have overturned the U.S. in recent months: the coronavirus and systemic racism. 

Antoine Banks, who serves as the director of the Government and Politics Research Lab, spoke about how the racial disparities — both in victims of the coronavirus pandemic and police brutality — cause “a deep emotional pain among African Americans.”

The historical tension between African Americans and the police requires deep consideration into “how we’re going to imagine not only a new police department, but a new criminal justice system,” Richardson said. Richardson also mentioned other debated reforms, such as data suggesting every police officer does not need to possess a firearm. 

Bond added that policing of Black individuals and the Black community goes beyond institutional or state sanctioned systems, and stretches to include local or even individual policing of Black citizens. 

Banks’ research argued that racial hierarchies are maintained by society’s perspective as to which groups have the “privilege” to be angry and which do not. His study found that Black individuals “are considered demonized or negatively portrayed if they’re angry,” he said. 

Banks says this is a disadvantage that can be traced back to the cultural rhetoric surrounding the institution of slavery, where he claims enslaved Black people were characterized as “happy and content,” while freed ones were considered angry and wild. 

Dawn Marie Dow, a sociology professor, spoke on the “consistent phenomenon” of racism, which, she said, is also observed when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people wear face masks when going out into public settings. 

Many in the Black community were burdened with “having to strategize” about how to protect themselves without appearing dangerous or threatening to law enforcement, Dow said.

“Almost every town and every country has an Ahmaud Arbery story, or a Breonna Taylor story,” added Bond, speaking on the ubiquity of this issue. She also noted that the broad coverage and response around the nation serves as a fascinating — and heartening — example for social scientists trying to understand where the potency and “power of the people” lies. 

As the panel wrapped up, Richardson invoked figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Colin Kaepernick, noting how their ideas have stood the test of time despite facing intense backlash in their day. 

“People need to take a radical stance and not worry about the retribution that may come with it, because you have to stand in your own truth,” he said. 

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