University News

Panelists debate social justice implications of Michael Brown shooting

Various scholars offer views on American response recent police violence, discrimination

Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2015

Panelists included Director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Khali Muhammad, Rutgers University Professor of Political Science Lisa Miller, Director for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity Tricia Rose and Professor of Economics Glenn Loury.

“Mike Brown is no Rosa Parks, and he ain’t Emmett Till either,” said Glenn Loury, professor of economics, at a discussion on “Black Communities and the Police: The Meaning of Ferguson” at the Watson Institute  for International Studies Thursday night.

Approximately 30 graduate students, faculty members and community members converged in the Joukowsky Forum to grapple with policing of black individuals in the wake of the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

Loury’s Jan. 5 piece in the Boston Review, entitled “Ferguson Won’t Change Anything. What Will?,” inspired the forum. In his article, Loury questioned the use of Michael Brown as a “poster child for a social justice movement.”

Loury said Michael Brown’s death is not an appropriate catalyst for a “movement aimed at addressing the problems that are serious and definitely need to be addressed.”

“The temptation to draw this analogy of black bodies abused and black lives not mattering is a mistake in categorization of the actual circumstance that we have,” Loury said.

Police discrimination against blacks “should be protested,” but that will not solve deeper structural problems, such as “failed schools” or “urban space that is organized in a certain way because it suits the interests of people in power,” he said.

Khali Muhammad, director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, agreed with some of Loury’s argument but disagreed with many aspects of his essay.

Loury “is invoking a standard of dignity and respect that I do not think reflect policing that happens in most communities if we listen to the people who live in those communities,” Muhammad said. “It’s the leadership, not the officer that is the problem.”

Policing in affluent communities is “low intensity” and “individualized,” Muhammad said, adding that it is based on the assumptions that members of these communities have moral respectability “regardless of what happens behind closed doors.”

Communities with the most policing tend to include low-income families and have a “disproportionate political influence on the shaping of policy,” Muhammad said. Policing is a “symptomatic way of subordinating people,” he added.

Tricia Rose, director for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, opened with the Civil Rights movement. During that era, many blacks felt the need to act as the “perfect black person,” or someone who “does not erupt in rage at systemic racism,” she said.

Rose cited her experience at preparatory school, where she witnessed many wealthy white students committing crimes without repercussions. She noted not only that the crimes went unmarked, “but also the explanations that were made for it, like ‘Oh, his dad was never around. He’s traveling off in the bowels of capitalism.’”

Rose encouraged audience members to consider who tells Michael’s Brown’s story and why, especially in relation to the media’s framing of Brown’s case. The media painted Brown as a “thug,” which is not a “race-neutral” term, Rose said, adding that the media also “disaggregated” the story by not mentioning the economic burdens blacks face due to race.

“This kind of disaggregation of the story into a micro-focus personalizes the systemic forces,” Rose said. “It suggests if you’re comfortable, you should be comfortable. Because these are the details that allow us to be reasonable from a comfortable place, not outraged.”

The media’s portrayal of the story also leaves people with a lack of “recognition that we did not actually fundamentally transform the racial relationships and dynamics of this country,” she added. “We transformed the mechanisms which certain structures continued to operate.”

Lisa Miller, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, agreed that the “fixation on policing is deeply misguided,” though not incorrect.

“Movements around policing or mass incarceration are not helping the problems that we want to get solved,” Miller said, adding that the problem is the “racialized state failure of American politics.”

Miller cited statistics of the higher rates of homicides of black Americans than white Americans. She emphasized that the “rise of serious, especially lethal violence no matter the source is a first-order political problem.”

“Black lives matter, and the American state has failed and continues to fail,” Miller said.

Loury took the opportunity to respond to the other panelists following their presentations.

“The facts do matter. We can’t imagine the facts we want them to be to serve a larger political agenda,” Loury said in response to Rose.

“Mike Brown is what you call the tip of an iceberg — he’s a catalyst,” Rose said.

The Joukosky Forum holds a series of seminars, workshops and teach-ins to “both understand and contemplate ways of addressing some of the world’s worst problems,” said Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute and professor of political science and public and international affairs, who moderated the panel.

  • Concerned Alum

    Mike Brown dindu nuffins. He was a sweet, innocent angel on his way to college. He was skipping down the street with his pal when an evil white police officer murdered him in cold blood.

    • tabbetha cates

      Thats pretty much what they want people to believe. His parents well lets just say “The apple didn’t fall from the tree”.

  • Dindu Yusef

    What’s the hick view on this, Paxson?