According to Brian Bantum, racism is like gravity. For the associate professor of theology, it is a force that pulls some bodies to the ground and leaves others unaffected. It is always there whether it is acknowledged or not.
More than 300 Seattle Pacific University students, community members and alumni packed into Upper Gwinn Commons Tuesday night to talk with Bantum and other SPU professors about the issues of racism and racial conflict at the forum “Race in America After Ferguson: Act Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly With Your God.”
Hosted by The Provost Committee on Race and Ferguson, the forum was held in response to the Aug. 9 incident in Ferguson, Miss., where a Caucasian officer shot and killed Michael Brown,an African American teenager.
Because Brown was unarmed when he was fatally shot, the ambiguity and circumstances of the incident sparked national protests and debate on issues of institutional racism and white privilege.
Jeff Van Duzer, university provost, described this forum as facilitating one of the most important conversations to happen on campus.
The event featured presentations by Seattle Pacific University professors who shared why they feel passionately about the events in Ferguson.
Among the presenters were Assistant Professor of Education Jorge Preciado and Associate Professor of English Kimberly Segall.
David Nienhuis, associate professor of New Testament studies, also shared his experience growing up surrounded by people questioning the 1965 Watts Riots in California. Nienhuis also described not understanding his own privileges in a time when racial tension was ever present.
“I’m not sure I’ve been able to talk about Ferguson, Trayvon, without…my body literally shaking with rage,” Bantum said.
According to Segall, Christians must take the side of the poor and oppressed. It is necessary for the church to lament Michael Brown.
“If we do not lament, then the church is dead,” Segall said.
As an education professor, Preciado sees racism as a systemic problem that must be changed through learning and knowledge.
As the event progressed, discussion transitioned into a period of audience questions facilitated by W. Tali Hairston, director of the John Perkins Center.
Some of the questions revolved around white privilege and what can be done to bring awareness to it. Others asked how not to rely on one’s privilege as a safety net.
“You can get awareness, but stepping into it is another ball game. It’s a much longer process,” Nienhuis said, elaborating on how he has done this in his own life through choices about where to live and send his children to school.
Bantum said he remembers posting on Facebook and receiving emails from students saying that they were trying but no one seemed to understand.
“When uncle Joe says something crazy at the dinner table and everyone laughs, but for some reason you don’t think it’s funny anymore, the question is what will you do,” Bantum said.
Another question revolved around whether or not Michael Brown was guilty and if that changes how the situation should be interpreted.
Bantum responded, “If [Michael Brown] is guilty of something, then it’s that police officer’s job to make sure that he gets to court alive. He does everything in his power to make sure that man is apprehended, while still honoring his life.”
According to Preciado, people immediately jump to assumptions of guilt because of a lack of education and conversation going on in America.
“The plight of minorities is not something that is being put at the forefront,” Preciado said.
A question directed at Segall asked if protesting was a viable solution and response to the problem in Ferguson.
For Segall, protest is a last resort to capture people’s attention. According to her, this attention is often read as a stereotype when it should be read as democracy.
“When people come to protest they are going in front of tanks,” Segall said. “They are going in front of people with guns. There is a cry that it’s about Michael Brown, but that it has also gone on way before Michael Brown, that this is an issue of the heart.”
The last question the panel discussed dealt with how society can speak into the reality of racism and enact change through politics.
Bantum believes that another way to protest is to understand politics.
“Sometimes, protest is marching in the street, and we need those moments to rally us. The other way to protest is to understand the leverage inside the system,” Bantum said.
For Preciado, this is not talked about enough.
“I feel very strongly that there’s a lot of ignorance going on, and I don’t know what the correct formula is,” Preciado said. “There’s nothing wrong with collecting facts and information and if we’re all smart about it we can come up with a viable solution.”
After the main discussion, attendants were invited to breakout sessions for further discussion led by each of the panel members and university chaplain Bo Lim.
Freshman Macie Mooney attended the event and felt the topic was something that needed to be dealt with as a community.
“If we don’t talk about this, nothing is going to change,” Mooney said. “We as a community need to sit in pain and feel together to grapple with a solution.”
Alumna and community member Brenda Hodges-Howell has felt far away from the situation and came to the event to learn more.
“I want to take real risks in order to use my privilege for reconciliation,” Hodges-Howell said.
Junior Alexis Fikes hopes to take action on campus to help educate classmates and peers about issues of race. She feels that African American voices on campus are still not being heard and recognized, especially on issues relating to SPU.
“I’m passionate about racial issues like Ferguson and Trayvon Martin,” Fikes said. “I think we can do stuff on campus about this.”