Last night I attended a discussion at MU put on by the You In Mizzou group. The organization holds monthly discussions focused on an issue they feel is of interest and importance to students and faculty. Last night’s topic was racial disparities in the U.S.
As I arrived at the event I was greeted by two discussion facilitators, whose job it is to make sure participants remain civil and on track. Everyone received a handout that outlined goals and responsibilities of students attending, making special effort to note that this is a safe environment for students, staff and faculty to talk about similarities and differences.
There were 14 people in attendance, not including the two facilitators. To start the conversation, one of the facilitators opened with the question of whether people still thought racial disparities existed in the U.S.
There seemed to be a unanimous feeling among people that spoke that racial inequalities were still quite prevalent within our nation. Common trends started to appear quite quickly as more people spoke. First, attendees made lengthy efforts to make sure that there points were not taken in an offensive manner and that they understood what a previous speaker was trying to say. While this made me aware of the sensitivity of the students toward each other, it also brought to light the difficulties some people had in expressing their thoughts in an organized fashion
Certain themes and ideas seemed to be of considerable interest and repeatedly came up.
- Environment: People are shaped by the world in which they live and have grown up in.
- Progress: How far have we come and what still needs to be done to ensure racial equality
- Language: In order to speak intelligently and be understood in this setting, people need to be able to speak effectively about their perspectives.
At the forefront of the effort to help attendees speak in definite terms about their perspectives was Dr. April Langley, associate professor of black studies in the English department. While Dr. Langley made efforts to ensure that others got their time to speak, students often looked to her to help frame questions. She helped students find the words to clearly express an intangible idea. From there, students opened up further and tried to bring new viewpoints to the discussion. The variety of perspectives drew listeners in and allowed people to see the world through a different set of eyes and experiences.
Perhaps the most interesting point of the evening, though it was only briefly touch on, was the concept of the profitability of racism. One student referenced a statistic stating that a black male without a criminal record was less likely to get a job over a white male with a criminal record. Many people associate racist stereotypes with the supposed criminality of blacks, which some students attributed to the overrepresentation of Latinos and blacks in the prison system. When the students took another step back, they pointed to socio-economic conditions as the leading cause of high-crime among blacks. This then begged the question of how or why blacks in America statistically make less money than their white counterparts. If African-Americans consistently make less money simply based on their race and are forced into poorer communities, which arguably has an influence on crime, how then, do we as individuals and a nation push forward in eliminating racial disparity? This was certainly an interesting question.
The last thing I took away from the event was the concurrence within the group that, despite progress, we as individuals and a community need to continue to make efforts to listen, understand and respect each other to continue to reduce racial disparities in our nation.