Lyceum event examines ‘uncomfortable territory’ of racial injustice

by Chuck Gordon

During a moving and engaging Lyceum program Wednesday night, Wingate University students and employees expressed their frustration and anxiety and made a plea for allies in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week.

Over the Zoom meeting app, several speakers talked about their feelings regarding Floyd’s death while in police custody, the ensuing protests and how far society still has to go in regard to race relations. There were tears, exhortations, calls to action and some noticeable frustration.

“It’s uncomfortable territory,” Tatiana Onley, president of the Black Student Union, said during the 90-minute “Race and the Crisis of Justice” Lyceum. “I heard once if you’re comfortable, you’re not growing. This is a way for us all to grow, as people, as citizens, as friends.”

Before handing the floor over to invited speakers and then opening it up to questions from some of the 156 attendees, Dr. Geniece Monde, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, presented slides showing some of the African Americans who have died at the hands of police officers in the past five years: Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Keith Lamont Scott, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson.

Underpinning it all was the case of Floyd, who died on Memorial Day while a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for over eight minutes. Chauvin has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

Videos taken by bystanders show Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe,” echoing the last words of Eric Garner, who died while in police custody in New York in 2014.

Despite a viral pandemic that is still raging, protests have taken place around the country and even overseas.

“I feel like George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Camille Bodrick, a rising senior Wingate marketing major, said during the Lyceum.

For Bodrick, the Lyceum provided a welcome and well-timed outlet for a black community that has seen too many deaths of unarmed citizens over the years. Wingate students must attend 24 Lyceum events, on a variety of topics, in order to graduate.

“I feel that was one of the best Lyceums I’ve attended during my tenure at Wingate,” Bodrick said. “The discussion was greatly needed, and I was elated at the number of participants. Watching the faculty and staff actively engaging was very encouraging to students of color. We want an assurance that we are supported and have experiences equal to those of our white counterparts.”

Powerful conversations

Although the program provided a forum for people of color to air their feelings, it was aimed just as much at white members of the University community. Dr. Melita Mitchell, assistant dean and director of adult programs at Johnson C. Smith University, implored non-African Americans to “try to understand how these incidents, how these videos, how the constant dialogue and coverage of these things traumatize individuals – because we see ourselves, we see our family members, our sons, our fathers, our husbands, our brothers in these instances.”

“Acknowledge and accept that racism is an everyday reality for black and brown people,” said Dr. Paige Rawson, a visiting assistant professor of religion. “We can choose to look away or walk away. They can’t. This is their everyday reality.”

Bodrick said that having the feelings of frustration and anger accumulate with every incident is overwhelming. But she added that she felt like the peaceful protests have been effective.

“We’ve been fighting for our rights ever since we were brought to this country, and we shouldn’t have to have this conversation today,” Bodrick said. “All we’re asking for is to be treated equally, and there are still people fighting us on that.”

One issue Monde touched on was a general lack of accountability when it comes to officer-involved shootings of black people. One slide she presented showed that, between 2013 and 2019, 99 percent of deaths caused by police officers resulted in no charges being filed.

“Often it isn’t a few bad apples; it’s a poisonous tree,” she said. “There is systemic change that needs to happen within law enforcement.”

Antonio Jefferson, the University’s director of Lyceum and multicultural programming, called the event “an educational and listening session all in one.”

“I believe the conversations were powerful,” he said. “It provided an opportunity for participants to learn about the history of racial inequality and hear directly from black individuals with those lived experiences. A combination of those two elements created a dynamic educational opportunity for those who are not directly impacted by racial inequality.”

But as he closed the program, Jefferson acknowledged that events such as the Lyceum represent just a first step. “This is just the start of the conversation,” he said. “This is Day 1 of something that needs to be ongoing. I look forward to more critical conversations.”

June 5, 2020