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Forum features Mason, community leaders tackling tough questions about race

October 21, 2016   /   by Jamie Rogers

Moderator Wendi Manuel-Scott (left) speaks with Professor Laurie O. Robinson; Professor Rita Chi-Ying Chung; adjunct professor Earl Smith, and Shirley Ginwright, president of the NAACP in Fairfax. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

More than 200 people met to consider society’s hardest questions around race and color during the annual Freedom and Learning Forum at George Mason University on Wednesday.

The topic of discussion, “Policing Race: Critical Analyses on National Trends,” was prompted by this year’s shootings of African American men in Charlotte and Tulsa by police, George Mason leadership said.

“I have seen too many dark-skinned bodies fallen in the street over the last few years. And I’ve seen brown-skinned women in hijab stopped in the airport,” said Wendi Manuel-Scott, director of African and African American Studies Program at Mason and the moderator of the forum.

Panelists were asked if any particular event signified that we do not live in a post-racial America.

For panelist Robinson Professor Laurie Robinson it was two years ago, around the time of Ferguson and other police killings, when President Barack Obama appointed her and others as co-chairs on the President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing.

“That was when the crescendo of these videos hitting our phones and hitting our living rooms was really beginning to come to the fore,” Robinson said.

At that time, they never would have thought it would remain at the forefront of public consciousness two years later, she said. But it has reshaped the operation of law enforcement in this country.

For panelist Rita Chi-Ying Chung, a professor of counseling and development at Mason, the phenomenon known as Missing White Woman Syndrome, in which more media coverage is given to white women who are missing than those of color, solidifies the absence of a post-racial America.

“It really symbolizes the value on the white lives and the devalue in terms of the lives of people of color,” Chung said.

Audience members listen to the discussion at the Freedom and Learning Forum, "Policing Race: Critical Analyses of National Trends." Photo by Evan Cantwell

Panelists and audience members also talked about how race is policed at Mason and in the community. Shirley A. Ginwright, president of the Fairfax County NAACP, said Fairfax County police have been retrained in many areas including how to de-escalate a situation. It is beneficial for Mason students to understand how that police department works, because once they leave campus they are in Fairfax County, she said.

Mason education professor Elavie Ndura asked how the university can raise the level of consciousness about its community members who live  in contested spaces, and how to go about leveling the field for students of all backgrounds.

For example, she said some students have to worry about completing homework on time for class, but they also have to worry about their safety and possible interactions with the police when they go home after dark. 

“Every single morning between 8:30 and 9 o’clock, I send a text message to my big, black son because of the experiences we have lived through as immigrant black people,” Ndura said. “Whenever he does not respond within the next 30 minutes, I start calling his wife.”

Julian Williams, Mason’s vice president for Compliance, Diversity and Ethics, told Ndura that there is work to be done at the university, but that the leadership and the capacity to do better are in place.

Williams also discussed his reaction to the news of the shootings in Louisiana.

“That was probably the toughest day of work that I’ve had,” he said.

It was difficult for him to maintain an air of respectability in a situation where he felt devalued and felt as though he might be perceived as a threat, Williams said.

“I have to show up as me, I have to show up as an African American male from Michigan representing my people and community … even if I have my agenda and my task to do, but I have to bring who I am to the table; I wouldn’t be authentic if I wasn’t. I think we all have to have those moments during our time here at Mason.”