UW teach-in echoes past truths about racial bias
UW professors turn their concern over Ferguson into a modern teach-in.
Seattle Times staff columnist
You know the past isn’t past when you’re invited to a teach-in and the calendar says 2015, not 1965. The teach-in I’m talking about happened Friday at the University of Washington and it was partly about history that is still shaping lives. It was also about changing deeply rooted, damaging scripts.
One of the speakers, Stephanie Smallwood, a UW historian, displayed a quotation from a former slave who said, “Us ain’t hogs or horses ... us is human flesh.” Smallwood asked how is it that in the 21st century, people still feel it is necessary to declare, Black Lives Matter? Why is black humanity still in question?
The one-day event was a part of the activism fueled by the events in Ferguson, Mo., and the underlying inequality. It was about answering Smallwood’s question and inspiring the most recent movement to remove restrictions on anyone’s humanity.
The event grew from conversations among several University of Washington professors who “felt a collective sense of urgency” about the bias laid bare in the deaths of so many unarmed black Americans. A screen showed photos of 14 recent victims, and Smallwood, who along with Ralina Joseph took the lead in putting together the teach-in, said, “We’re here because those who are on the screen are not.”
I want to give you a taste of the event. Participants — mostly students from several area universities and colleges, professors, teachers, and even some folks from outside academia — filled the large meeting space at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center. It was a diverse group, and so were the speakers.
Smallwood’s specialty is the history of the United States in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries when slavery was legal. She connected legal and cultural norms of that period to those of our own, using a Virginia law from 1669 as an example.
The question in 1669 was how to effectively punish slaves. They couldn’t be punished by adding time as someone might for an indentured servant. Slavery was forever. So violence was the solution. Violence against black bodies became a normal part of life.
Now, the law recognized that some violence might cause the death of an enslaved person, so it included a clause to protect not the slave, but the owner in the event of death. It said an owner wouldn’t want to get rid of his own property so a court couldn’t find an owner guilty of murder. The only reasonable way to see a black death was as an accident.
That idea echoed through subsequent laws about policing black people.
Another UW historian, Moon-Ho Jung, talked about the ways white supremacy was built into the American state from the start, from supporting slavery to waging wars against Indians to expand the state, to excluding Chinese and other Asians to depriving Japanese Americans of their rights during World War II.
He said the state needs to be held accountable for advancing white people at the expense of other people.
“The past is always present,” he said. “That is the vision Ferguson has helped unleash.”
Dan Berger, who teaches at UW Bothell about social movements and about race and ethnicity, emphasized the role of criminalization past and present in maintaining inequality. “The American criminal-justice system has always been severe and severely racist,” he said.
He noted that the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, included an exception. It allowed slavery to be used in punishment for a crime, an exception several states took advantage of to put former slaves back to working for free.
Today, we have the prison-industrial complex. The U.S. with 5 percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and is the only economically advanced country with the death penalty.
Two professors, LeiLani Nishime and Sareeta Amrute, talked about Asian Americans in the context of racism against black Americans. They said the idea of the model minority is used by those who want to drive a wedge between different groups. It’s part of efforts to shift the public discourse away from bias against black people.
Nishime cited an analysis of TV news shows that found Asian Americans were rarely mentioned, and then mostly in comparisons, “being used to promote anti-black bias.”
Most mentions don’t take into account the very different group histories and status, or even the differences among Asian-American groups.
People in small groups talked over lunch about how they were affected that morning by race, gender or other aspects of their identity. The point was that we are all affected by how other people see and treat us and by the social status our history has bequeathed to us.
It was a good exercise, because old tunes will keep playing in the background unless we pay attention and change the music. And as in the 1960s, people like the ones who put together the teach-in are taking their dissatisfaction with the status quo and turning it into positive action.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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