Clearing Ferguson out of my brain

There have been so many words spilled about the past two weeks’ disaster in Ferguson, Missouri that the only reason for me to write this is simply to get my thoughts out of my head before I start focusing on algebra-based physics on Monday. Thanks for reading my efforts to have a clear head and do right by my students.

I’m teaching physics at a new place, and so I had to go through human resources this month. Human resources is always concerned with documentation, always concerned with process, always concerned with the rules. The rules exist for good reasons. The rules ensure that the institution has made its best efforts to create a good work environment – or, at the very least, they ensure that the institution can document that they have made their best efforts.

Our state and federal governments, in their infinite wisdom (insert sarcasm where appropriate), have laws about equitable treatment of all students, and part of an HR process is going through the training on those laws. Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 deals with discrimination on the basis of sex in educational opportunities. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act deals with availability of programs funded by the federal government to people of every race, color, and national origin. There are good reasons for these laws to exist. As far as it concerns me, the goal is ensuring that every person who comes through the doors of an educational institution, both students and employees, is treated fairly, so that the mission of the institution can be accomplished.

Now, as anybody who has been through a human resources office can attest, the training that you have to go through so that the HR office can check off that you have been trained (and therefore be legally free and clear should anybody file a lawsuit) is dull and only intermittently enlightening in the best of times, and random and intelligence-insulting in the worst. You survive it by reminding yourself, repeatedly, that the most important thing that comes out of this process is legal cover for the institution. The HR staff probably wants you to understand the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 and the Civil Rights Act, and probably puts the process in place with the absolute best of intentions – but their good intentions aren’t going to be what keeps them employed. What their bosses want is nothing more and nothing less than the documentation that says all of their faculty have been trained and therefore understand all of their obligations under the law. The game must be played, and if the game is played successfully, the institution keeps lawyers at bay.

It’s all well and good until actual violations of the Civil Rights Act play out on your Twitter stream, and it becomes abundantly clear just how many people don’t understand that the Civil Rights Act is actually standing law.

For me, it’s not about the law, and it never has been. I figured out at a very early age that white people lived in one place, and black people lived in another, and there was a dance that people engaged in to keep the white people and black people apart, and that dance looked stupid. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back, or to claim enlightenment. I just have never wanted to live apart from the people who don’t look like me. They’re different. They have interesting things to say. I enjoy listening to them. They make life fun. To be brutally honest, I’m kind of selfish for diversity in that way.

What has become maddening as the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death has played out is the number of people who want to shut their ears to the voices of people who don’t look like them. They make statements and quote sources and cocoon themselves in the voices of people who look like them, act like them, and think like them.

Those attitudes are devastating to me. Maybe there was a time in my life when I could be casual about such things. But I’m a white dude teaching physics. I recognize the issues of representation across the STEM disciplines, but especially in the physical sciences, where African-Americans even applying for faculty jobs is something to be celebrated. At the point in time when an African-American student comes into my classroom, the color of my skin does create a barrier between us, and I want that barrier torn down so I can not merely satisfy the letter of the laws assuring equal educational opportunities for all, but the spirit of those laws as well.

The climate that I find in August of 2014 isn’t conducive to equality. It’s conducive to more people making more judgmental statements; sowing more fear, uncertainty, and doubt; erecting more barriers. It’s reaching a point where the reflexive venom can’t be ignored among people of faith, on both sides of the issue. (If you haven’t read this comment from no greater an arch-conservative than Erick Erickson, you should. It made me rethink a couple of things.) As if there weren’t enough things for me to be stressed out over (70 students in a single lecture section of PHYS 2010, hello), I’m fearful as being seen as just another white dude who doesn’t know how good he has it and doesn’t care about those who don’t.

The only thing I want right now is help. And by “help”, I mean fewer words that make statements of good guys and bad guys, fewer words that dehumanize, fewer words that hurt. I want more people to simply listen to people who don’t look like them and consider that they might not have all the answers to a problem that predates Michael Brown, that predates Barack Obama, that predates Rodney King, that predates Martin Luther King, that predates the founding of this nation – a problem that the word “problem” doesn’t even do justice.

That’s enough. Come Monday, it will be time to get to work.

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