Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

In early March, I attended a conversation hosted at the Africana, Latin American, Asian American, and Native American Cultural Center (ALANA) with the Hamilton Chief of Police Rick Gifford and Director of Campus Safety Bill Ferguson. I was not looking forward to the conversation – I guessed it might trouble me, and I was not really looking to be troubled. I had no idea what I was in for, though. I was about to learn some important lessons about the experience of racism in and around Colgate.

The last time my understanding of racism had shifted so significantly came during the sit-in of Fall 2014. There, I witnessed many students who I knew and trusted tell horrifying stories of hurt and exclusion, of mistreatment and injustice. It was then that I realized just how badly I had failed in my responsibility as a professor to stand with those fighting for justice. Why, I wondered, had I not taken more actions earlier to make Colgate a place dedicated to equality?

I had no excuse. I knew, from the very history I taught, that racism was not simply the result of ignorance or bad character. I knew it had its origins in social systems and ideologies. Historians I looked up to, like Barbara Fields or Edmund Morgan, had explained to me – through their writings – the social origins of race. According to Fields, modern racist ideologies started in the North around the same time that Colgate was founded. They were a way for northerners who were committed to ideals of equality to explain to themselves the fact that their nation depended in many ways on the enslavement of humans. “Race” became the explanation for enslavement; racial hierarchies were born. Race has since been reinvented, over and over: first as a scientific fact in the mid-nineteenth century, and then as a justification for colonial expansion in the early twentieth, as W.E.B. DuBois (of Core 152 fame) explained to us long ago. Today we recognize that there are no biological facts behind the concept of race. Yet racism and racial hierarchies still exist. Eddie Glaude, who offered Colgate a commencement address last year that was as magnificent as it was unsettling, argues in his recent book that we still live with a “value gap,” with ways of thinking that do not value the lives of those with dark skin so highly as those with pale skin.

I can hardly disagree. After all, it did not take much self-examination to realize that such a value gap certainly explained my own prior inactions. My own “implicit biases” (as the psychologists might call them) helped explain why I had stood aside too often in the face of injustice when it was directed against people of color. The sit-in made my own inaction clear to me and made that inaction inexcusable.

I am writing this today because I learned during that early March conversation at ALANA that more needs to be done in Hamilton to ensure justice for our community. As I sat in the audience, I heard a series of students, staff and faculty of color describe their experiences with local police. They talked about being stopped regularly by police, ostensibly for minor infractions, of being followed by police when walking, biking or driving back to campus and of the inequity of watching their White peers lounge carelessly on lawns strewn with drink cups while their small gatherings were carefully policed. In response to their stories, we heard about police training in sensitivity and race relations and about opportunities to report inappropriate police behavior.

Yet such responses are effective only if the over-policing of people of color stems from individual attitudes that can be educated away or from racist individuals who can be disciplined. They cannot address the sort of structural racism that creates our value gap today or the racism I believe misleads every individual on our campus to think Black and Brown lives matter less (even as some of our students and faculty have worked and are working with admirable endurance to fight the racist ways of thinking they have been taught). Such solutions don’t work if we are all, in a sense, racist.

If over-policing and racial profiling emerges from an often implicit value gap, then trainings and individual reports can only ever treat the symptoms. To address the disease, we’ll need new systematic solutions: means of tracking police stops alongside new policies for countering the racism that perverts all our perceptions, including those of the police. I don’t know the precise solution, but I know it’s well past time to struggle for more justice in Hamilton. It is time for us to work hard to value the lives of all those in our community more equally.