Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

The Colgate community was invited to talk with representatives from the Hamilton Police Department and Colgate Campus Safety at a brown bag lunch. Issues were raised during the discussion that continue to trouble many members of the Colgate community. One person in a position of authority shared an anecdote about a time when they were younger and saw a separate water fountain for “colored people” in a gas station. They briefly talked about the thoughts that ensued from the observation. It was as if the story was shared in order to reiterate how far we have come as a society and to express a sense of relief, now that we can drink from the same fountains and live in a place and time far away from racism. Unfortunately, this fallible idea and many others developed under false pretenses were used to frame the context of our conversation. 

Several students and professors shared their experiences of being racially profiled by the authorities in Hamilton. As a result, they were told that their frustrations were bound in their perception of the situations they described. People who dominated the conversation were unable to recognize the importance of contextualizing history. I believe that this hindered the opportunity for a potentially productive discourse. 

The water fountains described in the opening anecdote are a physical symbol of the segregation that people faced during the 1960’s. I wonder how people who are willing to recognize the turbulent 60s as a tragic flaw in United States history are still reluctant to acknowledge that this oppression has not stopped. The history is still relevant 50 years later, and should not be dismissed just because members of the dominant culture are not forced to think about the lasting impacts. Robin DiAngelo explains in “White Fragility” that White people have been taught to not feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives, therefore they are able to separate themselves from the issues impacting people of color. Public water fountains are no longer segregated, yet it is vital to understand that segregation in the United States has not been miraculously eradicated. As recently as this year, people were unaffected when a major city in Michigan lost access to clean, safe drinking water. White issues remain central and the city of Flint, Michigan remains without water. The Flint water crisis is regarded by mass media as a kind of natural disaster and not an act of terrorism. Representational and informational segregation persists.

In Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Susan Buck-Morss discusses the dangers in viewing history as a teleological progression. The quick dismissal of students who spoke about incidents of racial profiling in Hamilton shows the danger that people face when navigating these spaces. The statement that Black Lives Matter was refuted with “show me a life that doesn’t matter.” This could be explained by a lack of racial stamina, called white fragility, which DiAngelo defines as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

I was shocked at the way that students were repeatedly invalidated during this brown bag. Marimba Ani in Yurugu discusses the “claim to an absolute ultimate truth” as a “psychological necessity for the European mentality.” This is evident in the idea of people and things being viewed and labeled as either a “subject” or an “object” in philosophical thinking. People are categorized as both subject and object, or even as solely an object in much of European thought. These are the ideas that led to conquests of empire and colonization that still have lasting impacts today. When people believe that other people have no agency, it becomes easier for them to justify discriminatory acts including racial profiling.

I understand that the fight for independence from ignorance may seem like a facile call to action, but I find critical hope in the fact that information is accessible and continues to be shared through many platforms in academia, pop culture, the arts and other arenas. Susan Buck-Morss explains that “nothing keeps history univocal except power. Truth is singular, but it is a continuous process of inquiry because it builds on a present that is moving ground.” In order to foster productive discussions, we must be willing to hear each other and understand the importance of contextualizing history. My hope is that people feel compelled to continue this process of searching for the truth of the past and the present and make an effort to be receptive and critical of our own positionality in the future.