At JHU Forums on Race in America Event, NYT Columnist Charles Blow Discusses Racism and Systems Failure in the US Today

Keely Herring, JHU:

At the fall event of JHU Forums on Race in America, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Charles Blow was as deep, thought-provoking, and full-of-heart in discussing race and racism in America as his extensive body of literary work would have you believe.

On October 28th, Blow, who writes a biweekly column about politics, social justice, and public opinion, sat down with JHU Political Science and Africana Studies Professor Lester Spence in Shriver Auditorium on Homewood Campus. They spoke about racial inequality and racial divisions that exist in American society. They discussed global anti-black sentiment, the exploitation of “black death” in the media, and Blow’s own personal experience growing up in the Deep South during the 1970’s.

One of the most poignant points Blow made was in regards to the hypocrisy of liberal cities, and the recurring pattern of progression until proximity. He explained the presence of “two black Americas,” one in the northeast and western urban areas to which many people migrated following the end of slavery, and the one spanning between west Texas and the Carolinas, consisting of those people who “were left behind.” These northern and western urban areas bill themselves as the liberal, progressive hubs of the nation, as compared the southern “Black Belt,” which is largely generalized to have a more conservative, bigoted, and racism-prone culture. Blow argued that regardless of if the state is red or blue, racism exists. As black people began to migrate north and west, they moved and settled into areas within close proximity to predominantly and historically white areas. Proximity invoked a new sense of fear amongst white residents that quickly escalated and began to manifest itself in the legal system. This, Blow said, led to liberal cities instituting laws and practices (i.e. ‘Stop and Frisk’ in New York City) that have perpetuated racial discrimination. Liberal cities look down upon the South for their antiquated racial views, when, in truth, they are equally culpable.

“They left the devil they knew for the devil they didn’t and then realized the devil is the devil,” Blow said.

Blow went on to highlight that people frequently disassociate themselves from the tragic events, the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, that continue to plague the country. Blow reminded the audience that these are not isolated events. America is an organism, and there is nothing going on in the country that is happening apart from anything else. Our country operates using the systems and powers of government to ensure and protect the democratic values on which it was founded. In that case, what of the unjust murders perpetrated by the police system? They are the result of a failure in the system. A failure so great, it threatens our fundamental democratic values.

A clear example of this extraordinary inequality in the application of justice is the “unflinching degree to which we will watch “black death,” said Blow. He said that though these videos of people being shot repeatedly, or held in a chokehold may create a sense of urgency about the dire need for change in the system, they are also an overt exploitation of black deaths. Both Spence and Blow acknowledged that they have stopped watching these videos of often-fatal encounters with police.

As Blow said this, I felt a deep sense of guilt wash over me, for I have watched most of these videos because it seemed necessary and important for me to do in order to be a conscientious citizen. I never realized how naive I was to the implications of watching these videos until hearing Blow’s take. I was not naive to the inhumanity and injustice of what I was seeing  (these caught-on-camera encounters rouse a certain sense of anger and frustration to which I think few are immune), but I was naive to the implications of being able to watch such encounters over, and over, and over again. I couldn’t ever bring myself to watch the videos released by ISIS of the beheading of James Foley. Why did I not hesitate in choosing to watch a body-cam video of the traffic stop turned fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose, father of 13, by a University of Cincinnati police officer? Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose, Eric Garner—these peoples deaths act as sound bites, which is inhumane. I should not need to watch these videos in order to feel something. I should be able to look at the incarceration rates for blacks versus whites, or the traffic stop pull-over rates for blacks versus whites, and see an appalling pattern of injustice. Or, better yet, perhaps instead of having the option to view a video of this nature, the video does not even exist. Perhaps the cameraman, or civilian, filming on their iPhone could press pause, drop their camera, and intervene. No outcome could have been worse than the one that happened, so I have to imagine their intervention could have only had a positive impact.

Blow also discussed the undeniable global anti-black sentiment, rooted in legacy and history, and how this has resulted in extraordinary inequality in the application of justice.  “I saw a magazine article with olive skinned people with green eyes, with the caption, ‘this is the future,’ and I thought, that’s cute,” he said. Blow went on to say he viewed this praise of biracial babies, and biracial race as “the future” as an evolutionary dodge of anti-black attitude, only furthering confrontation with existing divides. Fractures exist, but assuming that racial intermixing is demonstrative of a new, healed future is a complete misconception.

Aside from his views on current events and racism in modern America, one of the most interesting discussion points was his column. “There is a universal quality to the human spirit,” he said, and in his column he aims to connect people by allowing them to identify with their shared humanity. If he can talk about the unjust death of a black teenager, and explain the tragedy his or her parents are experiencing, the story becomes about a sense of loss, something every parent, regardless of race, can identify with. Blow said he writes “for the old black people who raised [him],” who told stories with a sense of southern style and warmth. He is frequently asked how he feels about being the “only black columnist at the New York Times,” to which he responds he is the only columnist “who grew up poor, who is from the South.” These things, he said, are the things that make him unique to the paper. Many people, he said, compare the NYT columnists to a symphony, or an orchestra. “Well, I’m playing the Banjo,” said Blow.

Near the end of the forum, there was a brief question and answer portion, which sparked some interesting discussion as well as shedding light on the thoughts of JHU students on the issues of race and racism, not only in Baltimore, but on Johns Hopkins campus. One student boldly asked why there are so few black faculty members at Hopkins, to which Spence took the lead.

Though I must admit I missed some of the details of Spence’s answer, it was along the lines of: Hopkins needs to change some things around, or it’s only going to get worse, and mentioned he may even consider leaving. It stems from Hopkins being an increasingly expensive university, thus not allowing as many graduate students (who, presumably, would become professors at the University) from underprivileged backgrounds to attend. If Hopkins wants to achieve any growth in the number of black faculty members, the university needs to make a conscious effort to diversify and not only open its doors, but make itself actively appealing to a diverse range of people from a diverse set of backgrounds, This note is particularly important—considering Johns Hopkins is located in a city where blacks are the majority of the population. Hopkins does not have the best reputation among Baltimoreans, and with good reason. As an institution, it has taken what it has wanted from the population when it wants it, often exploiting underprivileged, and predominantly black neighborhoods and populations. For a closer look at these violations, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is worth a read.  JHU Forums on Race in America is a step in the right direction towards creating an ongoing conversation about deep racial divides that exist in our country, as well as around the world.

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