Grief. Exhaustion. Anger. Confusion. Guilt.
These are all feelings the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) community expressed during an emotional virtual town hall on June 3 dedicated to discussing the personal and nationwide outrage surrounding the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in police custody.
The town hall, titled “A Social Justice Crisis in America,” featuring panelists Wendy Shaia, EdD, MSW, clinical associate professor, University of Maryland School of Social Work; executive director, Social Work Community Outreach Service; and founder, Positive Schools Center, and Chaz Arnett, JD, associate professor, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, sought to create a space where a frank and sometimes uncomfortable discussion could begin about the realities of systemic racism in America and how it plays out at UMB.
In introductory remarks, Interim President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, said he was horrified by Floyd’s brutal death, which he said followed a clear pattern of structural oppression. Most of us have seen the video of a white officer staring calmly into a camera as his knee — planted firmly on Floyd’s neck — extinguishes the black man's life over what seemed like an interminable 8 minutes, 46 seconds.
The question remains for the nation and for UMB of how to move forward. “I do not have answers,” Jarrell admitted. As a surgeon, he said, when he doesn’t have an answer, he consults other experts.
“So I’ve turned to experts at UMB who can help me understand this,” he said. “I want to make UMB as a community not only more sensitive and more informed on these issues, but also to develop a plan to take action.”
Moderated by Russell McClain, JD, professor and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Maryland Carey Law, and Elsie Stines, DNP, CRNP, assistant vice president, special projects and initiatives, and chair, UMB Diversity Advisory Council, the discussion began the painful process of peeling back layers of racial trauma and denial that can be traced back to the Founding Fathers.
More than 800 members of the UMB community logged in to the town hall to listen and contribute to the hour-and-a-half discussion. Acknowledging UMB’s diversity, Stines noted we all have a “lens” through which we experienced the tragedy of Floyd’s death. “You may see your brother, uncle, or son in George’s eyes as you witnessed his life taken away. You may be newly awakened to the reality of police brutality. We’re here,” she said, “to begin as an anchor institution to map a path forward” for systemic change.
Part of that change, panelists agreed, includes recognizing the stark reality of white supremacy in America and the subtle ways it manifests itself. “Many people are going to imagine hoods or burning crosses, and that in fact is a form of white supremacy,” Shaia said. But it is so much more than that, she said, nodding to legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley’s definition of white supremacy as a “political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.
“Any one of us socialized into this society has been socialized into a culture of white supremacy, regardless of race, and it impacts the way we see the world,” Shaia added. There is no middle ground in addressing this issue, she continued. “If we fear talking about white supremacy, if we avoid it for politeness sake, we are complicit in giving it life.”
After sharing the story of Ty Anders, a 21-year-old African-American man who was violently arrested for running a stop sign in Midland, Texas, in late May, McClain asked, “How many of us are afraid to send our children out into the world?
“For some people, you get pulled over by the police. For me, I know I better keep my hands at 10 and 2 and not move them until I’m told to. Some of us live in a different world and often experience the world as second-class citizens,” said the father, husband, and law professor.
Arnett, who begins at the law school on July 1 and joined the discussion from Pittsburgh, said the video of Floyd being killed by law enforcement while defenseless and handcuffed is clear evidence that “our legal system operates differently depending on who you are.”
As the panelists spoke, a robust conversation was taking place in the chat comments of the town hall, with issues ranging from how to show compassion to black and brown colleagues, to concerns about hiring practices and diversifying teaching curricula, to the simple query of “What can I do?”
Shaia suggested that white people start by asking themselves, “How do I benefit from white supremacy?”
“There are a lot of ways that white people benefit, and the first step is to figure that out. The next step is to figure out how white supremacy hurts you, because it hurts every single thing,” she said, noting the huge number of black and brown people who are held back from reaching their full potential. “I think that is one of the things that is holding Americans back because we’re only working with the full potential of a small number of people.”
From a legal perspective, Arnett encouraged participants to familiarize themselves with the local criminal justice system. “Do you know who your prosecutors are?” he asked. “Do you know what’s happening in your police departments?”
Harking back to Maryland slave narratives he’s been reading about for a research project, Arnett marveled at the courage and sacrifice of slaves who risked their lives for freedom along the Underground Railroad. He also commended the white people who assisted slaves on their perilous journey north.
“We have to do this together,” he said, “and if we don’t, we won’t be able to dismantle the system and structures to the degree that we need.”
“This is not a black problem, it’s an American problem,” Stines said of the need to work together to tear down walls that simultaneously entrap and exclude minorities in America from access to health care, justice, housing, and education.
One way to dismantle the system is through education, a UMB strong point. Stines suggested a mandatory “History of Baltimore” course for incoming students who often have no context about the socioeconomic and racial complexities of the city where they will be living and studying for several years. The chat immediately responded with positive feedback about the idea and added that faculty and staff also should be required to take the class.
Precious Ohagwu, a recent University of Maryland School of Pharmacy graduate, agreed, saying, “I think it would be really beneficial to have a social justice class that relates and is tailored to health care, social work, law … as many students are not aware of these inequities or don’t understand the ramifications.”
Speaking of his own education about structural racism Jarrell indicated he’s in favor of a class to educate students. “I think that would be a very important first step,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the social work students, it’s that you have to learn about structural racism in order to understand what’s going on in Baltimore. I think our entire University needs to understand these things because it’s part of our fabric.”
At the end of a mind-opening and often-painful conversation about racial inequity that only scratched the surface of a complex and entrenched issue, an attendee in the chat wrote, “I have a feeling these are conversations that will have to go beyond this town hall.”
“I agree,” wrote another.