BY KRISTY DAVIS
On Tuesday, February 17, the Black in America Tour with Soledad O’Brien stopped at UGA and led a discussion with attendees concerning racial inequalities in America. With over 600 people in attendance, O’Brien along with a panel of renowned black voices including author and economist Julianne Malveaux, comedian W. Kamau Bell, UGA alumnus and executive director of Community Connection Fenwick Broyard, and co-founder of Def Jam records Russell Simmons (via Skype) spoke to students, faculty, and guests about problems that Black Americans face today, namely the policing of communities of color.
Opening with various stories, O’Brien asked a number of rhetorical but insightful questions. “Are we in race fatigue?” she asked of the audience, adding that “We would like to forget about a contentious 400 year history…blacks, historically, have had less to begin with…you start behind, and you’re further behind.” O’Brien then brought up a multitude of statistics to give a real idea of the separation between communities of color and whites, with one graph showing the differences in unemployment rates (Whites: 4.6%, Blacks: 10.2%), and another graph showing the net worth of families (Whites: $265,000, Blacks: $28,500). These staggering statistics led to collective disbelief and exasperation from the predominantly black audience, and these statistical realities were just the beginning of numerous personal stories that would show the inequality between the different communities.
In the 2015 Black in America documentary entitled “Black and Blue,” O’Brien interviews Keeshan Harley, a black male college student in New York City. He tells his story of the police have stopping him over 100 times, and he opens up on the first time he was detained: “I first got stopped [and] frisked when I was 13. They say I say I fit a description. That’s — I would say 9 times out of 10 the excuse they give me. What’s the description? A young, black male 18 to 25.”
This one example speaks volumes to the daily life that many young, black men face, especially in cities like New York. In the past decade, the New York City Police (NYPD) have made over 5 million stops, with 80% of those stops being Black or Latino people. Of those stops, 88% of them did not end in arrest or any charge, showing that most stops were based simply on looks versus potential crimes being committed. These stops create psychological and emotional stress—Keeshan said that he considered dropping out of college in order to avoid harassment by the police.
As the panel discussion began, it offered the perspective of successful yet affected members of the Black community. In his opening remarks, W. Kamau Bell said, “I’ve learned to take up less space because it causes less problems… anything can go wrong and I can be the next black man who was killed.” This sparked the conversation of microaggression, and the importance of recognizing that these “micro-things” affect people’s entire lives. Julianne Malveaux brought up an extremely humbling “what-if” scenario of “what he [young men of color] could’ve been if he hadn’t had to carry all that rage around,” speaking volumes to the capacity of life people have when they aren’t constantly under assumption that what they’re doing is wrong.
Fenwick Broyard offered his opinion on the importance of accountability in the police department. He voiced his concern that there needed to be accountability on every action, including having a legitimate reason for even reaching for a gun or stopping someone on the streets. He believed that having to explain your reasoning for the small behaviors would in turn stop the unreasonable actions of stopping young black men for simply walking around, or potentially killing someone, such as Eric Garner, without reason (the Eric Garner case was brought up extensively throughout the panel discussion). Broyard also expressed the need for everyone to take part in “policing” the community, saying that “law enforcement was only one part of the equation,” and that we as a society need to participate in the elimination of microaggression and discrimination against specific groups and communities.
As the floor opened up for the final part of the event, student and guest questions, most of the questions had the same underlying theme: “What are we going to do?” The first student asked, “How do we get more stories about us—about who we are—out there? There’s this image [of blacks], and there are many of us that don’t fit that image.” Malveaux gave an honest answer, advising everyone to tell their stories, the unseen stories of black America, versus retelling the stories of the same Black icons year after year. She stressed the importance by telling the story of her grandmother, saying, “She’s not a hero, but she scrubbed floors so I didn’t have to” and emphasized that every positive story was bettering the image of black people.
Other questions included:
- “What can we do to make the conversation more accessible?”
- “What is the conversation that needs to be had in Athens?”
- “Is drug policy exacerbating the racial divide?”
- “Why are these incidents of police brutality not framed in human rights violations and why isn’t the US government being held accountable?”
Soledad O’Brien’s Black in America Tour was an incredible opportunity for members of the Athens community to come together and brainstorm ideas on how to have this conversation of equality with other people. Though the conversation is just beginning and is certainly an uphill battle, the panel promised that these conversations would come to fruition if pursued. “We have to be committed to social and economic equality in the long haul,” Malveaux vocalized, and Fenwick showed his agreement—“You’ve got to throw all you’ve got at it until you see the results you want.”