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September 15, 2016

RACE: How faculty can address the issue of race & police shootings

3d illustration of bright empty classroom for lessons and traini


“Race is probably one of the most difficult things to talk about,” sociology department faculty member Waverly Duck told the forum, “Black, White & Blue: Addressing Race and Police Shootings in the Classroom,” sponsored last month by the Center for Urban Education (CUE).

There is “trauma and emotional labor with witnessing people die” in racially charged violent situations, he told the capacity crowd of 100 in Posvar Hall — particularly today, with police shootings of black people drawing social media attention.

“There are not so many spaces, and I hate to say this, at this institution to have this conversation,” Duck added. “For faculty members of color, I think there is this expectation that you will have these conversations, you will teach these courses. I don’t mind … but how do you have these conversations in physics?”

The forum focused on how instructors in higher education can talk in their classrooms about tough issues such as race, class and their intersection with law enforcement. It also dealt more broadly with how people need to understand the historical context of race and class in America and the history of policing in poor, majority-black neighborhoods.

The other panel members were:

• Linda DeAngelo, CUE faculty fellow and higher education faculty member in the School of Education’s Department of Administrative and Policy Studies;

• Eric Holmes, commander, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police; and

• Gerald Dickinson, who is in his first semester as a faculty member in Pitt’s School of Law and formerly was a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Moderator Ashley Woodson, social studies faculty member in the Department of Instruction and Learning and a CUE member, said the need to say “Black lives matter” is not just a current movement but has been a recurring theme since the founding of America. She noted Ida B. Wells’ newspaper and pamphlet campaigns against lynchings beginning in the late 1800s and Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” in 1939.


DeAngelo, the only white panelist, arrived here in 2012 from Los Angeles. Although that city did not seem as diverse as it appears from the outside, she said, “I had no idea of what being in a white space was like until I moved to Pittsburgh,” encountered Pitt classes full of white students, and tried to communicate about topics in her research, which, as her website details, “focus on the differential effect of institutions on students … outcomes for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students and learning and change in diverse environments.”

“How do I engage in this work I am committed to around social justice,” she said, especially when teaching students who intend to have careers in higher education? “I found that my students in particular have no experience at all” with imagining others’ lives in depth, particularly those of other races.

She added: “I had to reinvent myself a little. I really had to deal with whiteness in a new way … What is whiteness? What does it mean to be white?”

When black people die at the hands of law enforcement — on the street, in police vehicles, in jail — she recommends a straightforward approach to class discussions: “I just come right out here and say, ‘These things are happening, let’s talk about it.’” She has learned “to work with and use my colleagues, to know that I’m not out there alone,” DeAngelo added.

She cautioned, however, that faculty seeking tenure may be reticent to bring up subjects that are deemed controversial. They may feel that “the best way to get a good evaluation is to keep your mouth shut,” she said.

Rich Milner, CUE director, spoke from the audience when the panel was asked how teachers at all levels of schooling could incorporate such discussions in their classrooms. Ignoring the issues is not wise, he said, noting the “null curriculum” idea of Stanford faculty member Elliot Eisner, who posited that failing to speak in class about conspicuous events in society teaches strong lessons anyway: “This is the most powerful part of the curriculum, from my perspective: the null curriculum … from what we don’t teach them” about race, Milner said.

His father, Milner noted, is one of those men who communicates with his kids through his wife, which is why Milner was surprised when his dad called him one day recently. “He said, ‘If you get pulled over by the police, you just do what you are told…. Because you’re going to bury me; I’m not going to bury you.’”

If a college professor over the age of 40 hears such things from a parent, Milner added, “You can imagine the types of conversations kids are having in their homes.”


“Historically, in the past, when an issue occurred, when there were types of violence, we took a saturation approach — no tolerance,” said city police commander Eric Holmes, a 19-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police who started his law enforcement career as a Pitt police officer. Such an approach was counterproductive, he acknowledged. “We didn’t do what we intended to do. We left a bad taste with young people. It wasn’t good policy.

“I got into policing, believe it or not, because of a negative interaction I had with police,” Holmes reported. After growing up in Penn Hills, he and a friend were working as security officers at Three Rivers Stadium when they were pulled over on Route 28 by suburban police. Holmes and his companion, both African American and still in their security guard uniforms, found the cop confrontational; he even began unholstering his gun during the traffic stop, which only resulted in a ticket.

Afterward, Holmes and his friend debated filing a complaint. “We both decided, don’t ask me why, maybe we could change it by getting into law enforcement.” Both are police officers today.

“In Pittsburgh we recognize that we’re probably one incident away from protests happening here,” Holmes said. Chief Cameron McLay is leading the force in piloting a federally run police reform program to change police practices, Holmes reported.


Gerald Dickinson noted his own journey to understanding race relations, which will culminate with him teaching his first Pitt class this spring: Land, Race and Property Rights. He was a foster child in Allegheny County, with both black siblings and white siblings. After law school worked as an attorney first in New York City and then in Johannesburg, South Africa, representing squatters in its slums. He then started a housing-rights legal-representation project at the Pittsburgh-based law firm Reed Smith, mostly for African Americans.

As a property law scholar, he will focus his course on federal, state and local laws and policies that have created segregated communities in America since the 1920s, from the building of low-income housing projects to urban renewal efforts that created segregated communities with a lack of jobs and consequently burgeoning crime.

Dickinson noted that “broken windows policing” — the idea that eliminating all outward signs of blight, including petty street crimes, leads to safer streets —targets neighborhoods mostly occupied by low-income blacks.

“The issue with that is … of course continuous aggressive policing in those neighborhoods will inevitably create tension between residents and the police.”
When black people die following encounters with police, he said, “it is important to take a step back there and assess the facts of the case before jumping into it and taking a side” by reacting on social media, for instance. Then people can respond “in a more civic manner.”

Given such tensions between city residents and police, it is very hard to step back and take a facts-only approach, one audience member said: “Some of the first facts are that my emotions are so damaged.” It’s hard to just react to the facts when a person is not yet healed from past injustices, she added.

One of the primary responsibilities of faculty in such circumstances is to provide space in class for pertinent discussions, DeAngelo said.

“You have to take seriously how people are making sense of what’s around them,” Duck added — even if their assessment of a recent incident “is not true.” While individuals may not understand historically why they are in this plight, they do have a clear sense of what is going on around them. “Value that local knowledge and see how it is being shaped,” he counseled.

“In these communities, everyone is under pressure,” from parents and kids to social workers, said Duck. With any occupation, such as police officer, he added, “there are good actors and bad actors,” but local police need most of all to build trust and use discretion when acting in poor black neighborhoods. Residents, too, need to understand how pervasive are the causes of their current situation — far beyond heavy policing, he said: “Law enforcement officers are not social workers. We need to think of this situation holistically,” and discuss how schools and other major institutions are contributing to the problems, and the solutions.


Another attendee noted that, in black communities, killings of black people by law enforcement cause fresh pain, but there also is historical pain: “There hasn’t been a space for healing in black communities … There has never been a reconciliation or a recognition of history.” Instead, she said, the sentiment she hears from outside is “‘Let’s get past it. We’re in a new century.’ What do we do to create the spaces here at the University” to heal the past and the present? she asked.

Forum moderator Woodson noted that talking about whiteness, especially for white people, is hard: “What does it mean to perform whiteness?” she asked. “Whiteness is invisible. Whiteness is the norm.”

“Our kids are watching,” said a middle-school teacher attending the forum: “They are not waiting for us to have that conversation. Our city is a lived conversation.” She encouraged the audience to create moments and circumstances to allow for frank discussions of race in classrooms.

How can Pitt and other institutions of higher education bring in faculty “who are brave enough to challenge the system?” Duck asked. He suggested faculty use historical and current government reports on the state of race relations, poverty and related issues, including the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Missouri, as a start for discussing police department practices following the killing of Michael Brown. He added that faculty ought “to use actual documentation, using tools that explore, when you have a series of investigations, what are the problems you have in reducing these problems.”

“We all stand on the shoulders of giants,” Dickinson concluded. “I’d like to see all of you and us as future giants that others can stand on the shoulders of, as they proceed with their careers.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 2

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