John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How Would You Feel?

John N. Gardner

I can’t remember when I started doing this. Has to do with whenever I am in a situation where there might be a potential for someone of a particular demographic characteristic, or philosophical point of view, to read something into a remark or statement I made that I had not intended and would not have wanted to be an interpretation.  I find myself all too frequently feeling like I need to do this. Questions I ask are: How would this sound to you if you were________? How would this look to you if you were________? How would you feel if you were_______? And the “you” is yours truly.

And that’s exactly the reaction I have been having to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. It has been making me think about how I would feel if I were ________.

This has evoked for me memories of a summer “appointment” I had in the year 1969 working in an Upward Bound program. I was both a faculty member and “director of counseling services.” Was given the latter job as a function of my recent former service in the Air Force as a psychiatric social worker. This particular Upward Bound program was hosted by what was then Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, S.C., which in my judgment displayed to the students a number of examples of institutionalized racism. As context, this institution was a racially integrated, all female college, except for this federally funded co-ed summer program for high school youngsters. The federal government also came to that same conclusion about institutionalized racism and defunded the program. But that is another whole story. So this was 1969. The year before Martin Luther King had been murdered and there were riotous outbreaks around the country. Also the year before 33 black college students had been shot, all in the back, by the South Carolina Highway Patrol in what came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre (title of a book by my former USC colleague, Jack Bass). Three of those students died of their wounds, incurred as they protested the continuing segregation of a bowling alley in Orangeburg, S.C. To understate the matter, the context for these black Upward Bound kids on a predominantly white female campus was a tinderbox. And these young people were angry. And frightened. And they were definitely asking themselves how things the white administrators said and did to them looked to them, the kids. This was the first time I had directly observed and been forced to deal with the anger of young people directed towards the history of injustice from the previous three hundred years. It had a powerful impact on me. I will never forget how angry, hurt, confused, but brave and outspoken those young people were. I really admired them.

So when the trial verdict was announced this weekend I found myself immediately wondering what it would be like for me this fall if I were back teaching on a university campus and finding myself asking “how do we look to…..?” especially the first-year, black male students who will be joining my university.

What a year this has been!

States have been adopting legislation to require the use of voter ID’s to prevent fraud in spite of their admission that there are no indications of voter fraud at all, leaving an inescapable conclusion that the intent is to prevent certain citizens from being able to vote.  As I write this, the state of Pennsylvania has just gone to court to defend its legislation that opponents claim will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor, elderly, and minority residents

The Supreme Court has just struck down the single most important provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, requiring affected states to obtain “pre clearance” approval of changes in election laws and policies. In just the several weeks since this ruling, states have rushed to put forward new legislation that opponents say will dilute the votes of Blacks and Hispanics.

The Supreme Court has returned to a lower court for further review of a challenge to the admissions policies of the University of Texas at Austin, signaling further difficulties for providing higher education opportunities for those who are recipients of the legacy of de jure discrimination.

My state, North Carolina, has voted to overturn its own “racial justice act” which will now permit the resumption of executions and will prevent the use of racial bias as a factor to argue for mitigating factors in capital sentencing.

The lower house of Congress has announced it will block any effort at “comprehensive” immigration reform including any option for those currently living illegally in the country for a pathway to citizenship. It is no secret what are the characteristics of those whom opponents wish to deny any option for citizenship.

In order to get the immigration reform bill adopted by the Senate, proponents had to agree to a massive increase in the number of Border Patrol agents, on the magnitude of some 40,000, to “secure” the border. We all know who exactly the intent is to secure the border to keep out.

The most prominent (and wealthiest) mayor in America regularly defends publicly the controversial policy of the largest metropolitan police force in the country which practices aggressive “stop and frisk” disproportionately applied to minority youth.

Reports are legion of racial profiling by government employees from sheriff’s deputies in Phoenix to TSA airport screeners.

A celebrity chef has recently confessed using racial slurs and by implication tars her entire region for doing what she asserts others have done too all very naturally.

And in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder trial verdict, we understand that Black children are asking their parents “if that could be me.”

Now if I were a black student entering a predominantly white campus like mine, if not all, but at least some of the above incidents would be impinging on my conscience. And I would have to be wondering what kind of shot I was going to get at upward social mobility from this experience called “college.”

I hope this fall we will mentally pause periodically and try to imagine how these students might see what we see, and then feel about what they have observed.

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