When an incident like the one I wrote about in my previous post occurs, the question soon arises: How much attention to admittedly uncomfortable incidents is too much, or conversely, how much is not enough? It’s a fine needle to thread and you probably should read my previous posting before you go any further.
The fact that Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell (who lives near the Case Western University campus) was stopped by university police and asked for his I.D. because a panicked student made a call to police in regards to someone she thought should not be on campus is obviously more troubling to members of the African-American community than any other demographic is a given. Additionally, the fact that the article I wrote about the incident garnered more attention and responses than virtually any other I’ve penned so far this year is, at least to my very unscientific methodology, proof that these kinds of incidents are still incendiary occurrences for blacks.
Obviously the university police chief will review the situation and take what he deems to be appropriate action, but given the climate of distrust between blacks and law enforcement in this country, will that be enough? Will that quell the raging discomfort, quiet the queasy feeling that we are once again being targeted simply for being black? Or do we allow the incident to recede from conversation, opting to believe that the quicker we move on the least liable they are to reoccur.
There is a distinct school of thought among some in America that if blacks simply quit talking about racism — real or perceived — so damn much, it would soon disappear on its own accord. Personally, I’ve always thought that to be a novel way of handling the problem — by pretending that it just doesn’t exist.
But like a finely cut diamond, incidents in America involving race — the current case included — have many facets. And all of the views, when put forth by well-meaning, compassionate and fair-minded individuals, are of value and can provide insight. Below is a response from my very good friend Peter E. Knox, a professor of humanities and the director of the Baker-Nord Center at CWRU. As a matter of full disclosure, Peter and I try to find a good reason to lunch together every few months, and he has frequently appeared as a guest on my Sunday radio show.
I sent him my previous article as soon as I posted it, and here was Peter Knox’s response:
“I don’t know any more about this incident than what I read in Cleveland.com but I can maybe add a bit of context.
“I haven’t seen any reports about the student, but the odds are at least 50/50 that she or he was not white. Whites currently make up about 47% of the student body at CWRU.
“And there’s a pretty good chance that s/he was international (they make up about 20% of our students) and if so, most likely Asian. Students from overseas bring with them a whole different set of issues when it comes to race. The percentage of African-American students is much lower than we would like, but it is not because we aren’t trying, and lots of us on campus, including the people in admissions, are working to figure out how to do better.
“Security on campus is a serious concern, as it is on all college campuses. But it is especially a concern on urban campuses. I taught at Columbia University in NYC in the ’80s and the situation there is not much different. College administrators try to balance campus security with the desire to be open to the public. That’s a lot easier to do when your college is out in the country surrounded by pretty woods and maybe a fence. It’s tough to do when the route from your dorm to a class is also a city street. It hurts the university’s ability to recruit new students every time a student gets held up at gun point walking home from the library at night, which happens all too often. These incidents don’t get reported in the press, but we get security bulletins. Students are encouraged to contact campus security whenever they see someone whom they think looks suspicious. The university does work with students both during new student orientation and throughout the year on these issues, and we try to communicate that being in a city and being part of a community are assets. But as long as we keep admitting 18-year olds, I expect that there will be students who react like this one.
“I rarely interact with the campus police, but my few experiences with them, for example, when we’ve needed them to provide security at events, have been good. Good enough to convince me that I would rather deal with them than with the Cleveland PD. I understand that our president has called Councilman Conwell to apologize. Not good enough, of course. But I know that Barbara Snyder has a deep and serious commitment to social justice and I have no doubt that the apology was sincere. I also have no doubt that the follow-up with the officer will be serious.
“I don’t have any problem at all with your article, and I will make sure that you are invited to campus, not banned! [NOTE: When I sent Peter my column I joked that I wanted him to see it before I got banned from the campus, but the comment washouts certainly meant as a joke.]
“We are a university and if we can’t take criticism we don’t deserve that title. CWRU is committed to diversity on campus and to justice in our society. We not only try to recruit a diverse pool of students, we try to make sure that they succeed and graduate through programs like our Emerging Scholars and the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. We also know that we can do better.
“I am very well aware that many members of the community feel that there is an invisible wall around University Circle and around our campus. I am especially aware of how this is perceived in the fields that I represent in the humanities. That’s our legacy, and we have to own it even as we try to change it. I am always grateful for help in taking that wall down. Or at least punching holes in it.”
As to Peter’s statements regarding the university’s commitment to diversity and fairness, I’ve witnessed and played a small part in those efforts and know they are genuine.
Additionally, when the fact is taken into consideration that areas like University Circle are surrounded by communities of color where poverty is higher, quite naturally some teenagers and young adults that don’t have will on occasion attempt to take from those students that do have. We as blacks have an obligation to understand that reality and to be supportive of law enforcement as it strives to keep everyone on campus safe in their persons and property. But how that is achieved is the question, and that question should perhaps be explored in a dialogue — a forum — held on this issue between university officials and the wider community.
I’d like your thoughts.
From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.