Higher Ed, Complicity and Callousness Toward Black Death – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

M. Yvonne Taylor is a doctoral student in higher educational leadership at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is also assistant director of communication.

By Yvonne Taylor

As a black doctoral student and staff member at an institution of higher education, with responsibilities that include communication and social media, avoiding the many videos that show black people suffering and being murdered is often not an option. Today, raw and graphic footage of 15-year-old Dajerria Becton being dragged by police at a pool party or video of George Floyd’s airway being crushed under the knee of a nonchalant white officer pops up on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok repeatedly and unexpectedly. After going viral, it is then displayed across reputable news sites, like CNN and MSNBC, with a few words marking it as “disturbing” so as to continue the illusion of fairness. 

Though the collective outrage, sparked in large part by the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder, has brought many to their feet as they march together to fight this seemingly intractable societal ill, it is vital that we ask not only why video was needed (when Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s and Tony McDade’s murders did not spark civil unrest) but also how change can be created and sustained without the demand for what some refer to as “trauma porn.”This is especially important because as Educational Psychologist Dr. Kevin Cokley has shared, there is real psychological harm experienced by black people who view these violent images.

The reasoning for this visual display of murder is often that people have to see the truth to believe it. Americans whose practices and belief systems have been steeped in white supremacy insist on visual “evidence” to prove that racism and police brutality exist. This demand for evidence has its basis in false notions of objectivity, a concept also reified by higher education. Yet, as noted in several interviews, the police brutality within the Minneapolis neighborhood in which George Floyd was murdered had been well-known for decades. Black people did not need video evidence. In fact, for black people, these videos perpetuate trauma—and intimidation—so visceral that many of us must take complete and total social media breaks to care for our mental health.

Yet video evidence of police brutality also is not new. Rodney King’s beating was in 1992, for example. If video evidence of black suffering and death do not change hearts and minds of white Americans, what purpose do they serve? News outlets share in their distribution because these videos get clicks, and clicks create revenue. To abstain from showing these videos would be to decline money for their organizations. In short, black death and its symbolism are profitable.

As shocking as that may seem, it is important to remember that the profitability of black death and suffering has a long history in America. One can see it in the death and disease wrought by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in order to build the economy of not just the South, but America. One can see it in the postcards of lynchings white families kept as souvenirs. One can see it in the carnage of the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacres 99 years ago that destroyed Black Wall Street, a threat to the white economy. And today, it can be seen in the fervent insistence on “freedom” to open up the economy, forcing black, brown, and indigenous bodies to work in meat processing while knowing we are dying at disproportionate rates due to the coronavirus.

That’s why it’s past time for people to understand that the voyeuristic experience of black pain and death is not justice. White people are already well aware of the reality of police brutality, extrajudicial murder, and racism. It’s why the Amy Coopers of the country choose to invoke the threat of police “intervention” on black people time and time again. Those moments of death and indignity do not need to be aired and shared ad nauseum in order to understand the inhumanity of police brutality and extrajudicial murder. It’s also past time that Americans recognize that Black people are psychologically harmed by the airing and consumption of black death and police brutality. 

Higher education has an important role to play in recognizing this harm and supporting black students, faculty, and staff. Many college campuses were justifiably quick to respond to student needs related to the collective trauma of COVID. Faculty offered students credit/no credit options for students and no-harm final exams, and universities mobilized supports for mental health and wellness, and created new, online forms for outreach. Administrators also considered how exacerbated inequities would impact student success. Yet the dual pandemics of COVID and racism disproportionately affect black people. In response, universities and college campuses have sent emails that, at times, call out racism and police brutality, but have done little to put into practice the types of immediate supports that attend to this moment’s psychological and emotional toll, as well as the cultural taxation and additional labor of black faculty, staff and students. Unfortunately, some faculty remain openly hostile to such supports.

Over 50 years ago, James Baldwin said, “I am terrified at the moral apathy–the death of the heart – which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.”  Requiring and sharing videos of black suffering has roots in racial trauma voyeurism, consumerism and white supremacist notions of truth. Higher education can and must to do more to confront and eradicate its perpetuation of these practices. They must decide that black lives are human lives, and that black people are worth listening to, believing, and supporting.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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