Every now and then, an event unfolds that you sense in your gut is history in the making. Over the past few weeks, I have felt that way about the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon is the 17-year-old black boy who was gunned down by a self-described neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, FL. The case has reverberated so deeply throughout the nation that I had to set aside time for my class to explore how such a tragedy could happen in 2012.
During one discussion, a student shared a disturbing experience about her attempts to engage her Emory peers on the issue.
“I went around and asked people what their opinions were on the Trayvon Martin case,” said Malaika C. Nicholas, a sophomore. “I got really frustrated when many students had little to no information about it at all.”
How is that possible? How could students at one of the nation’s top universities be oblivious to an event that has captivated the country?
Is it naked apathy? Is it true that, as some in my class insisted, many Emory students are self-absorbed and nonchalant about issues beyond the “bubble”? Or was it dismissed by some as just another instance of black noise – African Americans complaining about some perceived injustice?
I often have heard that Emory somehow breeds a culture of indifference, especially around matters of race. I do not believe the problem is that simple, or even entirely true.
The apathy theory was somewhat blunted last week, when plans were announced for an Atlanta rally to protest the Sanford police department’s failure to arrest the man who shot Trayvon Martin. The announcement came only a few days prior to the event. I asked two students for help in spreading the word. Despite such short notice, they mobilized. Within 24 hours, they had not only recruited about 30 people; they’d also coordinated a list of volunteers to provide transportation.
On Thursday, we travelled in a convoy to southwest Atlanta. One of the students, Treasure Arthur, joined prominent leaders on the steps of Providence Baptist Missionary Church and eloquently spoke about the need for a more aggressive investigation of the case.
As the students who attended the rally illustrated, there are many people on campus who are concerned about social justice issues. Still, one could argue, there are too many who remain blithely indifferent or unaware. For instance, I was disappointed that The Emory Wheel did not deem the Trayvon Martin rally significant enough to send a reporter to cover the event. Granted, the Wheel is a campus newspaper, but that should not limit its scope to reporting only on affairs that take place at Emory. Given the university’s location in Atlanta, a center of the civil rights movement, the Wheel has an obligation to track social justice issues at Emory, and indeed, citywide.
It is possible that the Wheel’s benign neglect reflects larger systemic problems. The Wheel has no black editors, people with personal experiences who could have provided enlightened news judgment or reminded them of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was killed, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. That might have helped them grasp the magnitude of the Trayvon Martin case.
Or perhaps most Wheel editors and writers have not been exposed to courses that highlight the history of race relations in America. If that is true, then Emory faculty and administrators must confront this question: What can we do to fill the educational void?
In many ways, we send clear signals to students about what information is vital, and what is not critical to their education. That message largely is communicated by the courses students are required to take, versus those that are electives.
Forgive my bias as a lecturer in the Department of African-American Studies, but I stand among those who believe that ethnic studies courses should not be optional. Given that slavery nearly ripped this country apart during the Civil War, and given that racial divisions in America remain a monumental problem centuries later, it seems logical to require Emory students to take at least one ethnic studies course before graduating.
Sadly, resistance to this and similar requirements has come from a surprising source: Emory faculty. Over the years, I have been shocked to see some of my faculty colleagues strongly oppose diversity initiatives.
Still, the Emory administration has persistently taken steps to promote dialogue through efforts such as the Transforming Communities Project. Such efforts pose a challenge fraught with complications, including the reality that involvement is strictly optional.
Which means that disinterested or uninformed students and faculty are unlikely to take part in classes or programs that educate about diversity.
So where does that leave us in these racially charged times? It leaves us mired in the ranks of universities that routinely send graduates into the world, largely clueless about racial issues that, directly or indirectly, impact their lives.
(Note: This article appeared in the March 27 issue of The Emory Wheel