"Race in America After Ferguson" Event Synopsis


Photos by Zac Davis.  Article by SPS Student Megan Wildhood.

On Tuesday, October 28, 2014 Upper Gwinn was a packed house for the “Race In America After Ferguson” forum, that included four SPU professors: Dr. David Nienhuis (Associate Professor of New Testament Studies), Dr. Brian Bantum (Associate Professor of Theology), Dr. Kimberly Segall (Associate Professor of English), and Dr. Jorge Presciado (Assistant Professor of Education).  Provost Jeff Van Duzer framed the discussion by stating that we all perceive the events of our lives, including those in Ferguson, through our own eyes and experiences.  The goal is to “come and see” as Jesus invited the world, to start seeing things through the perspective of others, outside your own.

University Chaplain Dr. Bo Lim followed by reading Hosea 12:2-6 as a call to love and justice.  He then echoed the words of Dr. Frank Spina, Professor of Old Testament, on the day of the shooting at SPU: As Dr. Spina warned against moving too soon to comfort on June 5, Dr. Lim cautions against moving too quickly to unity.  In the face of madness, insanity and evil, “As a Christian, I’m required to be honest,” Dr. Lim says.  We are to tell the truth about our nation’s past like the prophet Hosea and we do it with God’s Word and in God’s community.  We are required to be honest but we are also required as Christians to be hopeful.

Dr. David Nienhuis kicked off the evening’s conversation when he acknowledged that he is “probably one of the most privileged on [the] stage, culturally speaking.”  He told a story about his father, who was driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, when he happened upon the Watts Riots.  During those six days of violence, thirty-five people were killed, thousands were injured and thousands more were incarcerated.  His father’s response: “I just don’t understand what is the matter with those people.  Why would they burn down their houses and stores?”  Dr. Nienhuis later experienced something similar in 1991, when he was an undergrad at SPU and the beating of Rodney King made national news.  It was the first time police brutality was caught on tape and this amateur video launched a whole new set of riots, largely in part because the cops were acquitted of any wrongdoing.  At the time, Dr. Nienhuis echoed his father’s question and asked, “What’s the matter with people?  Why would they burn down their buildings?” 

Fast forward ten years, when Dr. Nienhuis read the book, “Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson.  Dr. Nienhuis read about the parable of Jane and Bob in a contest to lose weight, which served to illustrate white privilege.  Jane and Bob show up at the camp to lose weight and go to their cabins: Jane’s has exercise machines, healthy food and a TV showing people exercising; Bob’s has a comfortable couch, junk food and the latest movie playing on the TV.  At the first weight in, Jane has lost five pounds, Bob has gained two.  Jane’s critical and Bob is self-critical.  After the second weigh in, Jane has lost 15 pounds and Bob has gained five.  Jane’s critical and Bob’s mad so he investigates her cabin and discovers that the game is rigged against him.  If Bob loots from Jane’s cabin and lights his own on fire, could you blame him?  Bob’s cabin is a symbol of unfairness while Jane was handed all she needed to succeed.  Nienhuis closed with:  “I’m upset that it’s unfair and I’m upset that I spent so many years not being upset.”

Dr. Brian Bantum was next to take the podium to make the heart of his message plain: “We have to make a decision.  In the U.S., race is like gravity: It is the constant pull of certain bodies into the ground while others walk seemingly unaware of its effects.”  But in fact, “this country was built on the inferiority of dark bodies.”  His passion and outrage is infectious and captivating.  “If you are not with us, you are against us.  If you do not stand with us, you are letting the burden fall on us.  Forget education,” he continues, “forget discriminatory policies; we just don’t want to get shot by the people who are supposed to protect us.”  He summarized with perhaps the most powerful words from the plenary session: “Passivity is violence.”  You can either stand by and watch or link arms with us and tell the devil no.  It is time to decide. 

Dr. Kimberly Segall followed, painting a picture of two brothers: the older boy takes the smaller boy’s food and toys and then, when the parent isn’t looking, hits his younger brother.  Does the parent love both kids?  Of course.  Does the parent take sides?  Dr. Segall would argue yes.  God is a parent and God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.  Her research question is basically, “what is a protest” and her work focuses on the Arab Spring, which began with one man, a fruit seller in Tunisia whose fruit cart was taken by the cops.  The fruit seller then went in front of the police station and lit himself on fire.  “A riot is the language of the unheard,” Dr. King once said, and Dr. Segall asserts that democracy fails if you don’t stand up with the minority protests.  She closed by with the haunting charge, “If you don’t mourn and lament the dead body before you, then the Church itself is dead.  Why can we mourn Paul Lee but not Michael Brown?”

Dr. Jorge Presciado closed the conversation with an open invitation to discuss diversity in his class, “Diversity in the Classroom,” every Friday, where he notes that he is the only Latino there.  “We talk about issues that impact our students, how to change education and systemic evils like institutional racism, which are very real.”  Change is difficult, like swimming upstream.  Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin no longer have a voice in this but we do.  How do you prepare teachers to do their jobs working with diverse populations?  Oftentimes, minority students are hurting.  Black men have experienced excessive punishment throughout history.  Why are there higher referrals rates for Special Education classes for African-American, Latino and Native American students?  What if we had the police come and volunteer in our schools?  What would happen when the oppressor is teaching and building relationships?  He summarizes by echoing Dr. Segall: When people protest, we have to pay attention – when you are vulnerable, how do you make yourself heard?

Next: “Race in America After Ferguson” Event Part II, Q&A Session.


Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2014