Ferguson town hall addresses race and justice

Scholarly insight and personal anecdotes about racial discrimination and the justice system were shared during an evening town hall meeting at Rice Sept. 23 to discuss last month’s killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

More than 130 students, faculty, staff and alumni filled Farnsworth Pavilion in Rice Memorial Center for an impassioned, thought-provoking discussion sponsored by Rice’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Center for Civic Leadership.

Rice alumnus Donald Bowers '91 moderated the town hall forum about the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo courtesy of Rice Television)

Forum moderator Donald Bowers ’91, president of the Association of Rice Alumni and a member of the Association of Rice University Black Alumni, said he was very encouraged by both the strong turnout for the event and the informative presentations and dialogue.

“Our students really demonstrated something that I wish society could do more often: have an open and honest dialogue without attacking one another,” he said. “The way they asked questions and the way they responded showed that they are sincerely interested in making a difference. Everyone was much better off for engaging with each other and not being afraid to communicate.”

Felicia Martin, associate director of domestic programs and partnerships in the Center for Civic Leadership, said the town hall was the result of a working group of concerned faculty, staff and students who wanted to enable a discussion about “how race, power and privilege play out in the systems that we’re a part of.” She said the intentions were twofold: to create a safe space that is open to diverse perspectives and opinions, and to inspire people to continue the conversation after the meeting by seeking out additional views, challenging their assumptions and sharing their stories about how these issues have impacted them.

Originally planned as a 90-minute gathering, the forum lasted more than two hours. A panel of faculty, students and staff spent the first hour presenting facts, analysis and experiences.

Michael Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology, said that living in Denmark last year made him and his family appreciate “what life can be when you’re not contorted and twisted by race like we are [in the U.S.]” He summarized reports of what happened in the suburb of St. Louis on Aug. 9 when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, and a companion were stopped for walking in the street and blocking traffic. Brown was shot six times and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. “Police say that Mr. Brown was shot during a fight for the officer’s gun,” Emerson said. “Some witnesses say that Mr. Brown’s hands were in the air when the last of several shots were fired.” No charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing. Emerson noted that three of the 53 police officers in Ferguson are black; the population of Ferguson is 67 percent black; 86 percent of all police stops in Ferguson involve black citizens and 92 percent of people arrested there are black.

Alex Byrd ’90, associate professor of history, gave a historical perspective on young African-Americans who have been killed throughout American history. “Understanding this type of violence in the early 21st century requires a grasp of the violence of the late 19th century that framed a good deal of African-American life,” he said. Byrd noted that such violence creates division within communities, within people as an American community and also within racial, ethnic and other types of demographic communities, and it requires conversation. “Research matters,” he said. “If you see this as a problem, then your life as a student can be one solution to address this. There are some really important ways to be scholar activists around these issues and take advantage of the data that we have on these issues and find out by studying that data where these problems come from.”

Jenifer Bratter, associate professor of sociology, discussed police violence against African-Americans and Latinos and its impact on how people interact. She said the Michael Brown tragedy is “testimony of how large of an issue race is.” Although not a lot of large-scale research on such police shootings has been published, Bratter said, the Ferguson incident was not an isolated case, as evidenced by reports of other unarmed men of color being shot around the country that “sparked angry protests” and “soured community relations between police officers and residents.” She said more scholar activists are needed to study these shootings so that they can be understood and interpreted better, but attention also needs to be given how parents make sense of this information to their children. She cited a New York Times article about a black father who had misgivings about buying his 17-year-old son a “nice” car because his son was afraid police would suspect him of driving a stolen car. The father – a banker – gave his business card to his son and told him to tell police to call him if they pulled his son over.

Luis Duno-Gottberg, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, focused on the criminalization of minorities and mass incarceration. “Sadly, one of the things Latin America and the U.S. share is a legacy of the Plantation Society: the continuous criminalization of those social groups that have been exploited and oppressed over the years,” he said. In his research on race relations, Duno-Gottberg has found a number of “troubling statistics,” such as half the inmate population in U.S. and 42 percent of the people on death row are African-Americans. Moving further into specific practices of criminalization, he analyzed the “visual regime that governs the construction of a dangerous other,” where “racial profiling plays a very important”. He explained that “racial profiling is problematic pre-emptive strategy of policing. It’s directed to some groups that are deemed to be dangerous. The strategy is based on a way of seeing — it’s a way of looking at others. But this way of seeing is not the result of individual bigotry, but the product of systemic exclusion. There’s a whole history that sustains such visual regime, aiming to control certain populations and deprive them from their rights.”

Rice Chief of Police Johnny Whitehead shared context from a law-enforcement perspective. “We’ve been dealing with racial tensions between law enforcement and the community during my entire career of more than 30 years,” he said. “I think most of the 900,000 cops in this country go to work, do a good job and really care about their community,” Whitehead said. “But still these cases of racial profiling we keep hearing about are troubling.” He said such incidents can occur for a variety of reasons — biases, poor training, fear, lack of equipment and poor recruitment of officers. “Despite careful hiring and screening, psychological evaluations, the background investigations, the training and our best efforts to put professional officers out on the street, sometimes officers don’t get it right,” Whitehead said. He noted that anyone who gets pulled over by police should remember that the manner in which they respond to questions and orders can influence the outcome of the experience.

Three students also provided their perspectives as panelists.

“I’m extremely proud to be black,” said Brown sophomore James Carter, who is majoring in psychology and English. “In recent years, being black has also been something that has scared me a lot. With what happened to Trayvon Martin and now what’s happened to Michael Brown, it scares me that I can step outside my home and not come back because of some miscommunication or misrepresentation.”

Hanszen senior Michelle Pham, a sociology major who described herself as “whitish” and Vietnamese American, said that when she helped organize a protest about Michael Brown in her hometown, a friend asked why she cared about Brown. “My first response to that was why I should have to answer why I care about other people,” she said. “I think when we talk about race and when we talk about oppression and marginalization, we don’t really think about a doer or an actor; we think about these things happening, like black men ending up in jail at a really high rate or being pulled over more often.”

Will Rice junior Abraham Younes, also a sociology major, recalled a cop seeing him jaywalking in the middle of the street like Brown and driving on by; that experience made Younes, who is white, think about the consequences of being a black or Hispanic person and being harassed or stopped or killed. “How many more black boys and brown Latinos have to die before we actually realize this isn’t about a bad cop, or a bad apple?” he asked. “It’s about a system that’s built around ensuring these kinds of results will continue to happen unless we do something about it.”

Following the panelists’ presentations, students and faculty asked questions and shared comments. Topics ranged from the militarization of police and the experience of being watched in a store as if the clerk expects you to steal something because of your skin color, to worrying about a family member getting killed like Brown and the life lessons that black and Hispanic parents have to communicate to their children regarding racial profiling and gender.

The entire forum was recorded by Rice Television (RTV) and can be viewed at

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.