The recently broadcasted video recording deaths of African American men, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, has sparked protests nationwide. University of Michigan experts are available to discuss related issues.
Alford Young is a professor of sociology and Afroamerican and African studies. His primary research focus is on low-income, urban-based African American men and how the social experiences of African Americans shapes their worldviews, belief systems and ideologies.
“The protests are about citizenship—white Americans believing their rights are violated by stay-at-home and feeling justified by taking guns to the Capitol to express their feeling violated, black Americans claiming the right to secure citizenship or be treated responsibly by state authorities,” he said. “The first group is acting out of a history of taking citizenship for granted. The second out of feeling being denied of citizenship.”
Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies and research affiliate at the Population Studies Center., is an expert on the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system.
“In every other time when protest has reached a fever pitch because injustices very much needed to be remedied, the country ultimately tried to find a new equilibrium, tried to address it enough to reach some sort of peace,” she said. “We now have a leadership that’s been crystal clear that it’s perfectly OK if we descend into utter civil war.”
Rogério Meireles Pinto, professor and associate dean for research at the School of Social Work, has taught advocacy, including the use of protests as one of many strategies.
“Many people, particularly white people, have been asserting, in the past and currently, that riots—a particular human behavior that occurs in protests—never amount to anything good. This sentiment has been expressed in different ways, too,” he said. “It is important to discuss the role riots have played in shaping the white versus black discourse in the history of the United States.”
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Deborah Rivas-Drake, professor of education and psychology, examines how adolescents navigate issues related to race and ethnicity in school, peer and family settings, and how these experiences inform their academic, socioemotional and civic development.
“Unfortunately, black parents have to have these conversations with their children all the time,” she said. “For other parents who may be broaching these issues for the first time, be explicit and intentional with your kids about calling the police brutality events what they are: anti-black racism and racial violence.
“Humanize the victims—they are parents, sons and daughters, friends, members of a community who are suffering their loss. And model both humility and action by talking to them about what you are doing right now to interrupt racism in your own life or community or how you’re learning more about how to do so in ways that don’t burden or retraumatize Black people.”
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Muniba Saleem, assistant professor of communication and media, examines the ways in which racial ethnic minorities are represented in mainstream media and how these representations influence intergroup dynamics. Her recent work examines the ways in which media can be effective and ineffective in garnering the support of white Americans toward social justice movements.
“Media effects research reveals that racial ethnic minorities face an uphill battle when seeking social justice for several reasons,” she said. “First, mainstream media tend to represent racial ethnic minorities in a negative light across media genres. Second, violent acts committed by minorities receive more media attention than violent acts committed by the dominant racial group.
“Third, akin to a catch-22, not only are minorities expected to take responsibility for the violent actions of their ingroup but doing so attributes the blame towards the entire group. Fourth, claims about discrimination are perceived as ‘complaining’ by the dominant group. Finally, social justice messages from the dominant group garner more support than the same messages from marginalized communities. Ultimately, these processes reveal the perilous nature of seeking racial justice for marginalized members.”
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Matthew Countryman, associate professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies, has studied African American social movements.
“We have reached a crucial crossroads seven years following the start of the Black Lives Matter movement and three-and-a-half years into the Trump administration,” he said. “The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have focused the nation on our persistent inability to address the structural causes of racist police violence.
“Black Lives Matter now faces the challenge of channeling the national outpouring of anger into an effective campaign for liberating black and brown communities from the yoke of police repression. It is a challenge made all the more daunting by the racially disparate impact of the COVID pandemic and the white nationalist politics of the Trump presidency.”
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Eugene Rogers is director of choral activities and conductor of the chamber choir at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. In addition, he is the founding director of EXIGENCE, a Detroit-based Sphinx vocal ensemble highlighting artistry within black and Latinx communities. His Seven Last Words of the Unarmed project, which is named after a composition by Joel Thompson that debuted at U-M in 2015, recently released a documentary and supporting educational components for high school, university, and community and professional organizations.
“Though ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,’ a work about the last words of seven black men killed by men in positions of authority, debuted nearly five years ago, it is more relevant and powerful today than it was then,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is bigger than anything we’ve experienced as a nation since the ’60s, which makes me feel extremely humbled, angry and sad. These are emotions that a lot of people are experiencing right now—they’re looking for comfort, and for concrete ways to process these events and to move forward.
“I’ve been asked by many ‘what can we do to help?’ More than ever, I feel that change won’t happen if it doesn’t start with each of us leading within our own communities. Of all the things I am most proud of in my life, it would be working with Joel Thompson and my colleagues Dan Stockdill at the School of Education and Margo Schlanger at the Law School on the ‘Seven Last Words’ project to create in-depth and thoughtful resources for those of us who want to begin this critical conversation in our classrooms, workplaces, places of worship and homes. Real change begins at home and in our own places of influence. I long for the day when we have truly met Dr. King’s dream for all of us.”
Riana Anderson, assistant professor of health behavior and health education, studies racial discrimination and how socialization in black families helps reduce racial stress and trauma and improve psychological well-being and family functioning. She recently discussed how black communities have been disproportionately affected by the number of coronavirus cases and deaths while white nationalist activities have increased in the last months.
“Racism, both for black adults and youth, impacts virtually every element of mental and physical health. Various acts of racial discrimination, whether separate or part of a larger systemic pattern, have been linked to feelings of being unsafe within their own or other communities,” she said. “The idea that I may not be here tomorrow is a pervasive fear for black residents, whether it be at the hands of police officers, the COVID-19 outbreak, shorter life expectancies or environmental racial and social impacts (e.g., lead poisoning, air pollution).”
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Enrique Neblett is a professor of health behavior and health education and associate director of the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center. He’s a leading scholar in the area of racism and health, with a particular focus on understanding how racism-related stress influences the mental and physical health of young African Americans.
Christian Davenport is a professor of political science and faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. He is also a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His primary research interests include political conflict—for example, human rights violations, genocide/politicide, torture, political surveillance, civil war and social movements—as well as measurement, racism and popular culture.
“There are currently different protest events taking place at the same time—some from the right and some from the left regarding the coronavirus and the prospect of opening, as well as the newest wave of anti-police violence civic activity,” he said. “These activities should largely be seen as distinct, but there is something like a diffusion effect across them as well which needs to be acknowledged.
“[However], these activities should not be viewed as distinct from less contentious activities such as the development of mutual aid organizations, which are emerging at the same time. They should also not be divorced from their connection to more conventional forms of participation such as voting. Protest is not something that is done instead of voting. … They are both part of the American repertoire of political participation … addressing the same fundamental issues: inequality, vulnerability and frustration.”
Michael Esposito is a research fellow at the Institute for Social Research. In a study released last year, he found that black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.
“George Floyd’s homicide is (further) evidence of deep-seated, systematic issues with how law enforcement is structured in this country,” he said. “The specific people involved in this case—the officers, the victim, the bystanders—are unique, but the situation, down to the language, is something that we’ve seen time and time again. It’s clear that if we’d like to see this type of structural, racialized violence end, we’ll need to transform how we ‘do policing.'”
Margaret Hicken is the director of the U-M RacismLab and research assistant professor at the Survey Research Center and faculty associate of the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research. She is also a research assistant professor in internal medicine. Hicken studies the ways in which social forces link racial group membership to the risk of poor health, particularly those conditions related to cardiovascular and renal diseases.
“With yet another murder of a black man by police, we have yet another opportunity to take action,” she said. “The structural racism that allows for these murders and underscores the disposability of black lives is self-sustaining. Structural racism is a self-sustaining system. It does not matter if one personally likes or dislikes black Americans; it does not matter if one intends to cause harm.
“The fact that we have witnessed continual violence—whether it is the fast violence of the criminal justice system or the slow violence of the environmental hazardous exposures—that we as a society see this regularly and shake our heads in pity or disgust means that our society will not change.
Aaron Kall, who directs Michigan Debate, can discuss politics and elections.
“As calls grow louder for President Trump to exercise leadership and formally address the nation, he’s mostly stuck with the friendly confines of Twitter to opine about the protests and riots following the death of George Floyd,” he said. “Trump’s reluctance to formally address the nation likely stems from the negative public and media reaction to his March Oval Office address on coronavirus, which also sent the stock market tumbling.
“President Trump’s 2019 Oval Office address about the border crisis during the partial government shutdown similarly received poor marks. Even though these speaking venues are not a strong suit for Trump, the general election remains about five months away and he’s now faced with the first major issue that has moved coronavirus from atop the news cycle. Americans historically turn to presidents during crises for leadership and comfort. Trump only has a limited amount of time to fill this leadership vacuum, and the upcoming election only increases the stakes of this important decision.”
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