The Forum on Racial Justice in America, a university-wide initiative to address structural racism in our nation and discuss how Boston College can work to build an anti-racist community, held its first panel on Thursday, Oct. 15. The panel was moderated by inaugural Forum director and Dean of Boston College Law School Vincent Rougeau.
The event featured three BC professors as panelists: C. Shawn McGuffey, the director of African & African Diaspora studies and associate professor of sociology; Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, an sssociate professor of French and African and African Diaspora studies; and Martin Summers, a professor of history and African and African Diaspora studies.
Director Vincent Rougeau began the forum by highlighting the importance that Boston College takes a stance to commit to preventing anti-Black racism on campus—especially, at this moment in history where there has been a reckoning of our nation's racism in light of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as this summer’s wave of Black Lives Matters protests. The goal of the Forum is to explore BC’s role, as a Jesuit institution, in pursuing racial justice.
Shawn McGuffey was the first to speak. He opened the conversation by saying that “the Black Lives Matter Movement is not a protest movement, it is an ideological intervention and an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity.”
McGuffey then turned to the ways that BC has been judicious in its pursuits of cultivating a safe, anti-racist community. He noted the impressive work the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Community has done in fostering a community that affirms student’s identities and providing financial support to those who need it. Another component of BC culture he credited was the new core curriculum which includes a number of African and African Diaspora studies (AADS) courses.
Professor McGuffey quoted American novelist James Baldwin, who once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
To this McGuffey added, “I am only critiquing BC because I love this school.”
McGuffey emphasized there are also important ways in which Boston College falls short. The most important detail of evidence to which he pointed was the 2019 Student Experience Survey results. On average, white, Hispanic, and Asian students demonstrated they felt comfortable on campus. Comparatively, Black students demonstrated a qualitatively significant lower level of comfort felt on campus. On a scale from 1 to 5, students were asked to score their opinions on how BC made them feel welcome, having a strong sense of community, safe, and respected. White students on average self-reported 4.1 out of 5, while Black students self-reported 3.1 out of 5.
“Addressing the AHANA community alone is not enough to make our Black community on campus feel more welcome. Doing so erases the specificity of anti-Black racism on BC’s campus,” Professor McGuffey asserted.
The next speaker was Professor Régine Michelle Jean-Charles. She started her statement with an assertion of the intersectional identities Black lives inhabit. “Black men, women, children, trans, non-binary, uneducated, and incarcerated lives all matter,” she declared.
Professor Jean-Charles emphasized that Black Lives Matter is a global struggle, recounting an abroad course she taught in the summer of 2019 named "Paris Noir." The class consisted of all girls and focused on the literature and culture of Black communities in Paris. On their final night in Paris, the class witnessed a scene of police brutality against a Black French man on the streets of Paris.
“BLM is a global movement, it is not just an American problem,” she stated.
The final speaker, Professor Martin Summers, followed. He expressed a notable anecdote of one of his teaching experiences that underscores the importance of understanding the history of the treatment of Black people in the United States. He once asked his AADS class about the significance of the year 1619 in light of the New York Times' recent podcast The 1619 Project. To his alarm, no one in the class was aware that it was the year the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of the British colonies in North America, catalyzing the slave trade that would catapult the country into economic prosperity and political autonomy as a nation. He suggested this as an example of the unsatisfactory K-12 and higher education, which prefers the years 1776 and 1865 to 1619 as historically significant.
Professor Summers next addressed the political controversy the 1619 Project has since faced. Particularly, he addressed criticisms from Black conservatives who argue the podcast is imposing a narrative of political correctness and critical racial theory that does not accurately depict our nation’s early history.
To this he responded, “We must push back against the narrative that the nation is moving towards the democratic ideals of which it was founded. That lie has become apparent in the last four years, specifically the past six months.”
The final topic Professor Summers addressed was voter suppression. For this he quoted Carol Anderson, who spoke at BC last week, saying, “the purging of voter rolls began immediately after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Professor Summers then went on to explain that modern Voter ID Laws and the deliberate purge of voter registrations of minority groups should be a testament to the persistent example of the disenfranchisement and racism directed towards Black people in the United States.
To conclude, the speakers addressed the ways in which Boston College can improve its hopes for the future of the university. “My hope is that this Forum will lead to actual change and shape the future of Boston College and keep BC accountable to the specificity of anti-Black racism on its campus and addressing these issues,” said Professor McGuffey.
“It is important to remember that being Black is not exhausting, experiencing racism is exhausting, being Black is joyful," concluded Professor Jean-Charles.
“BC must continue to invest in its core renewal courses, like, Complex Problems and Enduring Questions which addresses issues like racial inequality and invest in diversifying its faculty with more people of color,” finished Professor Summers.
The Forum on Racial Justice in America will be back next Tuesday, Oct. 20 with the event “Tools for Becoming a Racial Justice Warrior: A Conversation with Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones,” who previously served as president of the American Public Health Association, sponsored by the Connell School of Nursing. A schedule of future events sponsored by the Forum can be found on its website.