Earlier this month more than 100 RISD students and community members gathered at the Canal St. Auditorium for a panel discussion on institutional racism and police violence.
The panelists represented a variety of local organizations. The Providence NAACP was represented by chapter president James Vincent. Panelists (and RISD alumnus) Jess X Chen and Jonathan Key co-founded the Artists Against Police Violence collective. Steven Roberts (a RIC alumnus) helped to create End Police Brutality PVD (which organized the Nov. 25th #IndictAmerica and the Dec. 5th #ThisEndsToday marches). Finally, Yelitsa Jean-Charles (a student) and Normand Gamache (director of public safety) represented RISD.
Opening Remarks were presented by RISD Director of Residential Life Kevin Forti and RISD President Rosanne Somerson. Forti’s introduction provided a brief history of Black and White race relations in America, connecting the killings (and subsequent non-indictments) of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with the advances and setbacks faced by the Black community following the end of the Civil Rights movement. Forti contrasted the election of President Barack Obama with Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws, the repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act, and the pronounced economic inequality resulting in high rates of poverty and unemployment in the Black community.
President Somerson recognized the historical importance of artists in defining revolutions and movements. She recognized that visual art has the capability to express concepts that may be difficult to articulate otherwise. Somerson’s remarks reminded the audience that RISD values social justice, and implored the audience to be proactive agents of change.
The panel discussion began by relating key issues specific to the Ferguson case with larger social trends. Providence NAACP chapter president James Vincent was the first to answer, describing the racial disparity between the Black community and a mostly White police force. Michael Brown’s representation as a “thug” was used to justify the use of lethal force against an unarmed man. The use of “thug” to describe Brown is particularly dangerous, as it is based upon racial profiling of Black men as dangerous, and is used to justify officer-involved shootings of unarmed suspects. Normand Gamache drew upon his experience in law enforcement to state that the Ferguson police department was not acting properly as it failed to properly engage the community.
Yelitsa Jean-Charles described the lack of accountability for police departments. Part of the lack of accountability includes recognition of implicit biases, which are split-second, subconscious judgments made without conscious input. Implicit racial bias, historically measured by a race-specific version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), could explain the increased rate of officer-involved shootings of unarmed Black victims. Administration of the IAT to officers could gather more information on implicit biases present in the active duty police force.
Finally, Steven Roberts described the historical role of police forces in anti-Black violence. Roberts mentioned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required law enforcement officers across the country to re-capture anyone suspected of being a slave. Captured individuals would be returned to the alleged owner without a jury trial, with a sworn statement of ownership being sufficient proof in some cases. Officers were legally obligated to return any suspected fugitive slaves, setting the ground for a system of racial profiling by law enforcement officers.
The next set of questions related the topics of institutional racism to the art world, and RISD students’ future role as image-makers. Key and Chen both described the problems they encountered as artists of color. Chen described the difficulties showing works in a White-dominated environment – the majority of her peers could not relate to the experiences that the piece described, and she did not feel comfortable sharing in this environment. Key described how artwork from the perspective of people of color, or artwork that addressed White supremacy was not taken seriously. White art directors would ask him if he could do art that “wasn’t about race”, which devalued his voice as a Black artist.