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August 30, 2020

We need a cure for how students of color are policed on campus

By Ashanti Callender
Author: Ashanti Callender

As schools open this fall, there are increasing concerns about how COVID-19 will impact students' quality of learning across the country.

But there is another infection that has existed on college campuses long before COVID-19, which also must be addressed: racism.

The past six months have allowed us time to reflect. We have had to come to terms with a pandemic and a great deal of uncertainty regarding many aspects of life, ranging from healthcare and the economy to education and sports. We've realized that in order to defeat the virus, everyone must do their part by following public health guidelines for the sake of themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors.

During this time, we've also had to reckon with racism in a way that has perhaps been unprecedented in the country. Despite the misconception that racism must be overt to exist, racism can manifest itself explicitly and implicitly. American policies, such as the Jim Crow Laws of the early 20th Century, the War on Crime and Law and Order policies enacted during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies and Reaganomics are evidence that racism can be written into our systems.

It is not enough for us to acknowledge racism only when it is blatant. We also must acknowledge that racism can be perpetuated subtly and systemically.

Police brutality and the over policing of communities of color has emerged as an important part of this discussion. While it sometimes raises its head in overt ways, like the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, over-policing of people of color is a more subtle, insidious form of racism that also needs to be combated.

I am drawn to the issue of policing on campuses because it is something that I have seen affect people in my community. The school to prison pipeline is a trend that pushes youth into prisons by criminalizing them through disciplinary practices.

Growing up in New York City and attending public school, I have been fortunate to attend schools out of my neighborhood. What struck me is that the schools I attended were more affluent, had less students of color and also had less police officers. However, in many other NYC public schools, there has been a shift to rely on law enforcement to maintain discipline in schools rather than the teachers and guidance counsellors who are trained to work with youth.

Placing law enforcement officers, who often lack training in youth development models and psychology, in contact with young students, allows fear to infiltrate spaces in which learning should be taking place. This can create many challenges based on the role that law enforcement should be playing in our society. How and when law enforcement engages with students, especially at this young age, needs to be more strategic and intentional.

From the time I graduated high school, I have been mindful of how my educational opportunities over the last 10 years enabled me to construct a path out of New York City. Many in my home community, who have similar backgrounds, were not able to attend college due to a lack of similar educational support. Now that I am in college, I finally see firsthand what people I have grown up with have been saying most of my life.

Although I have not had a Georgetown University police officer directly perpetuate racism towards me, I have seen it happen, I have heard the cases from my peers, and I was afraid that the same experiences I had been fortunate to avoid when I was in New York had now caught up to me in D.C.

I did not realize how much fear of having a negative encounter with the campus police department had impacted my education until the COVID-19 outbreak, and we were sent home from school. Immediately, I felt a sense of ease, and did significantly better academically once I was in what I consider a safer environment.

Just as COVID-19 impacts people differently, racism also has varying effects on students living and studying on their respective campuses. This is particularly true when we look at the policing of students of color on college campuses.

To address this and other issues of racism, it too requires everyone to do their part, no matter if you personally experience racism or not. Ultimately, like the COVID-19 virus, when thinking about racism on campus there are asymptomatic, presymptomatic, and symptomatic college students:

Asymptomatic Students

Asymptomatic students are aware that racism exists, but have never truly experienced it, either on campus or prior to their arrival. Still, they are part of a system that perpetuates racism and they cannot be considered anti-racist, or without the virus, until they hold the systems that sustain racism accountable. These students do not identify specific types of policing on their campus, for example, as a part of the problem with racism.

Presymptomatic Students

Presymptomatic students have been exposed to implicit and explicit biases before they arrived on campus. They remember their elementary school classrooms where the teacher asked the young Black student, "Can I touch your hair", and have seen store clerks cautiously follow Black shoppers down the aisles. Although this was a reality that presymptomatic students were used to, they expected that their new home on campus wouldn't exhibit such symptoms of racism. As semesters go on, their expectations are not met. After experiencing that, although racism on campus is not blatant, through the policing of black spaces, they realized that their campus home was not much different from the communities they left.

Symptomatic Students

Symptomatic students are those who are impacted by racism in ways that do not allow them to deny or ignore its existence. This group of students either needs to shrink from or push against the racism they experience. Those two options are all that are available once one becomes aware about the disease of racism. My approach has been to use my ability to inform and educate myself and others on the ways racism can permeate our campuses and the society more broadly. There are, however, other more direct strategies.

One such group of symptomatic students involved in more direct approaches are the organizers at The Georgetown University Against Police Aggression (GUAPA) organization. This group was formed by undergrads of color to help mitigate rising tensions fueled by accusations of feeling consistently over policed by the Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD).

Members of college communities, from students to professors, recognize that systemic racism is still evident, but it is not enough to just call out the issue, it is imperative to act on it as well. Toella Pliakas, lead organizer of GUAPA, says, "There is a difference between how students experience [policing] on campus and how Georgetown's police department interprets their own policing."

After its founding, GUAPA initiated conversations with the GUPD to together implement the following changes: affirming a commitment not to arm GUPD, and working to keep the Metropolitan Police Department off campus.

Perhaps their greatest achievement, however, was the creation of a Bias Form on the GUPD website so that complaints of prejudiced policing could be openly reported. When thinking about changing police dynamics and the balance of power they traditionally possess, it is hard to do that without mechanisms for students and other members of campus to report concerns and breaches of authority. Often, a lack of reporting stems from fear of, as well as concerns that your experiences will not be taken seriously. This form provided a transparent mechanism for accountability.

Collectively, these measures represented significant progress and demonstrate the ability of student-led advocacy to make a real difference. But while these policies and continued dialogue have sparked change, continued efforts on behalf of students and law enforcement are required to achieve truly equitable policing systems. What is required is engagement by all at the university to engage in the necessary conversations and action steps to uproot it. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi alludes to in his work, one is either actively combatting racism (anti-racist) or is supporting racist systems, policies and practices.

To be anti-racist, we have to step outside of ourselves and understand that even if a situation does not directly impact us, it doesn't mean it is not impacting someone else. Being anti-racist calls for us to have empathy towards those that have been impacted by racism; explicitly and implicitly. It is only such an approach that will allow us to help end racism systematically in our society.

The Big East's partnership with RISE has been formed to address the systematic barriers, biases, and anti-racist solutions that can be taken by leaders on campuses. I think this is a perfect opportunity for the Georgetown Athletics Department to use their platform to share the knowledge that comes from the leadership workshops and the perspectives shared in their immediate cohort to help facilitate a greater conversation with the University, holding them accountable to their duty to make the campus safe for ALL students. It is a step in the right direction that a sector of the University has taken the initiative to move beyond understanding that racism exists to developing anti-racist action items. However, it is not enough for only one department to be equipped with these tools. Now that the torch is in the Georgetown Athletics Department hands, I encourage them to use what they will be learning over the next two years and have learned through previous efforts in this space with other departments to not only address racism but to challenge the over-policing of students of color on our predominantly white campus. Only when an institution combats racism on all fronts can they call themselves a safe space for all students.

Let's be clear. Racism is a disease. And when we talk about combatting it in the collegiate space, it is not enough to simply acknowledge the racist past of your institution, which many have done. To fully cure what has been ingrained in the soil that thousands of students walk on each year is to collectively work to dismantle and rebuild the systems that uphold racism.

Ashanti Callender is a student at Georgetown University, Class of 2021, and a member of RISE's Summer Intern class of 2020.

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