An Open Letter to Those Devastated by the Jordan Davis Decision

As my friend and fellow professor Heidi Oliver-O’Gilvie says, “There is always something you can do.”  It’s been a long year for black people.  But what can we do?  First, there was the “not guilty” decision in the George Zimmerman case, which set free a white man who killed an unarmed black youth in his own neighborhood.  Then came the pseudo-conviction of Michael Dunn, who murdered a black Jordan Davis for pumping what he considered “thug music” too loudly.  All this while a white Ethan Couch drunkenly killed a family of four and was given no jail time due to “affluenza,” or excessive privilege.  It’s been a long year indeed, and I refuse to be helpless about it.  But again, there is always something you can do.

Jordan Davis

(Jordan Davis, 1995-2012)

So on this, what would have been Jordan Davis’ 19th birthday (he is deceased now, by the way, of horribly unnatural causes.  Not attempted dead, but actually dead, says my friend Wayne Au of Rethinking Schools), I am wondering what I can do about living in a country that appears to have one set of legal rules for white people, and another for everyone else.

Literally, what can I do?

I suppose I could take to the streets and riot, but you cannot fight violence with violence.  I could hate the country, or hate the legal system, or hate white people.  But you cannot overcome hate with hate.  You can only do that with love, patience, and repaying evil with good.  So, then, what can I do?

First, I have the second most important job in the world.  I used to have the most important job in the world—I used to be a preschool teacher.  Twenty-four children at a time, I used to influence the next generation of US youth by fomenting their love of learning, helping them to understand the importance of using education to actualize their dreams, and teaching them to value all human beings despite their differences from ourselves.  Now I am a teacher educator.  A teacher of teachers.  I am a professor of education at the Center for Urban Education, which is a graduate program that prepares educators for the nation’s must under-supported, black and brown-filled urban schools.  Now, instead of touting the importance of education to 24 children at a time, I do it with 24 teachers who will teach 24 children at a time, for what could be 24 years or longer each.  And that’s powerful.

The late Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  And he was right.  Even Adolph Hitler, with his Nazi Youth programs, understood that if you wish to change a country, you begin with its youth and patiently wait for generational change.  So if evil can use education (the largest form of organized socialization in any society, says Joel Spring, in Globalization of Education, 2009) and youth (generations are defined in 20-year spans) to alter the beliefs, practices, and culture of a nation, then so too can I use it for good.  And use it I shall.

So what can I do?  Continue to be an awesome professor.  When I teach my “Culture, Context, and Critical Pedagogy” course, I will continue to discuss race, privilege, whiteness, anti-oppression, and the affirmation of all forms of human diversity.  After all, you cannot change that which you don’t understand.

I will continue to teach my teachers—to teacher their students—that all human life is valuable.  That skin color is not a marker of automatic danger (blackness) or automatic innocence (whiteness).  That way, young black boys won’t be presumed guilty as they walk home with candy in their pockets, or when they blast their music loudly at a convenience store. And the white men who gun them down won’t be presumed to be acting in self-defense.  And get away with murder.  Literally.

And that’s not all I can do.  I’m a consultant for inclusion and diversity.  Oh, yes.  I will continue to accept invitations from private corporations, non-profit organizations, school systems, and teacher preparation programs to discuss difference, systemic privilege and oppression, racism, and most importantly, anti-racism.

And I vote.  In presidential and mid-term elections.  I will continue to educate myself about which candidates understand institutional “isms” such as sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, and racism.  Martin Luther King taught me that all forms of oppression are related, and that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.  I learned that lesson well, and I plan to use it at the polls as I vote for candidates, laws, and those who will legislate on my behalf with an eye toward valuing the importance of justice for all.

And I plan to have children.  Highly educated, social-justice-loving, politically active children who believe in the common good.  Who will understand that, as Kimberly Wallace-Sanders of Emory University says, “No human beings are better than other human beings.”  Amen to that.  My children will be taught that, and they will live it out each day in these United States.

Look out, injustice.  I have a plan.  I am simultaneously seething and saturated with heartbreak at all I’ve seen in the media this year, and all I experience as a multiracial woman who is often perceived as black.  In addition to the story of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Darrin Manning, and Oscar Grant (on whose life the film Fruitvale Station is based), I experience similar disdain all the time.  Just the other day, a white woman in a dentist’s office hurried to her purse and buried it in her arm as soon as she noticed I had walked in.  She shot me a long glance to make sure I knew her actions were aimed at protecting her valuables from me.  At least she shot me a glance and did not actually shoot me.  Because if she had, she would have killed an unarmed, Ph.D-holding, two-time Harvard graduate.  And probably been let go.

As someone who is devastated by pervasive racism in American life and law, there is much I can do.  Racism and injustice had better watch their backs.  Because I am—we are—not helpless. And their time is limited.

Happy Birthday, Jordan Davis.  You should have had the chance to celebrate turning 19.

~ Guest blogger Taharee Jackson is Asst. Professor (Visiting) at the Center for Urban Education at the University of the District of Columbia.  She specializes in teacher education, multicultural education, and urban education reform.  Dr. Jackson holds a magna cum laude B.A. from Harvard University, an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. from Emory University.  

Remembering Stuart Hall: Socialist and Sociologist

On Monday February 10th 2014, news broke that Stuart Hall had passed away. He was 82 years old.  Regarded by many as one of the most important public intellectuals of our age, Hall’s oeuvre is hard to categorize and adequately summarize because it is so varied and his achievements so vast.

Stuart Hall

Despite some lazy reductionism within the media that curiously labeled him “the Godfather of multiculturalism” – a term I have never heard applied to Hall in the two decades I’ve been reading his work – Hall was largely known for his key contributions to and involvement with British politics and his prolific writing career that incredibly spanned six decades. Among other things, Hall was a founding member of the New Left Review; the intellectual most associated with challenging the crude economic reductionism that plagued Marxist accounts of culture, offering instead a radically contextual approach that eventually led to the creation of Cultural Studies as an academic field of study; the writer who first recognized the political importance of neo-liberalism and coined the term Thatcherism; an ardent critic of New Labour and Tony Blair; a key figure within the Black British visual arts movement; and perhaps the most astute theorist of the political predicament of living with difference in our post/colonial moment.

Stuart Hall

Hall was also, for almost two decades, a Professor of Sociology at the Open University. But Hall’s sociological approach is directly at odds with what passes for sociological enquiry today, especially as practiced by American professional sociologists. It’s worth remembering that Hall didn’t have a PhD in Sociology – in fact, he never finished his doctorate on Henry James – and he never published an article in any major sociology journal. Despite being one of the most of widely read, cited and influential sociologists of his generation, Hall would never likely have been hired by an American sociology department. This is just as well as he wouldn’t have wanted to be there either. This curious fact of Hall’s anti-sociology sociological approach is worth reflecting upon as it tells us more about the current state of American academia and of US sociology (and therefore how it might be changed) than it does about any “failing” on Hall’s part.

Hall observed when he was President of the British Sociological Association (1995-1997) that Cultural Studies, as practiced at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, from the very start set itself in opposition to the naive positivism of American sociology.  Hall said during his BSA Presidential address, and only slightly tongue in cheek, “whatever Talcott Parsons rejected, we went and read closely”.  As a young graduate student in the audience that day, Hall’s model of sociology seemed so much more attractive than the anodyne sterility of traditional sociology, constrained as it is by artificial boundaries and a penchant at times for mindless apolitical empiricism. As Hall once remarked, “although sociology thinks it’s a predictive science, it doesn’t predict anything very much, very well” (seen in this short video clip from MEF, 6:08):



Instead, Hall offered a more creative and exciting sociology focused on interrogating the complex economic, social, and above all political conjunctures. While Henry Louis Gates’ pronouncement that Hall was “the Du Bois of Britain” obscures as much as it highlights, it is true that both proffered a version of sociology driven by a concern to address and intervene into the political conditions of the day and both wrote with unique and brilliant clarity on the vexed question of national belonging and racial dislocation.

The week since Hall’s passing has also been notable for “the appalling absence of any notice of his death in the U.S. mainstream press as well as the alternative media”, as Larry Grossberg stridently put it. There was a short piece on NPR and a few other outlets carried obituaries and short reflections, but not many. Some of this can be explained by American cultural insularity and a certain intellectual myopia in which the American public sphere struggles to engage with debates occurring beyond its borders.

Stuart Hall

But it also perhaps relates to the hyper segregation of the American academy and how disciplinary gatekeepers have fought to preserve their status and power from the perceived threat of “British Cultural Studies”. The area where Hall’s work has undoubtedly been recognized and celebrated is within the alternative public sphere of African American Studies and other allied areas of study.  As Cornel West noted many years ago, “The thing you have to understand…is that we all grew up reading Stuart. We wouldn’t be here without him. We all stand on his shoulders”.  Similarly, the cultural theorist and critic Mark Antony Neal suggested that everything he had ever written about black popular culture had been shaped by Hall’s ideas. High praise indeed.

For those of us influenced by Hall, his ideas, his mentorship, his kindness, his generosity, his brilliance, it’s easy (and perhaps understandable), to feel an overwhelming sense of loss in this moment that threatens to produce a certain inertia.  Yet the way to honor Hall, as rampant neo-liberal managerialism threatens to expunge the resistant spirit from academic life, is to return to the motivating impulses that Hall embodied and helped to usher in, namely a socialist commitment to a better tomorrow, rooted in a serious analysis of contemporary conjunctures in which nothing is guaranteed politically and a pedagogical commitment to collaboration that avoids, in Suzanne Moore’s words, “the conservatism of academia, with its fetishizing of autonomous scholarship.”

Hall has departed from the stage but thanks to his legacy we are now better equipped to engage the political struggles against injustice and to remake the future.

~ Guest blogger Ben Carrington is Professor of Sociology, UT-Austin. Follow him on Twitter: @BenHCarrington.