College activists fuel dialogue on race

Aurielle Marie was born in 1994, decades too late to be involved in the great social movements of the 1960s when ordinary voices help shaped the liberties she now enjoys.

And yet at 20, the Atlanta native finds herself right dab in the middle of a new era of activism not that much different from the '60s playing out with regularity here and across the country, much of it in the courts and on college campuses like the University of Missouri, where student protests forced the resignation of both the president and chancellor.

If that doesn’t make you want to reconsider how far we’ve come since the civil rights movement that nearly tore this country asunder, I don’t know what will.

“I think we were taught both in school and otherwise that racism was a thing of the past,” said Marie, co-founder of #itsbiggerthanyou, a grassroots social justice coalition organized in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year. “We’ve had to come to grips with the fact that we are still fighting the fight.”

Five days after police shot and killed Brown, Aurielle, who recently transferred to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and about a dozen young Atlantans-turned-activists organized a town hall meeting to discuss the issues then followed the gathering with a rally and march in front of the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta.

She points to racially charged incidents on college campuses like the ones at Mizzou where someone smeared a swastika on a wall with feces and cotton balls were strewn around the Black Culture Center.

Those actions touched off a hunger strike by an African-American graduate student and then protests over racial slurs and other slights that came to a head when protesters blocked the university president's car and he refused to get out and talk to them. Black members of the football team joined the outcry, threatening to boycott an upcoming football game. When President Tim Wolfe resigned, some white students threatened to "shoot every black person I see" in a post on the social media site YikYak. Hunter M. Park and Connor Stottlemyre, both 19, were arrested and charged with making terroristic threats.

Closer to home, a group of 25 students in Atlanta held a silent protest Nov. 10 at a Georgia Board of Regents meeting challenging the state’s enrollment policies for immigrants. Other events have included “die-ins” involving students at Emory University, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University to protest police killings of unarmed black men. Students at the University of Georgia hosted candlelight vigils. Those at Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University led solidarity marches.

We don’t like to talk about race let alone read about it, but we have got to do something with the hurt feelings and hatred percolating inside of us.

I suggest we start with an honest discussion with ourselves.

Growing up, my mother used to sing a song that asked the Lord to search her heart. The chorus went something like this:

“Shine the light from heaven on my soul

If You find anything that shouldn’t be

Take it out and strengthen me

‘Cause I wanna be right, I wanna be saved

And I wanna be whole.”

I was reminded of it again and again over the last couple of months as I watched the news at Mizzou and Yale and the University of Southern California and other college campuses unfold. It's been a bad few months in race relations.

Charles A. Gallagher, a professor of sociology at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Pa., agrees a conversation about race needs to happen but he's skeptical.

“The problem is many folks don’t see race, racism or race relations as a problem,” he said. “Sure, church shootings happen, as does Ferguson, but unfortunately much of white America thinks this is a one-off, done by a crazy loner and in no way indicative of systemic racism.”


Some believe Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, is proof that the goals of the civil rights movement of the 1960s have been achieved.

“This perspective, which I define as colorblind egalitarianism, is the tendency to claim that racial equality is now the norm while simultaneously ignoring or discounting the real and ongoing ways in which institutional racism continues to disadvantage racial minorities,” Gallagher said. “Colorblind egalitarianism reflects the fact that most whites, as expressed in national polling data, now view race as a benign social marker that has little or no bearing on an individual’s or group’s educational, economic or occupational mobility.”

This “leveled playing field” perspective of society held by many whites is now the common sense understanding of race relations, he said, even though an extensive body of research documents how and in what ways institutional racism and racial discrimination continue to shape opportunities for racial minorities.

Let me hasten to say that there’s blame on both sides of this racial coin. The question we all should ask ourselves is what part am I playing in all this? We’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.

In his 1961 inaugural address, Pres. John F. Kennedy issued the challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” that ushered in a new decade of activism.

New groups like the Atlanta University Center’s Shut It Down social justice movement are coming out of the woodwork, hitting the pavement, helping lead voter registration drives, advocating for gun control and the rights of gays.

It’s exciting to watch, and as uncomfortable as it makes some of us, America needs to nurture that kind of vigilance or we will go back to some dark days. We’ve come too far to do that.

But critical reflection is needed. Without it there will be no moral conviction or right action. I sense a growing number of young adults understand that.

Next week I’ll introduce you to a diverse group of metro Atlanta adults who do, too.