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Capacity crowd at President's Panel on Race Relations opens dialogue


Six Creighton faculty members convened for the President's Panel on Race Relations, Oct. 4.A large crowd of Creighton University students, staff, faculty and members of the wider community packed Hixson-Lied Auditorium Tuesday night for a spirited, robust conversation on the state of race relations in the United States.

A panel discussion, organized by Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, brought to the stage six Creighton faculty members with extensive research experience in race for a discussion ranging from white privilege and restrictive covenants to the realities of a majority-minority United States and the spate of police shootings of African-American men, to living out the ideals of the Creighton Credo.

Fr. Hendrickson said after holding several listening sessions with faculty, staff and students last year — his first as Creighton’s president — the issue of race relations, specifically at Creighton, was a resounding theme. Combined with demonstrations witnessed at college campuses and police-involved shootings of black men around the nation, Fr. Hendrickson said it was clear the Creighton community was interested in opening dialogue.

“At Creighton, we are in a setting that is richly, wonderfully urban,” Fr. Hendrickson said. “The texture and fabric of our community is very diverse. As Catholic and Jesuit, we can and should talk about these issues. What happens elsewhere is important and meaningful to our students, to all of us.”

Fr. Hendrickson asked the panel to respond to this question: Why do black lives matter to me and what can I do about it at Creighton?

Each panelist provided a five- to 10-minute response to the question, followed by a question-and-answer period with an audience of more than 500.

Jeff Smith, PhD, a professor in the Department of Education, led the initial answers to the question, imploring those in the audience to read two documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Creighton Credo, the statement of mission and values prominently published in a number of faculty, staff and student instruments. The Declaration, Smith said, was primarily a list of grievances, similar to the grievances trumpeted by the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“The Declaration of Independence, after the preamble, the colonists are simply saying we’ve actually talked to you about a series of grievances we’ve been making to you over a period of time,” Smith said. “And you’ve yet to address them. That is exactly what Black Lives Matter is bringing to the front: grievances that have yet to be addressed.” Moving closer to home, Smith said Creighton’s own values statement is instructive and bears repeating across the campus.

“The Credo gives us a place to talk with our colleagues about what they can do to be helpful and constructive, to help us arrive at a solution,” Smith said. “The Credo tells us that people are important. If we are doing or saying anything other than that, we are not abiding by the Credo.”

The conversation went on to address the long history of racism in the U.S., drilling down to the present day when, as sculpture professor Littleton Alston said, the only difference now is that cameras are recording some of the most egregious and deadly examples of racism.

“The difference is, there’s a camera there,” Alston said of recent police shootings. “That’s the only difference. That has been happening forever, you just didn’t see it. And now, all of a sudden you can see it, all over the world.”

Johniece Parker, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences from Denver, provided one of the more pointed comments of the evening when she rose to address the panel and audience about her experience as a young black woman and a Creighton student asking her fellow students to contend with the deeper issues of Black Lives Matter and systemic racism.

“Silence is consent,” Parker said. “If you are not breaking out of your comfort zone, you’re not growing, you’re not learning. Anything small you do is a start. This panel is a step. There is no ‘only’ in front of Black Lives Matter, that’s something we should remember.”

After the discussion, Parker said she was encouraged by what she heard and saw, and hopes this is just the first in a series of discussions.

“It’s not too often we at Creighton get exposure to something like this,” she said. “I was just so happy to see that there was going to be a discussion on race and what is going on in our society today.”

Institutional racism in the criminal justice system and in other social structures are research interests of three of the panelists, Dawn Irlbeck, PhD, and Rebecca Murray, PhD, in the Department of Cultural Studies, and Palma Strand, JD, in the School of Law. All three talked about the proliferation of racist tenets and laws over time and the difficulties now coming forth in trying to bring these issues into open conversation.

“People become people when we talk to them and listen to them which means that conversation really is action,” Strand said. “But if you’re not used to talking across racial lines, not used to talking about race, it can be difficult to get started.”

Some of the panelists turned to personal history and even recent stories to illustrate the growing disparities in race in the nation. Murray spoke of her upbringing in a predominately white farming community and initially finding Creighton to be a diverse place when she landed here as an undergraduate.

Irlbeck talked of her own difficult upbringing, but wondered aloud at how her fortunes may have worsened if she had been born black.

Kevin Graham, PhD, a professor of philosophy, recounted how he had been stopped by police on a routine traffic violation a few weeks ago near campus. He asked the audience to consider how the interaction might have been different if he were an African American. Alston talked about growing up black and attending a segregated school in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and seeing parts of the city burn in the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968.

“When I think about Black Lives Matter, I think it’s a force that needs to be stronger, that needs to be lifted up, that needs to be echoed across the land,” Alston said. “White people have a tendency not to be moved until it’s right in their faces. Many who see our institution as isolated, even on campus the issue of racism, it’s ignored. Black Lives Matter has to be built, has to be cemented in, has to be respected, and has to lead to change and change that needs to happen very quickly.”

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