On Thursday, Apr. 2, Vassar hosted New York Times Op-ed columnist Charles Blow for a lecture entitled “Civil Rights Today,” which sought to critically examine the relationship between minority communities and law enforcement.
Blow earned his first praises for his infographics on the Sept. 11 attacks and on the Iraq War as an art and graphics editor for The New York Times. After leaving to work for National Geographic for a short time, he returned to the Times in 2008 and began to write as an Op-ed columnist, with focuses in politics, public opinion and social justice.
The event, which was proposed by Associate Professor of English, Urban Studies and American Studies Tyrone Simpson and sponsored by the Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences Fund, was largely motivated by the recent tragedies in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland, as well as by the continuing problems of racial and social inequality in the United States. “Through courageous and unflinching commentary, Mr. Blow explores the experiences of the forgotten and the invisible in the hopes that the nation can earn its healing through more caretaking and compassion,” said Simpson.
Discussion revolved around complex issues imposed by the intersection of race, poverty, and criminal profiling. Blow’s lecture voiced the concentrated anger and dissatisfaction with what he sees as counterproductive police actions and strategies that result in the loss of innocent lives. He asserts that support for certain law enforcement strategies stem from flawed notions of racial pathologies that cut across society.
Victims of the policies Blow covered included teenagers Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. According to Blow, tragic realizations of the distrust between law enforcement and minority communities must weigh on the public’s conscience.
Blow asserted, “There is no way, in this country, to discuss crime statistics without including in that discussion the myriad of ways in which those statistics are informed and influenced by the systemic effects of racial description.” Reference was made to racial profiling measures like the stop-and-frisk program in New York City, which Blow characterized as an example of a counterproductive law enforcement policy that disproportionately affects minorities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, America accounts for 22 percent of the world’s prison population and 2.2 percent of the entire population, figures that Blow suggested indicate fundamental flaws with the American justice system. (Newsweek, “Report: America’s Prison Population is Growing Again,” 12.22.14)
In his lecture, Blow examined the implications of these numbers. “There has been an explosion in the incarceration rate in the U.S. in the last few decades,” he commented. “That trend has disproportionately ensnared young, black men sucking hundreds of thousands of marriage aged men out of the community.”
Census data also provides quantitative evidence for a demographic trend whereby certain genders are disproportionately represented in urban communities. “In other words, there are more than two young black women for every young black male in Ferguson.” Blow explained. “While the problem of the missing African-American men is especially severe in Ferguson, young black men are absent in most U.S. cities. All of this informs the statistics.”
In an article entitled “Flash Point Ferguson,” Blow assessed the critical role events in Ferguson now play in a larger movement. However, isolated incidents of violence associated with protesters, he argued, have caused some to question the pace of progress. He wrote, “Violence is weakness masquerading as strength. It is a crude statement of depravity voiced by the unethical and impolitic. It reduces humanity rather than lifts it.”
Blow continued, “The violent must find no asylum in the assembly of the righteous. We can and must stand up to injustice and against vigilante justice simultaneously.” (The New York Times, “Flash Point Ferguson,” 03.16.15)
However, the majority of Blow’s lecture was a focused on law enforcement’s relationship with minority communities. As issues of civil rights boil to the surface in the form of police shootings, Blow’s lecture placed emphasis how bias compromises the criminal justice system.
“This is not to say that things like economic equality or access or systemic exclusion have fallen way, or to discount the phenomenal success of the gay right’s movement, another civil right’s issue,” Blow said. “But rather, the interaction between communities of color and the police and the justice system have crystallized a sentiment and galvanized a generation.”
Blow’s appearance on campus has been praised by many students who view him as a modern icon for civil rights. “Charles Blow is an incredibly skilled orator; probably the best that I have had the pleasure of hearing, in person,” wrote Lena Josephs ’16, who attended the event, in an emailed statement. “[His] informational take on institutional racism in the States was very impactful. Vassar should keep emphasizing social justice in campus events to educate student on problems occurring closer to home.”