Being a black student at MU, or any majority-white campus or institution, isn’t easy, but the culture is slowly changing for the better. That’s the takeaway from a recent in-studio conversation with MU Education professor Adrian Clifton and Law professor S. David Mitchell.
Both Clifton and Mitchell work on the frontlines to improve the education experience for African-American students, and they joined The Green Duck Lounge playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson at KBIA recently as part of a podcast for the project, designed to promote awareness and dialogue about Missouri’s civil rights history and current activism.
Clifton is the community partnership liaison for the College of Education and S. David Mitchell, associate dean for academic affairs, served as chair os the UM System’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion task force.
But both Clifton and Mitchell say that their most important work in helping black students achieve success is done daily, and in person – in the classroom.
“Some children or students come in with more in their backpacks … of experiences and other students are coming in lacking in the way of cultural response of understanding,” Clifton says. “The campus is a beautiful place to fill those backpacks with the things that are lacking.”
“I've actually had some students who asked me about feeling guilty when the events were happening in Ferguson that they were not there- that they elected not to go be a part of the protest,” Mitchell said.
Clifton and Mitchell both say they also draw on both current activism and African American history to provide context to civic activism for all their students.
“We're talking about the history so that students understand that this isn't something that just came up all of a sudden, that students decided to get mad one day and protest,” Clifton said. “This is rooted in our history, way back to slavery and the narratives that have been told that leave out so many of the perspectives and the power dynamics of race.”
Johnson asked Clifton and Mitchell why the topic of race remains such a fraught issue for discussion.
“It’s such an underdeveloped, unresolved issue,” said Clifton. “I think that until we face the elephant in the room, it's going to be there. There's still powers at be that are trying to keep these some of these systems in motion.”
Mitchell said, unlike in countries like South Africa where he recently spent time, there the United States hasn’t had an official reconciliation or acknowledgement of its history.
“We never looked at ourselves and said, ‘That's wrong what we did,’” Mitchell said.“Even if you look at that period of time when all the lynching happened, we never said, ‘We are sorry. We apologize. This was a problem.’ Because we haven't done that, we haven't faced the honest truth, that race has permeated the existence of our country, of its evolution, and it's still present today.”
Mitchell said the race issues in the United States affect every African American, regardless of their background.
“I went to a private school, I went to an Ivy league undergrad and law school, and yet, I tell my students this all the time: when I walk out of the law school building, my degree is not on my forehead,” Mitchell said.
“I'm a black man in the United States in Missouri, and when I get in the car, I can be profiled and stopped. Those do nothing to shield me from race in America.”
“Columbia is part of the issue,” Clifton said, “but I believe that slowly, this ship is turning in the direction of activism, of ally-ship, and of community members holding powers-at-be responsible.”
The Green Duck Lounge plays Feb. 21- Feb. 25 at MU’s Rhynsburger Theatre. See www.greenduckproject.com.