Dreaming of democracy free of racial stereotypes

The Law School held a symposium entitled “Dreaming of Democracy” on Feb. 17. The symposium was held in honor of one of the school’s professors, Donald Jones, and the release of his most recent book Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male.

A panel of various educators within the field of law gathered to speak about the many themes outlined in Jones’ book-namely, the “othering” of the black male in American society in spite of formally having established equality with his white peers.

Jones, who teaches courses in constitutional law and criminal procedure at the School of Law, opened the symposium with a few words regarding law and the issue of race. He challenged the audience to ask themselves if, in light of recent events including the 2000 elections and Hurricane Katrina, the American democratic system was truly colorblind.

Jones cited that in the 2000 presidential elections, thousands of voters in Florida were disenfranchised when they were turned away at the polls for being on a list that mistakenly identified them as ex-felons. A disproportionate number of those voters were black.

Jones stated that although the United States is officially a democratic nation, there exists a duality within the system that, more often than not, tends to benefit the white community over the black community.

“There exist two souls, two unrecognized strivings within the law and our idea of democracy,” Jones said.

Following Jones’ opening remarks a panel discussion was held that touched on some of the main themes of his new book. One of the main points the panel focused on was the idea that all black males are identified with certain character traits relating to crime, drugs and violence.

“The black male has been erased, rendered invisible by an unrelenting, ideological recasting,” Bryan Fair, a University of Alabama law professor, said.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor from the University of Florida, described an exercise she held in each of her classes in which she asked her students to write down the common stereotypes associated with certain racial and gender groups.

Brown said that the image of the black man, according to her students, generally involved images of criminality, sexual prowess, athleticism and violence. She also noted that these images were the most consistent ones to appear each year she performed the exercise.

“What is troubling is that these are the same images of black men that existed at the turn of the last century and during the mid-20th century,” Brown said.

Brown also used Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop for her discussion, which she entitled “While Visions of Deviants Danced in Their Heads.”

She said that the early narratives after the hurricane devastated New Orleans had mostly to do with “black deviants.” Of these, there existed two categories: the “blameworthy, ignorant, poor non-evacuees” and the “looters.”

Brown stated that the media pushed the image that the Katrina survivors refused to leave New Orleans after the evacuation order was made, although in reality many were incapable of leaving the city because of their financial situation, as well as a lack of transportation-27 percent of New Orleans’ black population did not own cars.

According to Brown, some evacuees were even physically restrained from leaving the city when trying to cross the Mississippi Bridge into the predominantly white town of Gretna, La. The New Orleans residents were blocked from crossing the bridge by law enforcement from three different jurisdictions because the Gretna chief of police did not want the town to “become another New Orleans.”

While many speakers gave their own take on the conception of the black male in America, their overall message was ultimately the same: stereotyping has shaped the national consciousness of the black man’s identity. Brown ended her speech on this same note.

“Images of black deviance operate as resting places in the American mind,” Brown said, “they are safe and comfortable, and they allow us to see without thinking.”

Marina Nazir can be contacted at m.nazir@umiami.edu.