UB Professors and students discuss ‘#blacklivesmatter’

History professors hold symposium to discuss racial profiling and police brutality


When Jason Young’s car was broken into in Southern California, the responding police officer was more interested in Young’s lack of a criminal record than Young’s missing stereo.

“You mean to tell me we haven’t got you yet?” the officer asked him after running Young’s information through the system.

When Young said he’d only been in California for two weeks after moving there to begin graduate school, the officer was relived. He said, “Oh you just got here. That’s why we haven’t got you yet.”

Young, now a UB history professor, said a lot of interactions between police and black people are “already scripted.”

“That kind of script between law enforcement and Africans Americans is historical,” Young said. “It’s developed historically. In a way we’ve all been screenwriters.”

Young and other history professors, Victoria Wolcott and Carole Emberton, hosted a discussion panel on racial profiling, violence and police brutality entitled “#blacklivesmatter” on Wednesday afternoon in Norton Hall. Approximately 30 people, most of whom were students, attended the symposium and participated in the discussion.

The panel aimed to give historical perceptive on the phrase “black lives matter,” which has gained popularity in recent months in part due to the killings of black males Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. The American Dialect Society chose the hash tag form of the phrase as their word of the year in 2014.

“If black lives matter, black history matters as well,” Wolcott said. “I think historians have a contribution to make to the conversation. The phrase black lives matter helps to bring up this history.”

Wolcott said Young, Emberton and herself felt they had something to say on the issue because they all work on racial violence from different perspectives. Emberton writes about the American Civil War, while Young and Wolcott focus on slavery and 20th century civil rights movements, respectively.

Wolcott said “black lives matter” helps put the humanity and vulnerability of black people at center of racial change. She said the thousands of black men, women and children who were murdered in the nineteenth century need to be recognized as having mattered and contributed to the present moment.

Emberton said it’s important to remember there are historical precedents to the “black lives matter” movement, such as Josiah Wedgewood’s 18th century

anti-slavery medallions that read “Am I not a man and brother?” and the NAACP’s flag from the 1930’s that read “A man was lynched yesterday.”

She said iconography runs through all three movements to bring about social reform.

“You don’t need a picture. The words themselves become the image,” Emberton said.

Young said the term “black lives matter” has produced an incredible amount of political and social activity, as well as backlash.

“If ‘black lives matter’ does anything like suggest there are some issues with policing and violence in our communities, those are lessons we all need to take,” he said.

Young said although he felt like he needed to be part of the panel, he didn’t want to be part of it. He said part of him wants to react academically and intellectually to the issues of racial profiling and police brutality, but the other part of him “just wants to react.”

He said the deaths of Brown, Gardner and Cleveland 12-year old Tamir Rice – all of whom were killed during interactions with police – seem like a “cycle.” He said he feels like he’s seen these incidents before.

“It’s not that Mike Brown is exceptional. It’s not that Darren Wilson is an exceptional villain in any way. It’s more the fact that these are daily, almost naturalized encounters between regular people,” Young said. “The reason it galvanizes people so much is that these eerie, ghostly echoes are heard in these moments. People can identify themselves in these particular moments.”

Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police officer Wilson on Aug. 9.

Young said it’s important to remember that when names such as Brown’s and Gardner’s are mentioned, that people keep in mind those names also represent and reflect larger issues and more victims.

The panel and students questioned why certain incidents and deaths become better known and covered more in the media than others.

Wolcott said it was important to have the discussion so students could voice their opinions because she said UB’s campus is slightly less active in the movement than some universities down state.

“This is really a movement of millennials, so a college campus seems kind of a natural space to engage in those conversations,” she said.

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