The death of George Floyd — a Black Minneapolis resident who was killed in police custody May 25 — has ignited a global movement of protests for justice. Westminster College faculty responded to the situation in part with an open community conversation Thursday.
“COVID-19 has been a spotlight that exposes all the inequities,” said Han Kim, Westminster College public health professor, Thursday. “To use an engineering term, it’s a stress test on the structures of our society and it’s exposing some glaring, glaring cracks in the very foundations of our society.”
President Beth Dobkin first announced the virtual panel in an email to students Monday and Chief Diversity Officer Tamara Stevenson mentioned it again in her Chief Diversity Officer’s Message on George Floyd post.
Dr. Stevenson said Thursday that conversations and panels like these in smaller communities are progress toward change within society since “organizations are microcosms of the general society.”
Stevenson said she was weary of the need to write statements about injustices against marginalized groups in her Monday blog post. She reiterated that the situation is on-going during Thursday’s panel, “Social Unrest During a Global Pandemic.”
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Stevenson said. “It’s just new faces on the same phenomena.”
Stevenson’s colleagues and fellow panelists nodded along with the statement and spoke about how systemic racism has become embedded in America’s structures.
“One of the things that I see happening is a conversation about ‘bad apples,’ right?” said Heather Batchelor, a Westminster education professor. “But I think it’s really important to remember that bad apples grow on rotten trees and I think the structures are the rotten trees.”
Batchelor extended the metaphor of ‘bad apples’, commonly used to describe police officers who engage in police brutality, to the relatively few protesters who reportedly incited violence at protests.
She said a violent response to the systemic issues is a result of Black Americans feeling disaffected and some seeing no other choice but violence.
“We need to take accountability for that as a society because if we don’t this is not going to stop,” Batchelor said.
The conversation also touched on the fact that while these protests are going on, there is still a pandemic happening.
Han Kim, a Westminster public health professor, expressed concern over the fact that police officers in some cities used tear gas against protesters during a pandemic caused by a novel respiratory virus.
Despite the risks of protesting, Kim said the continuing issue of police brutality against Black Americans is a “more significant danger” than the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What happened to Mr. Floyd is a public health issue and we need to start treating it as such,” he said.
Given the fact that Westminster’s community members are predominately white, a sizable portion of Thursday’s guided conversation focused on what privileged residents of Salt Lake City can do in the face of systemic racism.
Kara Barnette, a philosophy professor at Westminster, is from Minnesota — which she said gave her a personal connection to George Floyd’s death that others might not have.
“As a white person living in Salt Lake City, I would still have an obligation to do something,” she said. “It’s hard to not just say, ‘Oh, I have white privilege,’ but to genuinely reflect on what that means in terms of obligation.”
Translating the obligation to do something as a privileged population directly to Westminster’s campus is not simple. Barnette said the conversation around developing concrete changes must start broadly.
“We need to have a lot more recognition and a lot more honoring of folks who are doing work that is so often invisible,” Barnette said. “That really is work on the front lines of this stuff at Westminster. So much of that […] can’t be quantified, can’t be listed in numbers.”
Barnette said Stevenson and Director of the Student Diversity & Inclusion Center Dan Cairo are two individuals on the Westminster campus who are routinely working hard for progress within the community.
Heather Batchelor said society may not be able to change until privileged Americans have a stronger sense of empathy.
“Until we all see the faces of our family members, of our loved ones in George Floyd or in the children who are locked up at the border or our youth who are incarcerated we are not going to change,” she said.