The following commentary was written by Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.
In the midst of coping with the devastating COVID 19 Pandemic, we are now facing yet another complicated societal tragedy stemming from the death of an African American, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graphic videos show the brutality of the incident, and the officer has been fired and charged in this event. The outrage, especially in the African American community, has spilled out across the country with protests, marches and demonstrations. This event and the response reveals the sharp racial and other divides that still exist in this country and in our local communities and neighborhoods.
Those of us with degrees in the public affairs and professional disciplines, like those from the College of Public Affairs and Administration, understand and lament the lack of progress in American society on so many fundamental social issues. Many of our faculty, students and graduates are actively involved in better understanding, teaching about and learning, and trying to solve these divisive issues. For example, our Criminology and Criminal Justice program is one of the handful of programs in the country focused on preparing law enforcement officers not just for the policing dimension of the job and the social responses to criminal behavior, but for developing the foundational underpinnings for understanding key sociological and societal factors that will make them better police officers. And these efforts are not just confined to our CCJ majors, our College or our University or even our State. But despite these notable efforts, and our outrage over such an incident in Minnesota, we must ask ourselves if we are doing enough to help resolve the underlying issues revealed in the Floyd case. It is not the only case in recent months involving police action against African American citizens that have come under scrutiny and review.
The explicit and implicit discrimination faced by African Americans and many other persons of color is real, it is a problem and it continues. It has become socially and systematically and culturally imbedded in American society. Many of us don’t see it. Most of us don’t experience it. And sadly some of us don’t seem to care about it. And another segment of society seems to think that these racial concerns are exaggerated, or are isolated, or have already been addressed by various social/economic programs and legislation since the 1960’s. At the same time, they label the riots and seeming violence of the protests as inappropriate and criminal themselves.
In no uncertain terms, violence, looting, arson and indiscriminate rioting should never be condoned. But the outage revealed in those events is not excessive and needs to be addressed. Years of inaction and neglect of our minority communities have consequences that lie just under the surface of American society. The focus of local, state and national legislation and polices need to respond to this “hidden” flaw at the heart of our system of democracy. It will not just go away, we can’t just dismiss it, and we can’t let it continue. In this regard, it is everyone’s responsibility to “step up to the plate” and say something, do something and demand action and that’s what these widespread nationwide protests are all about.
As a former Dean at a Historically Black College and University I have witnessed firsthand the impact of discrimination against persons of color and the disadvantages citizens in these communities face in our society. This only reinforces my view that those of us who study, implement and care about public affairs have a duty and responsibility to try to figure this out and work closely with those marginalized populations to make some movement toward ending discrimination in all its forms once and for all.
Yes; now is the time for action!