“Art has long been a method of expression, and artists throughout history have been instigators of change-engaging society in conversation about pressing issues. Established in 2005, Constitution Day continues the College’s tradition of leadership in raising and exploring important political issues.” – Maryland Institute College of Art
This year’s Constitution Day was hosted in the Brown Center, Falvey Hall on Thursday September 17 and featured Melissa Harris-Perry, a MSNBC television host, political commentator, award-winning writer and professor, Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), and artist Titus Kaphar, whose artworks interact with the history of art to address issues of race and identity. As in past years, WYPR’s Aaron Henkin served as moderator.
The free annual symposium was co-sponsored by the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU-MD). The 2015 symposium explored various facets of “Black Lives Matter,” a phrase exposing an enduring legacy of racial disparities, particularly in the criminal justice system in America. After recent scandals of police brutality and misconduct, and subsequent protests and national dialogue, the panelists will discussed different analyses, approaches and strategies for understanding and challenging systemic racism in America.
A Few Highlights from Introductory Remarks:
Reggie Shuford: “We know that the phenomenon of state sanctioned brutality and the effort to control and contain African Americans is nothing new. Its a fact as old as this country. From slavery to Jim Crow, to the war on drugs and the new Jim Crow. If anything has changed, it’s that racism and descrimination are more subtle and less explicit than they once were. No longer will you see signs over water fountains directing blacks to one fountain and whites to another. And rarely, though I never say never, will a police officer utter the n-word or another racial epithet during encounters with civilian. It doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking or acting on racist assumptions or racial stereotypes, but it means, perhaps after being sued one too many times by the ACLU, they have smartened up and learned not to verbalize those thoughts.”
Shuford cited specific examples from class action lawsuits against police in the state of Maryland from the 1980s and ’90s, where the policy for troopers was explicit – in order to combat an incoming flow of crack and cocaine, police were told to detain and search motorists who were young black males wearing expensive jewelry or driving a sportscar. As such, “In 1993 one MD state trooper testified in court that he searched someone primarily because he was a young African American male. [He showed] no hesitation in admitting that. He went on to say that he considered race on a daily basis in his drug interdiction work. After he testified, he was was promoted to teach those practices to his fellow troopers.”
Shuford’s comments show that even though these policies are no longer explicit, there is an undeniable legacy left upon current policing techniques today.
Titus Kaphur: “Everything I do comes from a very very personal space. There’s not a piece I make that doesn’t come form something that I have experienced. Even the historical work I that people think about, when they see my stuff … It started because of an art history professor I had who decided she wanted to skip over the black section in the art history book. I was the only black student in the class and I said, “Its important to me, so can we try to go through it?”
“I have been fascinated by the idea of erasure. By absence. By holes in narratives. The things that have captivated me most are the family stories that we don’t like to talk about. I felt compelled to start talking about those stories.”
Melissa Harris-Perry: “Any set of things, biological markers of blackness, is fuzzy at the edges… Most critically, we know that race is not real because of the swiftness [with which] it can change across time and space. You know that you can be in the same body and get on a trans-contitental flight and end up on the West Coast of Africa and suddenly not be black, but American… Never American in the United States, but profoundly American in other places… Saying that race is not real is not the same as saying racism is not real. Or to say that race is inconsequential.”
“The realities of embodied blackness create problems for abstract American ideals. The things we believe about ourselves as a country. Because we are a free nation. A nation of citizens. We are a nation that generates and supports meritocracy. We are governed in a democracy and our laws bring justice. But what we know is that embodied black experiences keep creating problems for those abstract American ideals.”
These are just a few quotes that jumped out to me in the audience, but there are so many more! This conversation is amazing and worth your time. MICA has provided a complete video of this year’s Constitution Day talk. (Just fast forward to where the introduction happens.)
“In light of the racial disparities exposed in the police violence and related turmoil in Ferguson and Staten Island last year, and of course right here in Baltimore this spring, I can not think of a more urgent and timely topic for our panelists to discuss,” said Constitution Day organizer and MICA Humanistic Studies Department faculty member Firmin DeBrabander. He added, “What point will be the turning point that transforms policy, law and culture into institutions that respect the dignity and lives of all Americans?”
“The topic of this year’s Constitution Day event is both timely and pressing: As a country we must work with urgency and determination to dismantle structural racial bias and its far-reaching, entrenched effects,” said Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland. “The tragedy of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, and the death of so many others, flows from the failed, racially biased ‘War on Drugs’ and the militarization of police departments. Yet police abuse is only a piece of larger systemic violence—in the form of discrimination in housing, education, jobs, and voting rights—that has left Black Americans and other communities of color isolated and marginalized.”
Established in 2005, Constitution Day continues the College’s tradition of raising and exploring important political issues.