Reaction to Floyd's death will shape class discussions, professors say
August 14, 2020
After nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, UW-River Falls professors took notice, and some are looking for ways to incorporate the case into their fall semester.
Cyndi Kernahan is a professor of psychology who specializes in the area of race, prejudice and bias. Discussing race-related concepts is something Kernahan frequently does, but she said the Floyd case could help bring understanding to her students when it comes to discussing the realities of racial disparities and racism, and how often people can be dismissive or unaware of these realities, especially in the area of law enforcement.
Cases like that of Floyd are not unique in the United States. Kernahan said it is important to recognize the widely different lived experiences and opportunities available to white people versus people of color.
“By seeing the full context, the protests and outrage can make more sense.” Kernahan continued, “I think it’s key to connect things as much as possible. The protests are especially important to understand in the context of the pandemic and the long history of racial injustice. Knowing these things will make all of us better citizens, better employees, better parents.”
There are ways for students to have an impact on country-wide issues. Kernahan recommended registering to vote, donating time and money to those actively fighting for change, and practicing anti-racism through educating oneself.
“Being clear what side you are on helps the norms to shift.” Kernahan continued, “Do not tolerate racism in those around you. You don’t have to be mean or confrontational, just be clear you do not like it—even in simple ways like not affirming or laughing at racist ideas.”
Phillip Galli is an assistant professor of criminology, previously worked as a probation and parole officer. This fall, Galli will teach a course called Trends and Issues in Law Enforcement. He said the Floyd case is likely to change many discussions surrounding police use of force in his classroom and in practice.
Galli said his course typically covers police use of force, though he anticipates the Floyd case will inform other topics such as police and community relationships, policing in the future, and the extent of public support and cooperation with police.
In his course, Galli said he teaches students that police representation should go beyond racial and other demographic lines, and focus on the values and unique challenges faced by a community.
“When there is a discrepancy which exists between a police force and the community it serves, issues may arise.” Galli added, “We need to continue to do a better job of vetting potential law enforcement personnel through better recruiting, hiring, educating, and training practices.”
Samuel Gale is an associate lecturer of history who specializes in African American history. He said the Floyd case will help in shaping what he teaches in the fall, and how it likely will resonate with students.
Gale said his course has always incorporated topics about racial injustice. He said one must look at the over 400 year history of the U.S. before understanding its identity and deeply embedded culture of racial intolerance.
“What happened to George Floyd, and Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, is not a product of failures in America’s system over the last 50 years, or the last 100 years. They are rooted in America’s history of racial inequality born out of the first enslaved Africans coming to the Americas in the 1600s,” Gale said.
In past classes, Gale has observed that some of his students believe that racism and violence is more of an issue in the southern part of the U.S. He stressed that this is a myth, and racial discrimination, racial violence, and racism are national in scope.
“In many ways, racial segregation, particularly with regards to housing, is often worse in the North and Midwest than it is in the South currently.” Gale continued, “Introducing moments from the past 100 years of deep-seated racial violence and segregation taking place in the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, has been illuminating to students in the past to complicate their views about race in their own backyard.”
Tammy Kincaid is a licensed social worker and associate professor who teaches about social work. This coming fall, Kincaid had already planned to discuss social justice, but the Floyd case leads to a new opportunity to discuss activism and racial issues.
“We can really have some good conversations about what it is that’s at the crux of the issue and hear from students who’ve maybe participated in the demonstrations, or helping with community agencies." Kincaid continued, "We can encourage them to take an active role instead of just reading about it.”
Kincaid said activism can take many forms, and people should start with something they’re comfortable with. She said it is a good idea for people to get involved with their city and local community committees, even if they just attend meetings as a citizen. Kincaid said being a voice in these places can help bring more attention to the racial impacts of things, and starting at the local level can often create change.