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Book group facilitates ongoing dialogue on racial injustice

| Thursday, February 19, 2015

As listeners and attendees of many lectures, students continually face the question of “Now what?” once each discussion has ended. With this in mind, Saint Mary’s is working to encourage open-ended discussions after the orations end.

Most recently, a community-wide book discussion group on “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander has been formed for Saint Mary’s faculty, staff and students to continue the dialogue prompted by Alexander’s talk at the College on Feb. 7.

The book addresses racial discrimination and mass incarceration in the American justice system, applying the term “The New Jim Crow” to the current situation of many African Americans in the U.S.

Associate professor of psychology Catherine Pittman said groups of faculty members read the book last semester. Following the talk on campus, it was clear the student body wanted to engage in ongoing conversations in a collective setting, she said.

“When faculty and students are exposed to the compelling information shared by Alexander, they want to discuss the information,” Pittman said. “The fact that so many people in American culture are being stopped by the police, often mistreated and [are] imprisoned [for] long periods for minor crimes is very distressing to those who hear the statistics.

“Often students want to understand how this can happen, and taking some time to read the book can help answer their questions.”

Pittman said in essence, this particular book helps people to actively recognize issues that may be overlooked in daily scenarios.

“Part of college life should be about recognizing what is happening in American culture,” she said. “Right now, protests are happening in response to police actions, and Alexander explains what has been happening over the past 25 years that has led to the frustration that fuels these protests.

“So many people think the biggest problem that African Americans have faced was slavery, and that ended years ago. But the problem is not that slavery occurred; the problem is that our country accepted the notion that some human lives were worth less than others, and that notion has never been successfully eliminated.”

Pittman said the book and the ongoing book discussion help people recognize that the U.S. continues to behave in a way revealing that some lives are devalued.

“Alexander helps us to see that pattern clearly in modern society, and once that pattern is pointed out to you, you can’t ignore it,” she said. “You want to discuss it, and try to figure out how our country can live up to the values we profess.”

Junior and discussion group member Lauren Cushing said the book and the discussion surrounding it have allowed her to engage in eye-opening conversations on topics that she would not have otherwise considered on her own.

For Cushing and the other group members, these types of discussion allow them to address issues outside the world of the College and relevant to the here and now.

“There are a lot of things that I don’t pay attention to because they aren’t directly affecting me, and I feel like a lot of other people might unfortunately agree,” Cushing said.

Pittman said the first discussion meeting, held on Feb. 13, provoked many questions centered around the drug war that has been transpiring for the duration of most students’ lives.

“[Students] have wondered why in some states marijuana is legal, and in other states, people are imprisoned for a dozen years for [possession] of some,” Pittman said. “They want to know why so many more African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses, when we know that more white people than African Americans use and sell drugs.

“They have asked why would police plant drugs on a person?” she said. “They want to understand what rights people have. They ask about people in prison and wonder about how they are treated.”

Pittman said this range of questions can be answered by reading books like Alexander’s and discussing them.

Director of Multicultural Services and group member Gloria Jenkins said one of the best and most effective parts of hosting such discussion groups is the range of voices it invites. With a combination of students and faculty, the conversation can flow between fields of study, contemporary issues and varying interests.

“It’s an opportunity to hear things that you don’t normally think of yourself,” Jenkins said. “We are in our own worlds and we sometimes don’t see what’s around us. By bringing these different people on campus together to address different topics … it gives us an extra awareness.”

Jenkins said she hopes this will be the first of many book group discussions for students and faculty to react together to the visiting speakers brought to campus.

Groups like these fit perfectly within the Saint Mary’s mission, she said.

“When you look at the values of this institution, it’s all about building young women to be leaders and to commit to social change,” Jenkins said. “I firmly believe in this goal, and it’s great to be around women who want to do just that.

“If this book or other lectures and discussions open our eyes to these opportunities to produce change, then I think we’ve done a good job.”

All members of the tri-campus community are invited to join the book discussion group in the Office of Multicultural Services and Student Programs, located in 214 Student Center, for the second gathering Friday, and for the third and final gathering Feb. 27.

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About Kelly Konya

Kelly Konya is an English major bred on Catcher in the Rye and Roman cornettos.

Contact Kelly