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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Staff Editorial: Stereotypes, social change and liberal arts graduates

In a letter to the editor published on Jan. 30 entitled “Graduates should consider moving to Ferguson,” Jay Readey implored graduates of liberal arts colleges to move to Ferguson, rent a cheap apartment and work minimum wage jobs as they volunteer in the community. “There are business owners, high school graduates-in-waiting and Little Leaguers who dream of the future in Ferguson,” he wrote, and “What better opportunity for you than to join their community and be a part of realizing their dreams?” The S&B finds Readey’s ideas emblematic of dangerous assumptions and stereotypes that are worth examining as Grinnell students consider how they can effect social change after graduation.

The letter is instructive insofar as his ideas are symptomatic of stereotypes in popular discourse. For instance, he directs graduates of color to “return as role models and contributors to civic life.” Saying that students going to Ferguson would constitute a return makes a very broad generalization about their home communities. Readey represents Ferguson as being responsible for its own poverty and police violence. He suggests that alumni return as role models—implying that there aren’t already role models there—and that they “pick a small business [they] like and help it grow.” He also presents liberal arts graduates as a key part of the solution. The problem is not the community of Ferguson, whose strength is evident in its organization of skillful protests following the senseless killing of Michael Brown. The problem is the equation of lower-class blackness with criminality and the ways that cities and suburbs have been segregated along racial and class lines due to decades of state policy.

To his credit, Readey seems to be proposing that students put their bodies where their mouths are. However, his letter is symptomatic of the consequences of not working to understand history or interrogating the stereotypes one holds about moving into areas to “do good.” Questions remain about how Grinnell students can prepare to work for social change in the “real world” while at Grinnell, and what should be kept in mind when thinking about how to accomplish this change. A model to keep in mind is California law professor Constance Rice, who in the 1990s filed lawsuit after lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department for its treatment of people of color in poor communities. Rice has since shifted tactics, collaborating with the department to investigate why its officers feel defensive around black men. She trained them in what she calls “community partnership policing” that goes beyond policing and focuses on community relations and unlearning racial bias. Instead of helping at Little League games, Rice’s career models a path that would actually address structural oppression in this country. Her change in approach exemplifies how liberal arts graduates simply moving to Ferguson will not fix larger problems with racialized police violence, and highlights the importance of learning about the needs of a community and not assuming one knows the best process to realize this change.

Another troubling part of the letter was the author’s insistence that moving to Ferguson would benefit graduates. He asks, “Why not set yourself apart from others by developing leadership qualities necessary to build community where it requires bridging divides of race and class?” Besides assuming that his readership is white and upper-class, the author treats moving to Ferguson as an internship, desirable as long as it looks good on a resume. We hope that the drive for a perfect resume does not lead students to assume that communities that make national headlines for police violence are “in need of liberal arts graduates.” Further, we caution students from assuming that their presence is an invaluable component of resolving this “need.” In a presentation last Wednesday, two Grinnell alumni working in Chicago cautioned precisely against this mindset, saying that “transplant activists” wanting to feel good about themselves have the effect of “colonizing Chicago.” Indeed, the imagined students that Readey addresses are those that can afford to work minimum wage jobs and volunteer, students who are likely middle- or upper-class. The outcome of such a demographic moving into a city is a hike in the cost of living, ultimately displacing its original residents.

Why should we imagine ourselves “saving” Ferguson after we graduate, when during our years at Grinnell we could be investing our time learning about, and working to address, the poverty in this town? One way for Grinnell students to prepare to work for social change is to study the law, so that when we speak about disparity in sentencing rates, or profiled policing, we aren’t speaking from rhetoric but from real knowledge.

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