By Jeanine Erikat
As part of its ongoing New Narrative Series, UC Irvine Student Affairs hosted MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry for the event “How Black Lives Matter to American Politics” on Nov. 9 in the Student Center.
UCI New Narratives: Conversations on Identities & Culture Series is a program created to connect the current and historical moments that influence the diverse identities on campus within multiple events held throughout the year.
Harris-Perry began her speech by addressing that black lives matter. She then discussed that race has neither a biological nor a genetic basis, but it is merely a social construct that has a large impact on daily life.
In light of the University of Missouri protests by African- American students frustrated with the inaction of administration dealing with racism on campus, Harris-Perry drew attention to the importance of student voices, and the significance of the risks taken by students who make a stand against social injustice on their campuses.
She mentioned recent student-driven progress at the University of Missouri, where 30 African American football players threatened to leave the team if the University of Missouri President did not resign. The President, Timothy Wolfe, stepped down last week in response.
“There is something that makes me feel 12-feet tall today, that those young men decided that their solidarity, despite what the cost may continue to be for them, took that stand,” said Harris-Perry. “And it is my pleasure to be on a college campus in this moment to continue to have a conversation about the moment that we define ourselves in.”
Harris-Perry discussed that race is not real, yet race is a lens that blinds people in daily interactions, in news coverage, in case verdicts and in how we understand and look at the world.
“I want us to remember at all points that race is not real. But to say that race is not real is not the same thing as saying that race is not meaningful. That it is not real in its effect. In fact’ I want to claim that race in part acts as a filter. It is partly the thing that we see,” said Harris-Perry.
According to Harris-Perry, even in times of devastation, the filter of race manipulates the context of reality.
She referenced a picture taken shortly after Hurricane Katrina by mainstream media, which made a predominantly African American neighborhood resemble a foreign country. The media disregarded the fact that the African American men and women photographed, in their time of ultimate despair, were waving the veterans flag, a flag given to the families of fallen soldiers, as a plea for help. Due to the powerful effect of blackness as a racial filter, it masked the capacity of mass media to see these victims as Americans.
With regards to contemporary American politics, Harris-Perry made it a priority for the audience to acknowledge that despite all the racism still prevalent in American society, the American public voted an African American man into office twice.
“It was meaningful to see the American state embodied in a black person, and not just a black person, but one who in this moment was both in our mind of essentialized definitions of blackness, and our broader ontological definitions of blackness constantly choosing blackness,” said Harris-Perry.
During her discussion of American history, Harris-Perry mentioned that she received negative backlash for having a photograph of sharecroppers in her office that she keeps to remind herself the real meaning of work. Harris-Perry emphasized that sharecropping came after slavery, and despite similar difficult working conditions, sharecroppers were not enslaved people. This was because their child belonged to them, an important step in human history as this was unheard of in a time of slavery.
Harris-Perry conveyed to all students in the audience that unless talking in the specific context of slavery, to be careful when using what she referred to as “false equivalencies,” because slavery was not a notion of freedom.
Harris-Perry emphasized the significance of the 14th Amendment which defines citizenship, and its modern-day implications on the Latino community. She proclaimed that some individuals are given an identity that is deemed inherently problematic for the whole American state. She believes these problems grow because race is an embodied idea, even if it has no real basis.
“When you hear people attacking the 14th amendment around Latino bodies, those bodies have been rendered black in that moment,” said Harris-Perry. “The amendment that rendered citizenship possible and worked out on these bodies, is now being worked out on a new set of bodies that are considered to be equally and inherently problematic for the whole American state.”
Attendees were moved by Harris-Perry’s speech and believed that this discussion was not just necessary for UCI, but for all college campuses across the country.
“More often than not, the race filter blinds many people into treating individuals of color in a disrespectful and racist manner, and what happened at the University of Missouri this week can happen at any college campus,” said Selma Hassane, a first-year international studies major. “Such events help bring about awareness and empower the colored community to take a stance against injustices.”
The event brought members of the greater Southern California community as well. Principal of Compton High School, Dr. Stephan RD Glass, felt that Harris-Perry’s speech goes even beyond college campuses and touches base with the high school students.
“My students are victims of the system of white supremacy which exists in our country. My students, largely underserved and at times considered to be problems by many, are brilliant, capable, and determined to make their America greater than the one my generation has bequeathed them. Dr. Harris-Perry’s message reminded me that my students are not only the future, they are also children: boys and girls.,” said Glass. “Many young victims of violence over covered by the media have been portrayed as ‘problems’ or juvenile delinquents rather than children. Because of Dr. Harris-Perry’s lecture, I have personally rededicated myself to protecting my students, my children.”