A conversation about race burns on in the United States. Sparked by the visible police brutality that robbed dozens of Black men, women, and even children, of their lives over the past several years, fully ignited by the ruthless killing of George Floyd, and most recently, fanned by the striking incongruities between police reaction to Black Lives Matter protests and police response to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the fiery dialogue has arguably reached a level in the United States not seen since the Civil Rights Movement.
Last week, in honor of the day dedicated to one of the most influential people in that movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., UNE upheld its annual tradition of marking MLK day with a weeklong celebration that commemorates King and his historic visit to UNE’s Biddeford Campus (then Saint Francis College) in May of 1956.
In her introductory remarks, Erica Rousseau, M.A., director of Intercultural Student Engagement and organizer of the week’s feature event, emphasized the fact that while King is today lauded and honored with a national holiday, he was not regarded so favorably during his lifetime. “I want us to remember … that Dr. King was a controversial man,” she stated. “He is not the beloved figure that history paints him as. He was a radical revolutionary. He demanded change, preached of hope, and organized thousands.”
Unlike recent years’ MLK celebrations that produced packed crowds, this year’s events, conducted amidst the coronavirus pandemic, were held without in-person gatherings. Despite their virtual nature, however, the events were no less thought-provoking, and, in light of the current heated national discourse on systemic racism, perhaps struck even deeper chords than usual with participants.
Addressing the remote audience of the feature presentation, “From Race to Dehumanization,” a lecture by UNE Professor of Philosophy David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., UNE President James Herbert recognized the similarities between the current racial atmosphere in the U.S. and the atmosphere at the time of King’s address in Biddeford, noting a feeling common to both eras of being on the brink of something long in coming.
“That May day, some 57 years ago, came at a special moment for the people of Maine and the United States more broadly,” Herbert said, “a moment in time when long-awaited, desperately needed changes in our society seemed suddenly tangible and within reach … The year that just passed – 2020 … will be remembered for the racial reckoning that occurred in cities and towns across America. It was a brutal summer for those of us committed to this work but also a hopeful one. On the one hand, we all bore witness – seemingly again and again – to the senseless brutalizing and killing of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. And yet, amid this horror, ugliness, and national shame, there arose a response that suggested that this time things just might be different, that this time real, systemic change may actually be within reach.”
In an essay “Living King’s Dreams or His Nightmares,” written by Associate Provost for Community, Equity, and Diversity Chris Hunt, Ed.D., and disseminated via email to the UNE Community as part of MLK week, Hunt too draws a parallel between the Civil Rights era and today, pointing out that in both cases, progress has only come when the pendulum of racist sentiment in America swings away from absolute barbarity. Without vicious cruelty to propel it in the opposite direction, the flow of progress is stagnant. Indeed, Movements have no movement.
This clumsy back-and-forth process of change, “the yin and yang of dreams and nightmares,” as Hunt calls it, was, he writes, not lost on King himself, who suggested that support for Civil Rights was a temporary response to the flagrant and deeply disturbing violence perpetrated against Black people. “The dream gains ground on the nightmare,” writes Hunt, “but only temporarily, in the aftermath of some undeniable horror.”
Given the repetitive nature of history, then, it is entirely understandable that Hunt’s essay poses the question: “Was the outrage this past summer merely a reaction to the sickening video-documented brutality of Mr. Floyd’s murder and not really about creating lasting racial equality and breaking down systemic oppression?”
In fact, it is this very question about the lasting power of the recent surge of social engagement, Hunt says, that was at the heart of this year’s MLK events. “After a summer packed with social justice activism and support for Black lives, the central question we grappled with for our celebration was whether the so-called ‘moment’ of energy and activism from summer 2020 would be similar to the temporary support Dr. King spoke about regarding the Civil Rights Movement,” he stated.
At the feature event, Rousseau introduced Smith is an example of a person who uses his or her gifts “to push the urgency of social justice, anti-racism, and equity forward.” Indeed, Smith, whose areas of specialty within the field of philosophy include race and dehumanization, is the author of multiple books that have changed people’s conception of race and enlightened them to the inextricable link between racism, dehumanization, and brutality. Those books include “On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It,” “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization,” and the award-winning “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.”
Smith began his lecture by acknowledging the important role that history should play in Americans’ conception of race and racism – a role that far too many of us do not understand. “Without an understanding of history, the present becomes incomprehensible,” he stated. “Historical awareness is vital and lacking in many American citizens.” He pointed to a little-known fact that the Nazi party in Germany looked to the U.S. for guidance in becoming a racist state, but, after studying Jim Crow laws, they thought America too extreme in their racism.
Smith then outlined his belief that the very concept of race has no biological basis – that is, that race is a purely social construction used for the purpose of domination and oppression. According to Smith, the belief in race goes hand-in-hand with racism, and dehumanization, he said, “is racism on steroids.” Racism at least maintains that all races are human, with some races considered inferior and some superior. But dehumanization ascribes sub-human characteristics to particular groups, which makes unspeakable acts of violence upon them more palatable. He pointed to the Jim Crow South’s tradition of spectacle lynchings of Blacks, who were often portrayed as “beasts” or “animals” — events that drew thousands of eager spectators. “With dehumanization, racialized ‘others’ are excluded from humanity, and people are given license to a type of brutality towards them that would otherwise be difficult to muster,” he said.
The lecture prompted questions and a robust discussion during the Q&A.
Another important component of this year’s MLK Celebration included a virtual presentation titled “The Other Pandemic: Exploring Systems and Legacies of Racism” by student Karim Abdel Jalil (D.O. ’21), who explored how racism is not an independent entity but, rather, something deeply embedded within our social systems, permeating everything from housing to education to medicine. It is everyone’s responsibility, he said, to ask ourselves how racism is operating in our fields and professions and to understand and confront our own biases.
The week wrapped up with an installment of Forums on Friday — an event series sponsored by the Office of Community, Equity, and Diversity – that featured a panel of UNE students, faculty, and professional staff.
Hunt and Rousseau were both pleased with the week’s events. “From our focus on the historic structures of racism to the whole construct of race, our celebration posed thought-provoking questions and raised challenging questions while we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. King,” said Hunt.
Rousseau agreed that the week’s events successfully underscored the important historical context of racism as a lens through which we can view its present-day implications. “The presence and agenda of dehumanization and racism has been present in the Americas since its colonization,” she remarked. “The relevant conversations and work of antiracism, that we need to do as a society, is as relevant now as it has ever been. I’m glad that the events of MLK week highlighted the work to be done while providing tools of engagement.”