The Rutgers Chapter of the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) held its Zoom event last night, Speak Out on Black Lives, as part of the Scholar Strike for racial injustice.
The event was co-hosted by Donna Murch, associate professor in the Department of History and member of the executive council of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, and Chenjerai Kumanyika, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. There were several guests who spoke on various aspects of Black lives and racial disparities in not only the country as a whole, but also within the Rutgers community.
Walton Johnson, professor and undergraduate director of the Department of africana studies, began the conversation by discussing the history of Rutgers in regards to people of color. He said Rutgers had a progressive period in the 1970s, where the population of Black students and faculty had increased to more than 12 percent. He said this population today sits at approximately seven percent, though.
He also said that in 1995, former Rutgers President Francis L. Lawrence made an off-the-record comment about standardized testing that sparked protests at the New Brunswick campus.
“The average S.A.T.'s for African-Americans is 750,” Lawrence said, according to The New York Times. “Do we set standards in the future so we don't admit anybody? Or do we deal with a disadvantaged population that doesn't have that genetic, hereditary background to have a higher average?"
The second speaker, Nicole Fleetwood, professor in the Department of American Studies and the Department of Art History, focused on her own experience of being a Black woman on the Rutgers campus.
“(When) I was an assistant professor at Rutgers, I never felt welcomed on campus,” she said. “I never felt like I had a home. I felt completely — I just felt like an outsider.”
Fleetwood said she focused on writing about having incarcerated relatives after receiving tenure, which helped her grow her own presence on campus, as well as creating a community that exceeds the boundaries the University has set.
The Mountainview Project, a Rutgers student-run program, supports incarcerated students in New Jersey. Fleetwood said many people in this program outperform the average Rutgers student, yet cannot major in certain fields of study due to their felony conviction. She said this shows how the University is aiding in the perpetuation of carcerality.
Additionally, Fleetwood said the University has continued to impoverish the residents of New Brunswick instead of altering how entities, such as the campus and local police, work to regulate and transform the areas surrounding the New Brunswick campus.
The current coronavirus (COVID-19) disease pandemic and its disproportionate effects on Black individuals was also a topic of conversation during the event.
Rutgers alumna Deandrah Cameron said there have been a disproportionate number of Black people who have died from COVID-19. She said this is due to the fact that the Black population is more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods and, in turn, are put in situations that increase their exposure to the virus.
“They’re twice as likely to not have insurance or any other jobs that sort of confer these benefits that offer some type of safety net for these kinds of emergencies,” Cameron said. “So, in fact, Blacks have been living in a continuous state of emergency and now we see we’re dying from the hands of the very systems that are set in place to protect us.”
These issues are directly exemplified through Catherine Sackey, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, who said she worked as an essential employee for Rutgers dining services up until May, when she was laid off by the University.
“I drank the Kool-Aid for Rutgers. I loved Rutgers because I believed in (its) mantra. I believed in, ‘We are Rutgers, we are Scarlet Knights, we fight, we stick together,’” Sackey said. “I’m so into that. I still love Rutgers, but then I found out with everything that Rutgers doesn’t love me. (It doesn't) love the essential workers.”
Sackey said that since she was laid off, she has been stuck trying to figure out how she’s going to pay for her education as a non-traditional student.
Her daughter, Alyssa Thompson Sackey, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said she has also had to begin thinking about her financial situation. Due to her mother being laid off, she said she now has to think about paying the University amounts she has never had to worry about before.
“I was able to find myself in my English major and I found that people that look like me don’t really populate these studies. I started to feel like I can do something with this and I can speak as a Black woman, as a woman of color, and sort of provide a new lens because we always read the same white authors and use the same white supremacist lens to analyze things,” she said. “I think, especially in this time, it was really an opportunity for them to cut off a service that really helped me and my mom and hundreds of people like us who were going to school and getting educated. Now we also have to worry about that.”
Mark Hopkins, Rutgers alumna and an organizer for the AAUP-AFT, said that overall, it is important to recognize that universities such as Rutgers should work with their community and not compete against it.
“This idea of competition has caused universities to run like corporations, and they don’t want to share information or create mass communities that will allow them to actually move forward and be progressive, as educational institutions should be in our society,” Hopkins said. “Instead, they stunt our growth and cause us more frustration.”