Why We Can’t Wait: An Open Letter to Emory Law From: Erian Stirrup

These days it seems as if the racial indignities that plague people of color in todays society is a dime a dozen. With every new story that features the physical, mental, and emotional brutalities against black bodies the racial climate heightens here in America. However, what has become fairly popular lately is the racial demarcation between people of color and their white counterparts in academic institutions. It must be clearly understood that racial indifferences on college campuses are nothing new however, with the way in which news is now traveling via social media word moves quickly, and more, and more of these events can easily have a light shined upon them. Since the outbreak of racially charged episodes on the campus of University of Missouri last fall, and the campuses of Ithaca, and Yale, which closely followed, you would think that these institutions of higher education would quickly respond to the racial injustices plaguing black and brown students on their campuses. 

    Unfortunately, it seems as if the Deans of one institution have yet to catch on, and have subsequently, turned a blind eye to the outcries for justice, and have lacked initiative to reprimand the abhorrent statements, and acts of students and staff in reference to race. In an open letter, released yesterday, addressing the obvious neglect from Dean’s Emory law student, Erian Stirrup, brings to the forefront the common experiences of black law students on Emory University’s campus.  Hoping for change for the marginalized students on Emory campus, and a chance to have an open dialogue, Stirrup’s letter passionately recounts matters that have still yet to be addressed. Some may argue the liberal platitudes afforded to them stemming from their constitutional right of “freedom of speech” however, we must ask the question: “Where does one draw the line when freedom of speech becomes a warrant for conscientious stupidity versus sincere ignorance?” 

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Why We Can’t Wait: An Open Letter to Emory Law

From: Erian Stirrup

 
 

 

 

“... The posture of silent waiting was forced upon him psychologically because he was shackled physically. 

-The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

    A white female student on campus publicly posts her disdain for Black Lives Matter protestors. The student defends her views stating “They separate themselves with the movement and pull stupid stunts like shutting down the freeway. Peaceful protesters my ass.” She continues to express relief over not having to “defend hoodlums in [her] line of work,” denigrating and insulting Black (and poor) defendants and members of the Emory Law community who have chosen to dedicate their life’s work to Criminal Defense. This Facebook incident is not isolated. This particular student consistently makes insensitive, condescending and racially charged statements on social media. She has publicly and unremittingly spewed hateful rhetoric insulting the Black community, indigents, Muslims, sexual minorities and other marginalized communities. She insults members of her own legal community, classmates, and future colleagues.  

 

    Despite my personal offense, I recognize that this student’s speech is protected under the First Amendment, which deterred my immediate response. Thus, while many of my classmates responded to the student on social media in several unsuccessful attempts to challenge her  baseless, inflammatory views; I remained silent. I remained silent despite the student’s reference to “hoodlums”, who can, and have been members of my family. I remained silent despite this student’s blatant, wrongful assumptions about Black crime, Black criminality, and Black guilt. I remained silent despite this student’s dismissal of systematic and disproportional state sanctioned violence against members of my community. I remained silent despite this student’s complete disregard for our judicial system’s presumption of innocence.

 

    As stated by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “our lives begin to end the day we stay silent about things that matter.” My silence soon became overwhelming. So, in an effort to both address the offensive nature of her expression, and to give her an opportunity to elucidate her views in person, without the potential for grave misinterpretation over the internet, I asked her to converse with me. I wanted to talk to her face to face, student to student, intellectual to intellectual. I plan to discuss the details of this confrontation in full, however I find it imperative to discuss the climate of Emory University’s School of Law surrounding this event as well.

 

   Screenshots of this student’s Facebook comments had been circulating for at least a week. Worn down by the naturally stressful state of being a law student and the almost certain exasperation I would feel if I read them, I decided not to. But, prior to my decision to speak with this student, I learned of a protest planned to combat offensive speech and stereotyping, set to take place the following day. Rumors flew about the cause of the protest, but one constant assertion was that said Facebook comments were a part of the problem. So I decided to go ahead and read them.

 

   As I read I became increasingly disheartened that someone studying law, who hopes to one day advocate on behalf of people,  would make such disrespectful statements without regard for anyone else involved. So, I decided to address her. I walked into the classroom and she was having a conversation with another student. About 30 minutes before class actually began I asked her if I could have a word with her. She walked down to where I was standing, and I asked her why she believed that the Black students on campus didn't like her, which she had no problem admitting that she believed.

 

   Now, I could have addressed her in a different manner, showing her exactly how offended I felt.  But I decided this conversation would be more productive if I just allowed her to explain what her thoughts were. The conversation went on, she explained that she disagreed with the Black Lives Matter Movement because of its radical nature (ie. looting).  I  explained to her that looting  was a tiny portion of the events that actually take place in this movement.  We went back and forth for a few minutes and occasionally someone else in the classroom chimed in. When I challenged her about the disproportionate arrests, violence,  and sentencing of Black people, she asserted, in a matter of a fact  manner that “Black people commit more crime”.  At this point myself and the majority of the other people in the classroom became agitated. But, I responded in a way that I knew would invoke some of the feelings of outrage that many of us in the classroom were feeling at that very moment.

 

   So, after she attempted to threaten me into submission by telling me we could discuss this in the Dean's office, and in the most effective sarcastic manner, I told her we could, and that I felt  unsafe with her in the classroom because white people are more likely to commit school shootings.

 

   Not surprisingly, she was outraged. She was so offended that I would make such an outlandish statement (one that mirrored the grandiose generalization she’d just made about Black people) that she began to cry. For that moment, if never again,  she felt exactly how the marginalized students in this University feel. She left the classroom screaming, crying, and returned with someone from the administration.

 

   Administrative silence and clear selective empathy, confirm my distaste for the hypocrisy of a community that revel’s in the “robust” free speech protections granted to us under the Constitution. Days after the conversation, I was called a “bully” and was also subject to faux “neutral” qualified statements, acknowledging the student as a racist while simultaneously disparaging me for choosing to speak with her.

 

   I will not engage in Respectability Politics, coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham as “attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.” Nor will I be silenced by White Fragility. Robert DiAngelo explains how, “white people ... live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress... whiteness accrues privilege and status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; Whiteness [...] demands dignity.” As explicated by DiAngelo, suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference, or challenging their purported objectivity triggers a response fueled by a refusal to accept the idea that being white, and nothing more, may have provided some advantage in being successful and shielded them from the effects of oppression.

 

   As stated by DiAngelo, via any racial discourse, white people often position themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, attacked, and being used as “punching bag[s]”.Thus, while this student victimized other students in her support of white supremacist organizations and religious oppression, her victimology was largely accepted, and her narrative was privileged by administration and other students. After the incident, this student was escorted back to class, and this escort remained in the classroom until the lecture began, never addressing me, or even making eye contact. Perception is a powerful tool of reality. In the eyes of myself and some of my classmates, the way this encounter affected myself, or those that witnessed the encounter, was not of great significance to those who learned of it in the minutes following.

 

   Immediately following this encounter, I felt triumphant. I was ecstatic about her failure to stand before me and debate the merits of her views. But those emotions were very short lived. In the days following this conversation I found myself and other classmates who had witnessed the interaction defensively explaining how I was not aggressive or angry or threatening. She and other members of the community used the language of violence to frame our conversation. By employing terms that connote physical abuse she tapped into the classic discourse of people of color (particularly African Americans) as dangerous and violent. This is yet another example of reality distortion and perversion. In simply seeking to have a conversation, I was perceived as dangerous and violent.   

 

   Indeed, this student’s tears easily garnered sympathy. She became the victim. This student, offended at my sarcastic response to her statement that Blacks commit more crime immediately sought to position herself as “morally superior while obscuring the true power of [her] social locations.” This discourse of victimization enables her-and others to spew hateful rhetoric to avoid responsibility for the racial power and privilege they hold. Under the guise of free speech, this student is permitted, even encouraged, to express her “minority” views-at the expense of a community that should value respect, dignity and inclusivity.

 

   As a legal community we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. This student’s unchecked vitriolic rhetoric has created a poisonous atmosphere within Emory Law and is actively perceived by myself and other marginalised students as an assertion of institutionally supported privilege. Defending racial and sexual minorities from hateful invective is essential to safeguarding equal protection, equal dignity and a healthy environment for learning.  

 

   This event is representative of a larger-unspoken-University issue. Emory University’s School of Law has taken great pride in its commitment to diversity. In fact, my decision to attend was premised on the appearance of strong support from the faculty in that regard. But, I have learned a significant lesson on how diversity often falls short of inclusion. Several small, but significant instances illustrate exactly how short we fall.

 

   In the Spring of 2015, my classmates and I were targeted by a Librarian for what we believed was nothing more than racial prejudice. Feeling singled out, we contacted a Dean. In fact, we all contributed to an email that included pictures and documentation of what we had just experienced.Today, well into the Spring of 2016, we have yet to receive a response addressing that issue from the Dean. Yet, within 5 minutes of the aforementioned conversation between myself and this student, she confidently walked back into the classroom, with a member of the faculty. Just to be clear, a year has passed, and no one has addressed our concerns.

 

   Near the Library entrance of the Law School, hanging from the staircase is a large poster stating “Emory Law Celebrates Black History Month.” Unfortunately, that celebration has been limited to the Black Law Students Association annual week during the month of February. I personally have no knowledge of any other attempts to celebrate Black History Month, despite having glorious examples of Black excellence here on our staff, such as Professors Dorothy Brown and Kathleen Cleaver.

 

   Deans have joked about the Flint water crisis, and a protest combatting the stereotyping of our students. I can confidently say, I do not believe these were conscious efforts by administration to undermine the frustrations and experiences of myself or my classmates, but the mere fact that any of these things took place, represent a greater issue. Through diversity at Emory Law, I am able to reserve a room in the library and protest oppression; but it is the lack of inclusion that has completely devalued that Diversity.


   This situation has illuminated some underlying matters I believe must be addressed. But also, it has empowered me to use my voice in a much larger forum to confront these matters head on. I invite all members of the Emory Law School community, present, past and future to have an open and honest dialogue about true inclusion. I encourage us all to locate ourselves in the narrative of the ascension of true equality.