It’s been an unprecedented time in the Holy City and around the United States as people of all ages and races have taken to the streets in recent days to fight for social justice following the death of George Floyd, a black man, as a result of a forceful arrest by Minneapolis police officers.
And it’s a moment that has been building for some time, says Rénard Harris, vice president of access and inclusion and chief diversity officer for the College of Charleston.
“The protests tie into larger issues of systemic racism because, in a short time span, we have seen public health, public safety and the democratic values of inclusiveness and equality fail black Americans,” says Harris, noting that the coronavirus pandemic has only compounded the challenges people of color face with higher rates of mortality and unemployment.
“Prior to the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, black and white Americans found ways to negotiate space, work together and cautiously progress toward hopes of equality,” Harris continues. “This occurred all while either relinquishing or holding onto the historical memories that spawned an incessant distrust. But the COVID-19 impact on black America and the undeserved killing of George Floyd by a white police officer have put the hopes of healthy race relations to the test. After the stressors created from the outcome of the coronavirus and the killing of George Floyd, protests seemed inevitable. As a black man, I am surprised that people are surprised about the protests taking place.”
But, however justified people’s outrage may be, Harris says violence and vandalism is not the answer. Instead, he urges people in the CofC community and beyond to consider the bigger picture of systemic racism. Beginning to face those uncomfortable issues is a starting point.
“Blatant discrimination and racism does not happen in a vacuum. It is the day-to-day dismissiveness and inconsideration that compound frustrations,” he says. “Now it is time for tough but productive conversations between friends, colleagues and acquaintances about the truth about race relations in their respective areas.
“It is time to talk about the large and small inequalities in workspaces, common areas and neighborhoods,” Harris continues. “Which group seems to receive more unearned privileges than the other? We all need to consider such things as promotions, time off, raises and inconsistent responses to office policy. If there is a comparison that seems imbalanced, it is time to talk about it. The trust system we currently have is broken.”
And the College’s Office of Institutional Diversity (OID) has been and will continue to be among the entities leading the way on those difficult but necessary dialogues for the CofC community. OID supports several programs and initiatives on campus, including the Diversity EDU module – an online diversity seminar for first-year incoming students – as well as workshops for students, faculty and staff on topics like self-awareness, equitable space, implicit bias and inclusive workforce. The office also supports Cuts and Conversations, an event for men of color, and the Crossing the Cistern program, a one-year program that provides financial, academic and mentorship support to a diverse group of students in academic hardship. And the office is working with other campus offices and departments to develop a series of virtual town halls later this summer featuring an interdisciplinary team of experts who will empower campus members with the knowledge and resources to reinforce their commitment of being equity minded, morally responsible and trauma sensitive.
Harris says as part of the College’s new strategic plan, which includes diversity as a primary element, OID will be responsible for five major initiatives: (1) mandatory education on diversity education and inclusion (DEI) for faculty and staff, (2) partnering with the Division of Institutional Advancement to raise funds supporting initiatives for underrepresented minorities, (3) developing a robust mentorship program for underrepresented minorities, (4) providing DEI training for first-year incoming students and (5) working with admissions to better market to underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. Implementation of the new strategic plan, particularly the diversity elements, will begin this fall.
The Student Government Association (SGA) also wants to build on that momentum this fall. SGA President Jeremy Turner says the student organization hopes to establish an advocate for first-generation students during the Cougar Excursion program, as well as to work with CofC President Andrew T. Hsu and OID administrators to create a plan for decreasing the transfer rate and increasing the four-year retention rate of minority students.
Helping move the conversation forward on issues of race and social justice for CofC as well as the greater Charleston area is also a main focus of the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
“To amplify voices of community, the Avery Research Center will release statements to help contextualize the interconnecting parts of the current movement throughout the country,” says Daron Calhoun II, the facilities manager and outreach and public programming coordinator for the Avery Research Center. “We will offer public programming/roundtable discussions, and we are planning digital and physical exhibitions to tell the stories from the frontlines.”
All Avery Research Center events are virtual, free and available to the public through the Avery Digital Classroom. Previous programming can be viewed on the Avery’s YouTube channel. Events for June 2020, include:
- June 8: Movie Screening of America Street by Idrissou Mora-Kpai | 6 p.m. (Microsoft Teams)
- In downtown Charleston, South Carolina, black-owned convenient stores like Joe’s have almost disappeared. Joe is fighting to keep his business, but he knows that its survival depends on the survival of his local community.
- June 11: Documentary Screening of LA 92 | 6 p.m. (Netflix Party)
- This documentary includes previously unseen footage that is shaped into a fresh and timely retelling of the 1992 Rodney King trial – and the verdict that sparked civil unrest.
- June 15: Talk with the Author of The False Cause | 6 p.m. (Microsoft Teams)
- Author, historian and College of Charleston professor Adam H. Domby will discuss his book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.
- June 18: Charleston Carifest Virtual Summit | 7 p.m. (Zoom)
- With a theme of “Caribbean Carolina Connection 350 Years,” this virtual version of Charleston Carifest will be moderated by Carole Boyce-Davies and Peter Bailey.
- June 19: Juneteenth Day of Celebration | All Day (Multiple Platforms)
- This day of celebration honors the emancipation of the last enslaved Africans and highlights black culture with black business spotlights, a Gullah Geechee cooking class and a dance party!
- June 26: Discussion of the Gold Leaf Project | 6 p.m. (Microsoft Teams)
- The Gold Leaf Project’s founders Natalie Daise and Paul Garbarini will be featured.
Also central to the Avery’s work for the last several years has been the center’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, which was born out of the 2015 fatal police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston and the massacre of nine parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston. As part of the initiative’s ongoing mission – and in line with recent events – the center is working with the Charleston Police Department, Charleston Jewish Federation, Social Justice Collaborative in Higher Education and local community organizers to develop a slate of virtual public programming to help give context to the current social and racial landscape. A racial disparities report for Berkeley County, South Carolina, is in development. The Avery previously released a similar report on Charleston County titled, The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, South Carolina 2000–2015. A follow-up to the Charleston County report is in the beginning stages.
And the center remains focused on helping people of all ages and races put current events into historical context with its archival resources, which are available through the Lowcountry Digital Library and supported through the center’s archival staff.
“We hope organizers will look to our archives for guidance as they move forward,” says Calhoun. “We are in a constant struggle, and the history of said struggle needs to be interrogated, learned from and built upon to continue a viable movement toward change.”