Like many students here at Wharton, I want to be an effective ally to our friends in the black community, but I often feel that I don’t have the knowledge, power, and especially the words to do so. Wearing black to school two weeks ago, I felt I had a simple yet loud and powerful way to voice my support, love, and anger – even when I didn’t have the right words.
That’s why, when I heard there was going be a Wharton-wide conversation around the topic of race and policing in the U.S., I was keen to attend. I was not disappointed.
It was wonderful to see so many students show up and cram into a single lecture classroom. In fact, the turnout was so unexpected that we had to relocate to the Ambani auditorium to remain in compliance with Huntsman’s fire code. Students scarfed down lukewarm pizza outside the auditorium’s “No Food Allowed” sign before heading inside the auditorium.
The session kicked off with cold hard data, presented by leaders from the African American MBA Association (AAMBAA) and Return on Equality (ROE). Dimia Fogam (WG ’17), AAMBAA president; and Elizabeth Tang (WG ’17), ROE co-president; explained that the immediate catalyst for this event had been the shooting death of Terence Crutcher by Tulsa police on September 16. And yet, in a dismal twist, between the time of Crutcher’s death and this event only two weeks later, two more killings had occurred. These deaths were a chilling reminder of the magnitude of the tragedy and gave even more reason for our being here that day.
We learned that unarmed civilians are 3.5 times more likely shot by police when black versus white, despite the lack of correlation between killing rates and crime rates. A key culprit is implicit bias – the attitudes and stereotypes that unconsciously affect our decisions and actions. While we all hold implicit biases, the consequences are especially elevated for those who also hold authority over life.
The somber statistics didn’t just apply to police shootings. We were presented with a rich set of data which showed that, at every stage of a police-civilian encounter, the race of the civilian results in vastly different outcomes. For instance, black drivers are up to 400% more likely to be searched during vehicle stops than white drivers, despite being up to 40% less likely to have contraband. Black people are also twice as likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white people, despite having comparable or even lower rates of dealing. The pattern of injustice continues into outcomes regarding bail, plea bargains, conviction rates, and sentencing.
I had heard some of these infuriating statistics before, but I don’t think I fully digested the weight of their implications until today. What really hit home was understanding the simple difference in detention status between blacks and whites – black defendants awaiting trial are far less likely to be released on bail or recognizance (a written promise to appear). But being detained until trial could mean spending weeks or months in jail – it could upend your life entirely. Imagine having children to feed but being unable to show up to work. How much more likely would you be to accept a guilty plea bargain, regardless of your innocence? What would I do?
The forum leaders also helped me debunk a myth about Black Lives Matter: “Why don’t you worry about black-on-black crime first? Why don’t black communities focus on fixing their own problems instead of blaming others?” It turns out that this is actually a bit of a red herring because most violent crime is intraracial. While it is true that 90% of black homicides are committed by black people, it is also true that 82% of white homicides are committed by white people. And yet, we never hear a parallel denunciation of “white-on-white crime.”
The data-heavy presentation then transitioned to heartfelt narratives delivered by fellow black students. I found the balance of reason and emotion to be incredibly powerful.
We heard from Charity Wollensack (WG ’17), ROE co-president, who described how police encounters had eroded her younger brother’s psyche and blighted her older brother’s career prospects. Chris Merriewether (WG ’18) reminded us of the privilege of receiving the benefit of the doubt and shared what it was like to be treated as a criminal when he called the police for help. Shay Familoni (WG ’18) recounted her gratitude that her own sister had escaped becoming a hashtag after a distressing police encounter. And Will Fields (WG ’18) shared his struggle to accept that the way others view him is not something he can ever escape. [See personal essays from Sep 27 issue]
As Wollensack put it, “This isn’t just something that happens to people in neighborhoods far, far away.”
The conversation then shifted into a forum discussion in which audience members were encouraged to speak openly, without fear of being politically correct. This yielded some of the most rewarding discussions, which I think would not have been possible had we not first been presented with stark facts and personal narratives.
One audience member expressed his empathy for the emotion and outrage that flared each time a black civilian was killed. Yet he felt concerned that uninformed judgments about the victim’s innocence and the officer’s guilt were being rendered before due process of law had occurred. Didn’t the police officer involved deserve due process?
Facilitators and audience members alike chimed in to address his concern. Together, they highlighted the asymmetry of our reality. On one hand, police officers who kill unarmed black people are almost never even charged; they are protected from receiving due process. On the other hand, black people who are killed by the police will never receive due process: they are summarily executed before receiving a fair trial.
Another audience member raised an unusual question: Do events and groups expressly for students of color actually deepen the divide by preventing students from making friends with students of a different race? Responses from black students revealed that many were actually quite self-conscious of not appearing as though they only wanted to associate with other black students.
At this point, something brilliant happened. Facilitator Ada Hopkins (WG ’17) asked the audience members to raise their own hands if they had ever sat down at a table filled with people of their own ethnicity, and wondered if they should go sit somewhere else. Students of all races raised their hands, myself included.
The ensuing conversations illuminated a unifying facet among us: that we are not alone in our desire to seek out comfort in those who are racially similar to us; rather, this desire is a function of human nature.
Sebastian Apud (WG ’17) described how, as a Penn undergrad from Argentina, he didn’t initially understand why Latinos segregated themselves. “From how people treated me, I started feeling more and more Latino, and started seeking out other Latino friends.”
Conversely, Ada Kulenovic (WG ’18) shared her experience of growing up as a white minority in a predominantly Asian-American and black neighborhood, and how surprising it was to be around majority white groups. “It’s not necessarily about being white or not, it’s a feeling of being ‘other,’” she noted.
Another student gave a piercing insight: “Being a person of color is like holding up a sign that says, ‘Read into me.’’” She confessed that most of her friends are of Indian descent, and that “being with people who look like you gives you the freedom to not wear a badge. I can make an impression as myself, and not [face] the implicit biases of what people think an Indian person should be.”
As I listened, I couldn’t deny that I had felt similarly. It was as Hopkins explained: “We are far more alike than we are different. If we can learn to see ourselves in the actions of others, we open ourselves up to more meaningful relationships with those who aren’t like us.”
As the session came to a close, and facilitators passed out AAMBAA ally resource guides, Hopkins reminded the audience to stay open minded.
“In the past, I have been labeled as an “angry black woman” because I am not afraid to passionately push conversations about race,” she said. “Yes, it’s frustrating that this racially-charged adjective is prescribed to my outspokenness. I just have to remember that, if you want to spark a revolution, sometimes you have to do so at the expense of your livelihood and the perceptions of others.”
“Just because someone wants to talk about race, gender, or sexual orientation, that’s not all that they represent. I’m so much more than the color of my skin. We are so much more than any line of difference.”
I came away filled with a range of emotions: Moved and impressed by the eloquence and passion of my classmates, and by their courage to speak on such difficult issues. Grateful that, despite the myriad of choices available, so many of us decided to spend our lunch hour here, seeking knowledge and understanding. Emboldened by the factual knowledge I had gained. Hopeful for better understanding and actionable results going forward.
I’m still struggling for the right words, but I’m one step closer than I was before.
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