When I registered for AS.230.244 – Race and Ethnicity in American Society last fall, I thought I was merely signing up for a highly recommended three-credit sociology course that could fulfill some social science distribution requirements and also be pretty interesting and engaging. I didn’t realize how much I could learn from this course.
And I didn’t realize how tragically perfect the timing of the course would be to the injustice we saw right in our backyard last week.
I don’t think very many people saw it coming. We talk often about what happened in Ferguson, Sanford, Staten Island, North Charleston, and the countless other places as if they’re mystic, isolated, distant occurrences that would never happen at home.
You can watch fires burn in Ferguson, and cluck your tongue in concern and sadness. But it doesn’t seem like it can happen in your hometown.
Then it happens in your hometown.
But we should have seen it coming. Look at how quick many Hopkins students are to characterize Baltimore.
“Charles Village and the surrounding areas are safe, but there are areas in Baltimore you should stay away from.”
“This neighborhood is kind of sketchy. Stick to places like Fell’s Point, the Inner Harbor, and Mount Vernon.”
“I wouldn’t walk there alone at night.”
What we don’t realize is that by doing this, we are essentially characterizing the people that live in these “sketchy” neighborhoods as inherently bad people – as criminals. But they didn’t choose to live that life. These families and individuals – systematically contained to these areas that lack equal access to resources we often take for granted – adequate healthcare, education and job opportunities, and a fair police and justice system – didn’t choose this. We’re Hopkins students. We may live in Baltimore, but we’re guests for these four years we’re here.
To every JHU student watching the action on their laptops in the safety of city curfew and dorm security, remember how privileged we are.
We don’t have to live forever with the injustice and violence that generations of Baltimoreans have dealt with. We should have known that it was about time that it could no longer just be swept under the rug.
This is where “Race and Ethnicity in American Society” comes in. What I just mentioned above is just one of the many things I’ve learned this past semester in this course, and I would argue it’s one of the more important, more meaningful things you can learn during your entire undergraduate experience. In class, we covered topics from the origins of prejudice and discrimination, to policies that have maintained racial residential segregation, to racial and ethnic disparities in crime and mass incarceration. It’s hard to articulate here but it’s striking to see these topics in action in our city, yet saddening to actually realize that it’s happening in our city.
Most importantly, it’s inspiring to see how we as Hopkins students can be a part in righting the wrongs. Seeing friends, peers, professors, community residents all making history and marching together in peaceful protests down to City Hall. Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates speak at the first talk in our new series, “JHU Forums on Race in America”, to a crowded audience in Shriver Hall.
My words, particularly here at Johns Hopkins, and since I’m here at Johns Hopkins—and I’m not out in West Baltimore and I’m not on North Avenue and I’m not at Mondawmin Mall—my words for Johns Hopkins is that you are enrolled in this. You are part of this. You are a great institution here in this city. And I know that the president of Johns Hopkins didn’t ask for this. None of us individuals asked for this. Nobody asked to be part of it. But when you are an American, you’re born into this.
– Ta-Nehisi Coates
For our final assignment, we were asked to interview someone of a different race and/or ethnicity and write an analytic paper that ties the interviewee’s responses in with everything we’ve talked about in class. Having this conversation with someone – a friend – who has to live every day with the mistreatment, the prejudice, and the stereotypes we’ve learned about in class made me realize how much I’ve learned this semester, how privileged I am to be here, and how much we need to do to change the society we live in.
We talk often about out-of-the-classroom learning, about research, about internships, about study abroad – but how more out-of-the-classroom can it get marching alongside your classmates down Charles Street, being cheered on and joined by community residents, and taking steps to fix the problems we’ve learned about in class, in our very own city of Baltimore?