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UNLV’s Anti-Black Racism Task Force Takes Root Following Unrest Across The Valley

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Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Black Lives Matter protesters walk along University Center Drive near UNLV; Tuesday, June 2, 2020

UNLV has created what it's calling the Anti-Black Racism Task Force.

The university said the task force will "address the concerns of our Black faculty, staff and students."

Specifically, the university laid out eight goals for the task force, including implementing a reporting mechanism for racial threats or violence, creating more diverse curriculum and programs and recruiting a diverse faculty and staff.

 

In 2017, UNLV was named the most “Diverse University in the Nation.” With only 33 percent of the total student population being white. The rest is a mix of Hispanic, Asian, Black, and other ethnic minorities.   

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So is this how the most diverse university in the nation stays on the top of this list? 

Javon Johnson is the director of UNLV’s African American and African Diaspora Programs. He’s also helped to establish the Anti-Black Racism Task Force.   

He told KNPR's State of Nevada that the name of the task force is specific to bring attention to a specific group.

He said words like diversity and social justice have been co-opted to the point that they've lost a bit of their meaning.

“Anti-Black racism always forces us back to the goal – what is it we’re talking about in this particular task force,” Johnson said, “It isn’t this broad terminology, which can mean anything from military veterans, but to point back to this very specific task for us for a specific population and I don’t want to lose sight of that.”

Johnson also noted the university has already set up other groups to address broader issues of diversity for the larger community.

Overall, Johnson would like the discussion about racism to move away from the idea of individual racist acts to structural racism in our society.

“I’m thinking about the ways in which logics and structure set up the possibility for people to boldly do individually racist things,” he said.

Johnson said racists acts have happened on campus. In fact, a year hasn’t gone by, since he started at UNLV, that there haven’t been flyers posted around calling for the death of all Black people.

“I also want to point to the ways in which slavery still has its sort of claws in every facet of American life,” he said, “The very fact that we are constantly named one of the most diverse campuses in the country but our faculty and staff don’t represent that, especially the higher up you go, is, I think, quite telling.”

One the task force's goals is improving mental health for Black students, Johnson said it is needed because students have said many faculty and staff do not understand the specific struggles for African American students.

As an example, Johnson said some professors didn’t acknowledge the emotional impact those racists flyers had on their Black students.

“Many of my colleagues just said, ‘we still want you to come to campus and if you miss this exam today, you fail.’ That kind of lack of empathy. That lack of concern,” he said, “The inability to reach beyond yourself to think that this may be a very real threat for somebody that doesn’t look like you, and even if it isn’t, the lack of ability to understand why they would take that seriously is boggling.”

Johnson said many African American students come with extra racial baggage on top of the baggage that other students already have. He said the university must do its due diligence for those students.

“Especially if we’re going to tout that we are the most diverse campus, certainly one of the most diverse campuses in the country,” he said, “We focus too much on the quantity of diversity, that is the numbers, and not enough on the quality, that is how people maneuver through the space once they enter the space.”

Another goal is improving policing on campus, they want to improve police protocols by implementing a police advisory board made up of Black students, staff and faculty. Johnson said he has not personally seen campus police treat Black students differently, but he has had reports from his students about the behavior.

However, overall, Johnson believes police may not be the entire answer to security on campus.

“I am one of those people that believe that the fact that we have university police lets me know that we are unimaginative in how we deal with our problems as a community,” he said, “I think we only think of punitive measures and not enough of other measures and methods.”

Johnson said much of the discussion about racism is rooted in a lack of understanding of what racism really is. He said it is not being bigoted or prejudiced but about power and structure.

“It is a system by which disadvantages and advantages go to certain people,” he said, “Black people don’t have the ability to be racist. We can be prejudiced. We can be bigoted but the system is really important here because what racism requires is not just bigotry and prejudice but it requires the power of the system to be wielded at your disposal.”

He said Black people can’t wield the power of the system. He said when we start to see racism as a structure then we can begin to understand it differently.

“I think the task force was not so much created to do the things that we’re dealing with now those are a result of why it was created. I think it was really established to think about the safety of Black people on campus in this 2020 and equally important to think about the ways in which the university has historically failed Black people,” he said.

Guests

Javon Johnson, director, UNLV’s African American and African Diaspora Programs

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