Can I see my own bias?

The following are my outline, notes and opening remarks from a panel discussion event at Eureka College, “Targeting Unconscious Bias and Systemic Racism” on January 21, 2016. I am documenting it here because I found the event particularly remarkable, but not because of my remarks as the facilitator. The event just felt right. The questions from the students were smart and honest, and the panelists did a marvelous job speaking to a difficult and important topic. It was a high point for me personally, as a member of the Eureka College community, to help facilitate the discussion.

Also, it brought some clarity in my mind about the issue: institutions are resistant to grappling with racism, perhaps for the same reason I am resistant to grappling with my biases. They are painful to admit. Risky. Humbling. But what am I afraid of, really? If I want to improve my life, and the life of those around me, what possible good will come from denial or self-deception? If honesty and self-knowledge are healthy, and make me stronger, what possible justification can I hide behind to remain in the dark? Bias is a universal human truth, yes, but there is a difference between a reason and an excuse. Can I see my own bias? Can an institution? I believe so. And I believe we must do so.

Again, the following are my notes, including Dr. Bell’s description of the series. There is no transcript of the panelist’s remarks, if you would like to watch go to:

This event marks the first in the Eureka College Inclusive Excellence Dialogue Series (a program created by Dr. Jamel Bell, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Diversity Initiatives), designed to give the campus community the platform to address critical questions and voice their perspectives about key social issues and to give our students an opportunity to hear experts engage in civil dialogue and discourse. We want to engage in candid conversations that respectfully explore the range of perspectives and offer our students the tools to positively contribute to solutions that move our communities toward inclusive excellence.
Thank you to the Eureka College Multi-cultural Student Union for hosting these events — the film screening, today’s panel discussion, and our special guest presentation tonight — in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Introduction of Panelists
· Mr. Yusef Salaam, one of the “Central Park Five,” the five men wrongfully convicted in a high profile criminal case in New York City, and our guest presenter later tonight.
· Dr. Daniel Isom, professor of Policing and Community at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, former St. Louis Police Chief and former Public Safety Director for the state of Missouri.
· Officer Daniel Duncan, Community Service Officer for the Peoria Police Department, and the 20th recipient of the Drum Major Award for Education and Service from the Peoria MLK Holiday and Event Committee.
· Dr. Junius Rodriguez, our Professor of History at Eureka College since 1992.
· Dr. William Lally, our Professor of Criminal Justice at Eureka College since 2012.
It is my honor to serve today a panel with such esteem, expertise and experience. My hope and prayer is that we can listen well and learn and be inspired to work for the common good, for this community and beyond. Civic engagement can be challenging, but there really is no alternative in the work of social progress.
Opening Remarks — Chaplain Bruce Fowlkes
No institution this side of heaven is perfect. No institution, no matter how perfectly conceived, will progress without diligence. Diligence of mind and diligence of heart.
Institutions are a conglomeration of humanity: desires, aspirations, traditions, principles, assumptions, practices, and yes, biases, both conscious and unconscious. As that conglomeration organizes itself into policies and actions, an institution exercises its purpose: to make things happen, to use resources and people to effect change, to shape the world according to the institution’s mission. Institutions are complex, powerful and resistant to painful change. Institutions tend to strike an equilibrium that benefits its base constituents. So divergent members and voices that are too “divergent” can struggle to fit in, benefit, or rise to leadership.
So if institutions are organizations of like-minded individuals, can they change, can they grow, can they evolve? What if the organization has inherited or grown around a like-mindedness that contains a bias, an unconscious or overt view that is flawed?
That is institutionalized or systemic racism, a flawed understanding of humanity that can be propped up by the tools of human organization: policies, laws, rules, ideologies, class, government, social privilege, politics, and religion. These are tools of civilization, powers for great good, but can easily hide, prop up or perpetuate racism and other flawed human concepts.
How do we root out racism from its hiding places? Diligent examination of our assumptions, how we exercise power — personal, social, institutional — and ask ourselves, “Who is in and who is out, and why is that?”
This is the real reason for education: creating opportunities — healthy, civil, effective opportunities — to look at the world as it is, and ask: What should it be?
So thank you for being here, to help us do well this opportunity to learn deeply, to serve faithfully, and to lead diligently.
Opening Remarks of the Panelists