The Connection Between Race, Riots, and Rational Thinking

by Eva Epker

A National Guardsman during the L.A Race Riots.

According to Stanford’s Comparative Studies and Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) website: “Ethnic Studies programs prepare students to live in a multiracial and multicultural world by understanding how race and ethnicity shape an individual’s identity and life chances.” Stanford is not alone in promoting this idea; college campuses across the country believe race and ethnicity classes are a medium through which students can understand society. The origin of many of these programs, which were founded after the 1992 L.A Race Riots, implies that academia, like any human being, reacts to race-based events. CSRE classes subsequently offer students a chance not only to understand race and ethnicity but also to learn how best to share their perspectives.

The Faculty Senate of Stanford’s Academic Council unanimously approved Stanford’s CSRE program in November 1996. This interdisciplinary field of study provides students with the opportunity to major or minor in comparative ethnic studies or focus in a single ethnic studies area. Unlike Western Civilization-based courses that usually emphasize European culture, CSRE classes compare and contrast different cultures– including, but not limited to, those of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans– or focus on one of those groups of people. Some of the 150 course offerings include CSRE 41A:“Genes and Identity”, CSRE 129B: “Literature and Global Health” and, one of the newest courses, CSRE 290: “Ferguson in a Global Frame: Human Rights and the Arts”.

Stanford is not the only university which has this type of program, though; Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, among others, also have ethnic studies departments. Each schools’ program has a different name, but the goals are the same: to support and promote “innovative thinking” , address “race critiques”, “encourage comparative analysis” and prepare students for “national and global citizenship.” The programs are also similar because they were all established after the 1992 L.A Race Riots. The Race Riots occurred after four white officers pulled over and beat Rodney King, a black man, but were acquitted. The Riots left 50 people dead, more than 2,000 injured, almost 12,000 arrested and over $1 billion in damages. If the L.A Race Riots were a causal factor in CSRE programs’ formations, I believe that fact should be recognized. Doing so would assert the importance of CSRE courses; they provide an intellectual space in which individuals can hear from different perspectives and, thus, understand the global context of an ideology or event.

In other words, classes can- and should- provide a place where students can debate these controversial matters and, most importantly, hear from all different perspectives. For example, believing simply that all police are racist ignores the nuances of a situation like the L.A Race Riots or Ferguson. As Jennifer Eberhart of the Department of Psychology at Stanford and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her research regarding stereotypes’ effects on the justice system, said, “I think people are feeling vulnerable in different ways on both sides. I mean, you have community members who feel vulnerable around the police. And then there’s a vulnerability on the police side, where, when something happens in Ferguson or anywhere in the country, police departments all over the nation feel it.” Hearing both sides of the story would allow all students to see this all-around vulnerability and comprehend subsequent actions, such as Darren Wilson’s shooting Michael Brown, even if they disagree with those motivations.

CSRE programs, in short, are a prime space for a multi-perspectival dialogue: one that both allows scholars, CSRE or otherwise, to comprehend the full global context surrounding an idea and prevents them from ignoring, delegitimizing, or demoralizing perspectives with which they don’t agree. Students may be exposed to facts and opinions with which they agree or disagree. However, by utilizing CSRE classes to learn both sides of that story, they will be exposed to that information and utilize it, if they chose, with pathos, logos, and ethos.

The connection between CSRE departments’ creations and the L.A Race Riots is plausible and, if confirmed, could have significant repercussions. Students would learn that academia can and does react to current racial tensions by providing classes like “Ferguson in a Global Frame”, and programs, like CSRE. These academic spaces in turn offer students a chance to understand others and use that knowledge to effect change for all individuals– black, white, or otherwise.