Speaker discusses social issues and addresses student concerns.
By James Dusek
A UTSA professor’s lecture Nov. 1 to more than 150 Northwest Vista College students about the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a debate with one student, followed by murmurs and verbal outbursts from a departing audience.
Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, public conversation about racism and police violence has ranged from protests and legislation to riots and university courses. Sonja Lanehart, professor and Brackenridge Endowed Chair in literature and the humanities at the University of Texas at San Antonio, taught one such course at UTSA last spring, revolving around the Black Lives Matter movement.
Her lecture was an introduction to the movement, the issues it seeks to address and the public’s response to it. Lanehart explained the scope of BLM’s interests, which includes not only police violence against black people, but also wider egalitarian topics such as black pride, transgender and queer affirmation, and restorative justice.
Lanehart said the goal of the lecture was to inform people that Black Lives Matter is a “complex, organized, structured movement … not just a reactionary thing to one particular incident.”
When Lanehart asked for a definition of racism from the audience, electrical engineering sophomore Dawn Manney responded, “Racism is systematic.”
Lanehart focused heavily on the structural and systematic nature of racism.
“It’s not about specifically blackness, but it is about this need we seem to have to preference some groups over others,” Lanehart said. “You always sort of go into this structure of dominance. So somebody has to be at the top and somebody has to be at the bottom.”
Many students attending the lecture already had strong opinions about the controversial topic.
Cyber security sophomore Diego Buitrago came prepared with a long list of questions and citations for the Q&A portion of Lanehart’s lecture.
“What do you think is the biggest internal threat in the African-American community?” Buitrago asked, seeking to discuss problems that he said aren’t caused by racism, such as single motherhood and poor education systems.
“I think all of those things are connected to racism,” Lanehart responded. “You can give me any sort of particular thing and I can draw you a line to racism.”
Buitrago pressed the issue, answering his own question by paraphrasing a Malcom X quote.
“(Malcom X) stated one time that the root to the African-American problem was dependence on the government — well, just dependence in general,” Buitrago said.
The two continued arguing from across the packed room. Buitrago argued that some problems the black community faces are caused by socioeconomic issues, not racism. Lanehart argued that those socioeconomic issues were, in fact, caused by racism.
“I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist,” Buitrago said. “… but the real problem is socioeconomics.”
After nearly eight minutes of back-and-forth, students began shouting for Buitrago to stop interrupting Lanehart and let other people ask questions. At that moment, the clock struck 3:15 p.m., the scheduled end time of the lecture. Around half the students got up and left the room immediately, zipping up backpacks and chattering to each other about their viewpoints.
“Racism doesn’t exist,” yelled one student as she slipped out of the room.
Lanehart attempted to field a few more questions through the din of the students.
After the lecture, Lanehart said it’s not uncommon for people to come to her lectures having already made up their minds.
“It’s difficult when something is just a lecture, because I can’t provide the same sort of information and material that I can provide in a semester’s class,” she said.
Lanehart said she knows she can’t reach everyone, and her goal is to give people the tools to think about important social issues using reasoned arguments, rather than emotional ones.
“I’m not trying to convert anyone,” Lanehart said. “I’m trying to educate people.”
Lanehart will teach a Black Lives Matter course at UTSA again this spring.