It’s Complicated: Explaining The Role of Race in Police Brutality

*I originally published this in June 2015. In wake of more deaths approximately one year later, I am sharing this again…today.*

 

I’ve opened the past two semesters talking about police brutality on the first day of class in my Cross-Cultural Communication course at Lipscomb University. This is a required course for communication and journalism majors to grasp the challenges of communicating in today’s complex society so we go there and get pretty deep. Building communication strategies to address obstacles and opportunities within a client’s organizational culture is something I know very well but grappling with the thorny issues of our times with a room full of college students means I must dig deep and go all the way. There are a wealth of topics I could start the semester with instead but it just so happens the biggest story in the news at the time concerned violence, race and injustice – in fall we dealt with cases of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and in spring, the cases of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. It looks as if perhaps this coming fall in August I will unfortunately and again have new content on the same topic – now with the incident in Mckinney, Texas and who knows what else between now and then.

For all of these tragic instances, a firestorm of commentary and disagreement ensued across news media and social media, and protests arose all over the world. Some students wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and discrimination are all too familiar. Yet for a large majority of my students at our private, Christian, predominately white University, police brutality and the racial disparities that accompany the topic are foreign concepts. They are often confused but curious and compassionate in their attempt to make sense of tough issues that even us mature adults struggle to comprehend. Naturally, they are faced with anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief and lots of questions.

“The victim had to be doing something wrong, right Professor Ellis? Wouldn’t the news media tell us if something was done unfairly?”

“Professor Ellis, wasn’t this an issue during segregation? Why are we seeing so much about it today?”

“But Professor Ellis, does this mean most cops are racist or that we should fear them?”

“So Professor Ellis, how do we fix stuff like this?”

My answer to them: “Well, it’s complicated.”

 

I could share with you how I lecture on the basis of these questions but that’s a 2000-word essay, not a blog post. I tell my students we have many things to consider…

  • We’d need to consider how racism has always played a key role in our country and how it became embedded in our criminal justice system. We also need to talk about juries, how difficult it can be to find the truth and how media coverage and social media conversations impact the perceptions of what we believe is true. We’d need to consider the origins of racism and the repetitive narratives of injustice, violence and poverty in communities of color to examine the correlations.
  • We’d need to look at the public’s general perception about the problem of police brutality and its history in America from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the transition from community policing to military policing in the 1980’s. We’d need to examine data that shows if you are black you are far more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than you would if you are white, and how that knowledge has perpetuated a relationship of conflict between police officers and the black community. We’d need to talk about how the outrage makes people feel hopeless and inspired to react in protesting or even rioting.
  • We’d need to examine the disturbing trend in the news media where a person is often criminalized when they have been killed by a police officer rather than insisting they deserved to a chance to be charged, brought to trial and have remained among the living. We’d need to research at the trend of citizen journalism becoming a powerful catalyst for the narrative of injustice as a tool for breaking news. We’d need ask if we can discern by only looking at the mobile phone footage of a bystander how an unarmed citizen is to blame for the overcorrection, extra force or lack of control displayed by police officers.
  • We’d need to assess how police administrators are training officers and addressing criticism since police brutality has gotten so much national attention recently. We’d need to consider that what a police officer could despise more than anything is when their authority is challenged, regardless of your color, and that could get you thrown in jail or met with excessive force. We should acknowledge that there are officers and administrators who understand how this crisis is impacting public trust and are trying to handle the issue with care and concern because their profession requires that they put their lives on the line everyday.
  • We’d need to consider our role in calling out injustice as a social and moral responsibility when the dynamic of the unknown convicts us to acknowledge stereotypes and reveal blind spots. We’d need to be honest about the relative silence over unfair treatment when it doesn’t impact us directly. We should admit we are imperfect people who have a tendency to limit our perspective, opinions, beliefs and comfort zones to be in agreement with those who relate to us most. We need to remember that what affects one affects us all, or at least it should.

I told you. It’s complicated.

I have the next generation of FOX news anchors, CNN producers, national radio hosts, online news editors, public information officers, non-profit leaders and crisis PR practitioners in my classroom. They will shape public opinion and determine how we consume messages through media. These students are studying to go into newsrooms to write stories and headlines about issues they’ve never witnessed personally, go into communities that may not look like the places they grew up in with cameras to capture the conflict of people who don’t look like them, go into companies to help generate awareness among a target audience whose lifestyles they can’t relate to, or go into organizations to help senior leaders to communicate about issues that might make them uncomfortable.

If I don’t get real with them, who will?

Now, I could be the kind of professor that ignores the cultural sensitivities that surface from answering these questions or I could be the kind that challenges students and myself to explore our self-identities and look at how fit they into the world. This is where we must consider our younger generations who are confused but curious about their role in improving our society in ways that enlighten and empower them. Violence, race and injustice – the anchors of the cultural discourse around police brutality – aren’t the easiest concepts to grasp and are no longer the kinds of one-time shallow conversations we can sweep under the rug. Ignoring the facts dehumanizes us. They have to be talked about on an ongoing basis every time a story comes out.

I challenge you, whether a professional, professor or parent, to start having open discussion about cultural issues with the young students in your communities. Address your personal biases internally, dig for more than what is reported through media, be okay with the discomfort of disagreement when a different opinion is expressed, search for a historical context connected to these issues we’ve increasingly seen in the news, seek meaningful conversations with people who’ve experienced the cultural struggles that you haven’t, and empower a young student to intelligently assess their role in doing something about the issues.

I’d like to hear from you.

How has your perspective of race and police brutality been impacted by recent events?

How has media coverage of the current events heightened your cultural sensitivity to racial issues and police discrimination?

How do you intend to help the next generation of leaders understand and address difficult issues like race, violence and injustice?

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How The Millennial Generation Has Redefined Diversity

A client came to me once and said, ‘Aerial, how do we get our millennials talking? They bring value to our organization and seem have a deep appreciation for diversity but we just don’t know how to engage them. Is there some kind of internal communication strategy we need to implement?”

I belong to the millennial generation so I understood the necessity behind their inquiry. An obsession with Generation Y, also know as millennials, has overtaken all aspects of culture. Millennials are likely the most studied generation to date. Brands and organizations have formed a fascination with how to relate and connect to millennials. Media and scholars have developed a 21st-century style of urgency to understand this demographic. Not since the baby boomers has a generation been the target of such fixation and the growing generational gap is redefining how we think about diversity and inclusion.

 

Millennials Leading a Cultural Shift

Not only are millennials the largest generation to date, we are the most traditionally diverse generation in history. A culture shift in the population shows that of the 80 million millennials and counting, 60% classifying as non-Hispanic white in comparison to 70% of the previous generation. That percentage is projected to continue a decline as ethnic minorities (blacks & hispanics) will account for 60% of the population by 2045. Of millennials in the US, 59% are white and 27% have immigrant backgrounds. The ethnic profile of the millennial is far more blended that than of previous generations. In addition, there are millennials who come from an increased percentage of single-parent homes, blended families, and families with same-sex parents than ever before (Broido, 2004).

Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss described the generation as an ethnically diverse generation who are team players, optimistic, confident, trusting of authority, rule-followers, achievers in school, and generally achievement-oriented in everything they undertake. Furthermore, millennials will make up an estimated 50% of the workforce by 2020 ultimately changing the face of organizational leadership.

Here at the 2016 NOW Diversity Workforce Diversity Breakfast Forum with panel of young professionals for The Millennial Report on Workforce Diversity – myself, Kinika Young (Bass, Berry & Sims), Marcus Johnson (Edward Jones) and Luke Marklin (Uber) and Q&A facilitator Jonquil Newland (News Channel 5) giving insight on how millennials are changing the workforce. (Photo Credit: NOWDiversity.org)

Millennials Needing Expression and Acceptance

For millennials, walking into an organization and seeing all types of people is a norm. Diversity of race and gender is a given and in some cases a must. While older generations likely consider demographics, equal opportunity, and representation as the frame for diversity, millennials are much more concerned about the diversity of thoughts, ideas and philosophies as we contain an unending curiosity to understand differences and explore opportunities for collaboration.

There is a growing segment of millennials who are refusing to check our identities at the door while many organizations are remaining unchanged in their response to our need for expression and acceptance. This need is not just an expectation we hope to receive for ourselves but one we want to see granted to other cultural groups as workplace demographics evolve. Our appreciation for share of voice is aligned with an appreciation for cognitive diversity.

This means organizations are forced to rethink and redefine their approach. Instead of using the phrase ‘diversity and inclusion’ to describe race, age and gender in a traditional fashion with no ties to business growth or evolution, the millennial generation has compelled organizations to consider a combination of unique traits to overcome challenges and achieve business goals as the diversity of experience and the inclusion of thought become increasingly more crucial to future innovation.

Millennials Commanding Inclusion and Innovation

As millennials move into leadership, a transformation in traditional diversity and inclusion models will challenge past approaches and break barriers that have hindered the progress.

Connectedness is part of our generational DNA and breeds the kinds of transformation organizations of the future will command. While there is much work to be done, the millennial generation is a likely catalyst to show how advocacy, learning, and leadership can collectively leverage opportunities to see greater inclusion and innovation.

If making a commitment to diversity and inclusion truly means allowing an individual to bring his/her true and whole self to work, organizations must ensure millennials, along with other culturally advanced cohorts, can work in a collaborative environment that openly values tangible participation from individuals who have different ideas and perspectives that can have positive impact on business outcomes.

This post is an excerpt from my thought leadership series, The Original Millennial.

Pre-order the book below.

The Original Millennial Aerial Ellis

Aerial Ellis Oscars Diversity Inclusion Communication

Is Diversity America’s Superpower?

With all the recent chatter about #OscarsSoWhite for the second straight year where no minorities were selected among the 20 acting nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced the development of a change management plan to reposition its voting requirements, recruiting process and governing structure aimed at increasing the diversity of its membership and doubling the number of female and minority members by 2020.

Prior to this announcement, superstar Will Smith who many feel offered an Oscar-worthy performance in the film “Concussion” but did not receive a nod this year, did an exclusive Good Morning America interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts where he expressed his disappointment at the absence of minority nominees. Even more, Smith shared his thoughts on why those diverse roles are missing in Hollywood and should be all the more celebrated because “diversity is America’s superpower.”

Ocasrs Diversity Will Smith Nominations Aerial Ellis

Is diversity America’s superpower?

Yes and no. Not only is diversity a superpower for America, it is a global force that makes the world go around. Beyond our differences, there is an unparalled ability to exercise influence and project power across the globe. Power is the ability to control, circumstances and access such as financial, social, and cultural resources. It is complex, dynamic and omnipresent in all relationships. Power can restrict or restrain people through the control of resources such as money, knowledge, and social institutions.

Since the power of diversity has become an undeniable element of culture, industries are trying to catch up to create spaces of inclusion, especially in Hollywood. Leading figures Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announced that they would not be attending the coveted Oscars ceremony and spoke out in protest for what is seen as the systemic exclusion of African-American, Latinos, women, and other minority groups from recognition by their peers. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, the host of this year’s Oscars, even wrote an essay nearly two years ago about Hollywood’s diversity problem. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American women in her second year as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also shared her disappointment in the statement, “While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.”

The message says certain voices, no matter how valuable or respected, will have low or no access to the influence and access that comes from power.

Because of power, we often maintain and perpetuate patterns of privilege in culture unknowingly. Members of the mainstream society or dominant/majority group define what is normal and are rarely forced to see or think about the “other” identity, standpoint or plight, if at all. Meanwhile, those who feel left out or overlooked are consistently in the difficult position of trying to dwell in two worlds – they are often reminded of theiOscars Diversity Aerial Ellis #oscarssowhiter marginalized status, communicate from that perspective and feel forced to deal with forces that seem impossible to break. The Academy is a membership organization that directly reflects the demographic makeup of the industry it serves. Many in Hollywood from production to management feel a perpetual lack of opportunities or an imbalance that industry gatekeepers are unlikely to fix.

 

Within any industry, decision makers must be deliberate about creating a culture of inclusion.

Why? No industry can experience the strength of diversity and continue to be viable without the inclusion of the unique talents, voices and abilities. As people of color make up 39 percent of the U.S. population with upwards 3 billion in buying power predictions, changes in spending patterns and decision-making process will continue to reflect a constant shift. Industries must invest time and resources in aligning that shift with consumer demand, audience preference and organizational leadership.

So if diversity is America’s superpower, how should we use it to achieve greater inclusion? Here are a few things we cannot do.

  • We cannot be frustrated about the lack of recognition yet overlook the lack of influence and leadership.
  • We cannot allow those in power to openly insult those who contribute at a high-level by assuming that are not a “cultural fit.”
  • We cannot think that diversity means non-white – all people are part of diversity and have a role in advancing its power.
  • We cannot operate in our comfort zone by being satisfied with everyone at the table looking, speaking, and thinking in the same monolithic ways.
  • We cannot write plans and make statements about diversity tactics without clear and transparent goals of inclusion as well as metrics and timelines to measure the change process.
  • We cannot ignore the significance of marginalized groups who build efforts to celebrate their own cultural impact while welcoming others who acknowledge how that impact has made our society even better.

Superpowers are not a cure-all because developing cultures of inclusion can be a long complicated journey when often it doesn’t have to be.

If diversity is our superpower, we must allow the space for it flourish, witness its magnitude and let it make us greater.

 

 

 

Inclusion Must Honor the MLK Legacy

As we return to work after observing the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, we must pause to honor his legacy and reflect on the impact of his work as it lingers throughout our communities.

If we consider the presence of that legacy being carried out in our organizations, we would immediately consider the practice of diversity and inclusion.

Sadly however, many organizations spend more time talking about how they can and should improve workplace diversity than taking any measurable action toward workplace inclusion.  Statements and declarations, committees and councils, trainings and assessments — all sound great. None of those things truly move the needle toward inclusion. When policies are not matched with strategic efforts, results will never come about.

In light of this much needed work, I was happy to create and coordinate the annual MLK Diversity Breakfast hosted by the Lipscomb University Department of Communication and Journalism and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on Friday, January 15, 2016 in partnership with the Council on Workforce Innovation and National Organization for Workforce Diversity.

This event is aimed at inspiring interactive conversation among local leaders who are champions for diversity and inclusion by sharing ideas, addressing issues and rethinking practices that affect our multicultural communities.

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(Aerial Ellis opening the 2016 MLK Diversity Breakfast at Lipscomb University.)

The MLK Diversity Breakfast is an opportunity for area professionals to gain a greater understanding of how to communicate about diversity and inclusion as a priority within their organizations and have access to a network of colleagues who collectively celebrate the cultural progression of the Nashville community. Our keynote speaker is a C-suite or civic leader connected to the practice of cross-cultural communication with a passion for the ways in which diversity and inclusion impacts business and community.

This year’s event featured Rose Jackson Flenorl, Manager, Global Citizenship, FedEx Corporation as keynote speaker. Flenorl directs and implements the company’s community outreach strategy in the areas of disaster relief, safety, environment, education, and diversity. She leads a team of professionals committed to representing the heart of the corporation by executing strategic programs and maintaining relationships with national and international non-profit organizations. Flenorl provided insight on the global corporation’s work in serving an evolving base of multicultural consumers, strengthening its pipeline to recruit, retain and advance diverse talent, and supporting minority business owners and community initiatives through citizenship engagement.

Last year, our inaugural event featured Anthony Carter, Chief Diversity Officer at Johnson & Johnson. Take a look at our 2015 highlights.

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(L-R: Rose Jackson Flenorl of FedEx – 2016 keynote speaker, Jacky Akbari of Now Diversity)

In addition to the breakfast, Rose Jackson Flenorl spent time talking with our communication and journalism students about the path to success in the industry. Discussions about diversity allow our students to better identify bias and stereotypes, discover advocacy with an objective lens, and communicate across global cultures as future journalists and public relations practitioners.

Though her visit, I believe all were able to consider diversity as a social action that challenges those norms, values, styles and patterns of thinking that can inspire more inclusive conversations.

If organizations strive to live up to the tenets of Dr. King’s vision, they must honor his legacy through actions that show real progress toward workplace inclusion. Initiatives must not only embrace employees for their individuality but also celebrate the differences that contribute to the success and innovation in the workplace regardless of gender, creed, color or sexual orientation.

Beyond commemorative events and celebrations, we have an obligation to act. Inclusion at any point should always be our goal. In this new year and moment of cultural reflection, I challenge you to thinker deeper about the ways Dr. King’s legacy can inspire and shape your organization’s practice of inclusion.

See a few highlights from the 2016 MLK Diversity Breakfast.

What I’m Reading: Between the World and Me

What I’m reading: Between The World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates.

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

This is a profound work by an amazing author passionately attempting to explain the difficulties of race and American racism to his young Black son. This work offers a powerful framework for new and present understanding of our nation’s shameful and complicated history with race and the current conversation around the cultural crisis.

I will boldly say that this is required reading as quoted by the great Toni Morrison. The author is giving a new age Richard Wright, James McBride type literally excellence.

Very impressed and enlightened.

Highly recommended.Aerial Ellis what I'm reading

Five Things PR Pros Can Learn From #BlackTwitter

If you hadn’t heard, the Los Angeles Times recently added a reporter to cover #BlackTwitter.

What is #BlackTwitter?… I’m glad you asked.

Over the past few years, Twitter has become a platform for breaking news, public discussion, trending topics and cultural concerns. On occasion, a hashtag will emerge among the chatter. The hashtag #BlackTwitter has grown as one of the most popular colloquialisms associated with African-Americans who use Twitter, many of whom are tastemakers, public figures and intellectuals collectively setting the tone for daily dialogue related to real-world issues that would have been seen as rather taboo or sensitive for mainstream media.

Conversations around the murder of Michael Brown or scenes from ABC’s hit TV show “Scandal” are examples of how the hashtag reflects the variety in which African-Americans are passionately tweeting among themselves to raise awareness, celebrate interests and disrupt the narratives of mainstream media. Searching the hashtag means you will find discussions about everything from the calling out of a celebrity for making a cultural offense to running jokes about stereotypes shared among African-Americans.

PR pros are increasingly seeking ways to drill closer to the lifestyles, behaviors and sentiments of ethnic communities with social media as the source. Though hashtags have risen in popularity, use for audience research can be selectively evaluated and subjectively filtered. This is a critical place to pause and caution PR pros to think deeply about strategies designed to tap into a diverse ethnic community through social media.

Black Twitter Aerial EllisHere are five things PR pros can learn from #BlackTwitter:

African-Americans use Twitter frequently…

There’s a hint of consumer insight to be gained from #BlackTwitter. African Americans use social media more than any other ethnic group and access Twitter by roughly 22 percent as compared with 16 percent of whites, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. The study also revealed that 73 percent of all African-Americans using the Internet are on Twitter. Brands and organizations can build and benefit from access to this population and the dynamics of engagement that await discovery.

But this isn’t a solely “black thing” – it’s simply the nature of online communities…

The great thing about social media is that it provides a space for conversations that have been long had offline to find a home online. The essence of conversations within an ethnic group that derived mostly from their unique experiences is now open to observation for all. As in any online community, members are more likely to bond around a core commonality, follow each other, develop their own terminology, and create consensus around commentary. The knowledge of values and complexity is unlimited with #BlackTwitter because conversations can change overnight. However, this dynamic allows diverse groups to dominate conversations with an authentic voice.

Because their influence motivates movements…

The presence of African-Americans on Twitter established a history for the #BlackTwitter hashtag and the subcultures it birthed. When African-Americans felt mainstream media overlooked or ignored issues that impacted their community, they took to Twitter. For instance, the hashtag #BoycottSororitySisters was created by VH1 viewers to express their disappointment and embarrassment with a new reality show that chronicled the lives of African-American sorority sisters focusing on stereotypes among the women instead of the sisterhood and service these organizations are known for. After the backlash, brands such Hallmark, Honda, Domino’s and State Farm used Twitter to announce that their advertisements would be pulled from show and VH1 later confirmed the show’s cancellation.

That’s why newsrooms are watching…

Whether for profit or production, media has shown an increased interest in ethnic communities. Although there remains a deficiency among people of color working in newsrooms, outlets are getting smarter about how the history of diverse groups is researched and how the issues of race, gender, and identity within a community are reported. Content creators have to be responsible enough not to surveillance tweets for subject matter or copy and paste screenshots but instead work with users to tell broader stories through interviews and leverage access to the relationships of users to build diverse connections. Content creators should also be keen on the differences between a trending topic and a story of substance.

And remember, anyone can use a hashtag.

Careful not to use #BlackTwitter as a window into this consumer base from the comfort of your laptop without a true historical context of the audience and the issues they tweet about. Ethnic groups are not monolithic. Trends among people of color especially can be hard to assess. One member’s voice cannot cover the complete sentiments of the whole. Acknowledge the patterns but recognize that perspectives, interests and needs of a group cannot be teased out of a hashtag.

It’s enlightening to see the cultural phenomenon of #BlackTwitter proving the power of people-centered platforms but it’s more important that PR pros explore the intersectional issues discussed by people of color via social media through the advancement of inclusive conversations.

A New Reality: Women of Color Meet at C2 Miami

As organizations adjust to cultural shifts within their businesses internally and search for ways to connect with multi-layered audiences externally, diversity becomes a major topic for senior leaders. A new reality for women of color in the communications industry leading the conversation around issues of diversity and inclusion is now before us.

I had the exhilarating experience of attending the ColorComm C2 Conference last week in Key Biscayne, Florida. Women of color in public relations, marketing, advertising, media, and digital gathered from all across the country to share experiences and learn from one another to enhance their personal and professional development.

The three-day event for women focuses on leadership training, executive positioning, business development, and expanding financial literacy. The event also attracts leaders in diversity and inclusion.

I asked some of the nation’s leading women in the communications industry their thoughts on diversity and inclusion, and they all agree on one thing: the practice must be a priority.

Hear what they had to say.

With a star lineup of speakers including women’s activist Gloria Steinem and CNN’s Lisa Ling, the women dived deep into discussions about diversifying the communications industry, remaining professionally competitive, navigating promotions and achieving work-life balance.

This event exchanged rich moments of wisdom, intellect and sisterhood. Click below to see the great rundown of highlights from social media with the #C2Miami hashtag.

Aerial Ellis

I’m definitely counting down to #C2Miami 2016!

Are you a women of color in communications? How do you think diversity impacts our new reality?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave your comment here and tweet me @aerialellis using the hashtag #PRdiversity.

Conversations about Race at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration

PSX_20150702_113200Ferguson, Baltimore and now Charleston – tangible and tragic moments in a much larger national dynamic that involves an increasingly diverse nation trying to understand and practice racial harmony.

This morning, I had the chance to talk issues of race and injustice around these events and the media coverage surrounding them in a class led by President Randy Lowry at Lipscomb University’s annual Summer Celebration. I was certainly happy to do it (see my photo? 🙂

One of my fellow faculty members asked me at the end of the discussion in reference to my comments, “how do you talk to your students about race as a black woman in a majority white environment like Lipscomb?” and we had good dialogue around my answer.

I am always amazed when a community of faith comes together to talk about such a difficult topic as race in a spiritual context and encouraged by the honesty of those who admit their shortcomings when dealing with issues of race.

I have much more to say about these topics as we dwell deeper and deeper into an era of racial understanding so I plan to write a few pieces around the subject in the coming months.

Thankful to President Lowry for inviting me to be a part of the discussion today! ‪

It’s Complicated: Explaining The Role of Race in Police Brutality

 

I’ve opened the past two semesters talking about police brutality on the first day of class in my Cross-Cultural Communication course at Lipscomb University. This is a required course for communication and journalism majors to grasp the challenges of communicating in today’s complex society so we go there and get pretty deep. Building communication strategies to address obstacles and opportunities within a client’s organizational culture is something I know very well but grappling with the thorny issues of our times with a room full of college students means I must dig deep and go all the way. There are a wealth of topics I could start the semester with instead but it just so happens the biggest story in the news at the time concerned violence, race and injustice – in fall we dealt with cases of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and in spring, the cases of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. It looks as if perhaps this coming fall in August I will unfortunately and again have new content on the same topic – now with the incident in Mckinney, Texas and who knows what else between now and then.

For all of these tragic instances, a firestorm of commentary and disagreement ensued across news media and social media, and protests arose all over the world. Some students wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and discrimination are all too familiar. Yet for a large majority of my students at our private, Christian, predominately white University, police brutality and the racial disparities that accompany the topic are foreign concepts. They are often confused but curious and compassionate in their attempt to make sense of tough issues that even us mature adults struggle to comprehend. Naturally, they are faced with anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief and lots of questions.

“The victim had to be doing something wrong, right Professor Ellis? Wouldn’t the news media tell us if something was done unfairly?”

“Professor Ellis, wasn’t this an issue during segregation? Why are we seeing so much about it today?”

“But Professor Ellis, does this mean most cops are racist or that we should fear them?”

“So Professor Ellis, how do we fix stuff like this?”

My answer to them: “Well, it’s complicated.”

I could share with you how I lecture on the basis of these questions but that’s a 2000-word essay, not a blog post. I tell my students we have many things to consider…

  • We’d need to consider how racism has always played a key role in our country and how it became embedded in our criminal justice system. We also need to talk about juries, how difficult it can be to find the truth and how media coverage and social media conversations impact the perceptions of what we believe is true. We’d need to consider the origins of racism and the repetitive narratives of injustice, violence and poverty in communities of color to examine the correlations.
  • We’d need to look at the public’s general perception about the problem of police brutality and its history in America from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the transition from community policing to military policing in the 1980’s. We’d need to examine data that shows if you are black you are far more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than you would if you are white, and how that knowledge has perpetuated a relationship of conflict between police officers and the black community. We’d need to talk about how the outrage makes people feel hopeless and inspired to react in protesting or even rioting.
  • We’d need to examine the disturbing trend in the news media where a person is often criminalized when they have been killed by a police officer rather than insisting they deserved to a chance to be charged, brought to trial and have remained among the living. We’d need to research at the trend of citizen journalism becoming a powerful catalyst for the narrative of injustice as a tool for breaking news. We’d need ask if we can discern by only looking at the mobile phone footage of a bystander how an unarmed citizen is to blame for the overcorrection, extra force or lack of control displayed by police officers.
  • We’d need to assess how police administrators are training officers and addressing criticism since police brutality has gotten so much national attention recently. We’d need to consider that what a police officer could despise more than anything is when their authority is challenged, regardless of your color, and that could get you thrown in jail or met with excessive force. We should acknowledge that there are officers and administrators who understand how this crisis is impacting public trust and are trying to handle the issue with care and concern because their profession requires that they put their lives on the line everyday.
  • We’d need to consider our role in calling out injustice as a social and moral responsibility when the dynamic of the unknown convicts us to acknowledge stereotypes and reveal blind spots. We’d need to be honest about the relative silence over unfair treatment when it doesn’t impact us directly. We should admit we are imperfect people who have a tendency to limit our perspective, opinions, beliefs and comfort zones to be in agreement with those who relate to us most. We need to remember that what affects one affects us all, or at least it should.

I told you. It’s complicated.

I have the next generation of FOX news anchors, CNN producers, national radio hosts, online news editors, public information officers, non-profit leaders and crisis PR practitioners in my classroom. They will shape public opinion and determine how we consume messages through media. These students are studying to go into newsrooms to write stories and headlines about issues they’ve never witnessed personally, go into communities that may not look like the places they grew up in with cameras to capture the conflict of people who don’t look like them, go into companies to help generate awareness among a target audience whose lifestyles they can’t relate to, or go into organizations to help senior leaders to communicate about issues that might make them uncomfortable.

If I don’t get real with them, who will?

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Now, I could be the kind of professor that ignores the cultural sensitivities that surface from answering these questions or I could be the kind that challenges students and myself to explore our self-identities and look at how fit they into the world. This is where we must consider our younger generations who are confused but curious about their role in improving our society in ways that enlighten and empower them. Violence, race and injustice – the anchors of the cultural discourse around police brutality – aren’t the easiest concepts to grasp and are no longer the kinds of one-time shallow conversations we can sweep under the rug. Ignoring the facts dehumanizes us. They have to be talked about on an ongoing basis every time a story comes out.

I challenge you, whether a professional, professor or parent, to start having open discussion about cultural issues with the young students in your communities. Address your personal biases internally, dig for more than what is reported through media, be okay with the discomfort of disagreement when a different opinion is expressed, search for a historical context connected to these issues we’ve increasingly seen in the news, seek meaningful conversations with people who’ve experienced the cultural struggles that you haven’t, and empower a young student to intelligently assess their role in doing something about the issues.

I’d like to hear from you.

How has your perspective of race and police brutality been impacted by recent events?

How has media coverage of the current events heightened your cultural sensitivity to racial issues and police discrimination?

How do you intend to help the next generation of leaders understand and address difficult issues like race, violence and injustice?

What Univision’s Acquisition of The Root Signals for Communities of Color

When I saw the news break on Twitter about Univision, the premier media company for Latinos in the U.S., acquiring The Root, an African American oriented news and culture website, I retweeted it immediately.  I retweeted the news because it instantly signaled to me the evidence of hope that someone somewhere had a major conversation revealing the power of collaboration between communities of color. It signals that someone understood that cultural inclusion breeds change and innovation.

In other words, this shift in perspective is more than just a money move or a PR plot – it’s a game-changing moment. As I retweeted in rejoice, others retweeted in reluctancy with a few questions in mind, “Didn’t Essence Magazine partner with Latina Magazine 10 years ago?” “What does this mean for the future of African American news sites?” “Isn’t this blended acquisition of an African American platform by a Hispanic-driven brand is no-brainer?” Yes, it depends, and not so much.

Univision-The-Root

(mediamoves.com)

Since 2008, The Root has become a leading website for African American readers and boasts an audience of 5 million unique users a month. Univision says The Root will “retain its editorial voice and mission but will now have access to greater resources, including Univision’s digital production facilities and publishing infrastructure.”

That’s great to know but the most promising advantage of this acquisition is the increased likelihood of intersectionality in three ways.

Brands/organizations that have a need to target both the African American and Hispanic communities now have an option to dig into both then drill down to the message specifics without fighting over which of the two audiences prove to be more valuable to their marketing/advertising budgets.

The lens of Hispanic/Latino culture alone is a rich case study of intersectionality both racially and culturally. Consider the experiences of Black Hispanics, a population who not are African Americans but speak Spanish. Consider the outlook of African Americans who have been heavily exposed to the influence of Hispanic/Latino communities over their lifetime though their extended families or neighborhoods. Each have authentic stories that relate and distinct identities that complement one another. Collectively, the acquisition makes both groups see their own relevance through the validation of multicultural stories with less content and images based on the divide of class, economics and geography.

Lastly (and what seems like the most important point to me), here’s an opportunity for audiences to challenge media outlets to provide us with more cross-cultural content. If diverse audiences are collaborating to greater impact conditions in our communities, why shouldn’t we see more companies find synergy to improve communication for people working within an international or multicultural environment or witness more media organizations merging and developing platforms that give depth of voice and length of distribution to stories that empower and entertain vital groups who are culturally common?

No The Root or Univision are not minority-owned but their organizations are clearly committed to determining what they can accomplish together for the good of their audiences. Perhaps this will even encourage folks of color to seek higher positions in media management or inspire collaborations that establish support for media ownership.

Since communication is the one most fundamental aspect people must get right when attempting achieve and understand how cross-cultural collaboration breeds innovation, it’s imperative that media take the lead in creating and displaying the intersections of cultural conversation in powerful and progressive ways.