Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 28, 2020

Black faculty demand representation on eve of Juneteenth

By RUDY MALCOM | June 19, 2020

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COURTESY OF RUDY MALCOM

The Black Faculty and Staff Association organized a peaceful demonstration on the eve of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating emancipation.

More than 200 members of the Hopkins community gathered in front of the Beach on Thursday, June 18 to demand that the University better hire and support Black faculty members, as well as cancel the planned private police force. The Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA) held the peaceful demonstration in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests that have followed George Floyd’s killing by a white Minneapolis police officer. 

BFSA President Lorraine Smith, a senior grants and contract analyst at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, argued in an interview with The News-Letter that while Black people are hired for entry-level positions, they are not adequately represented in leadership roles. 

“Being Black at Hopkins can be limiting. We don’t get the same opportunities for advancement,” she said. “They are starting to listen to us — now is the time for change.”

Muyinatu Bell, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, believes that the University should listen to its faculty and students and cancel the Johns Hopkins Police Department (JHPD). On June 12, University President Ronald J. Daniels and other administrators announced that they would delay their plans to implement the JHPD for at least two years. 

Early on, Hopkins alum and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg advocated for the JHPD. According to Bell, the University has ignored her worries about its creation.

“Generally, it’s a very welcoming and supportive environment, so personally I feel supported. The one time where it was a little devastating that my voice was not heard... is the fact that I do have very strong feelings surrounding this police force,” she said. “Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I am very aware of Bloomberg’s viewpoint on stop-and-frisk policies at the time of my youth... and I am very concerned that we will experience a lot of the same discrimination that my friends and family experienced growing up.”

At the demonstration, the BFSA distributed signs that read “No Hopkins Private Police.”

Adriene Breckenridge, a senior academic advisor for the Krieger School School of Arts and Science (KSAS), recited the names of Black victims to police brutality. She then led protesters in remembering Floyd with eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the amount of time the police officer kneeled on his neck.

The protest was held on the eve of Juneteenth, which commemorates when enslaved people in Texas learned on June 19, 1865 that they had been freed, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. There is a push among activists and historians to make the symbolic date of freedom a federal holiday.

Daniels and other administrators chose to provide a half day of paid leave to employees on Friday, designating the holiday as an apt time to reflect on racial injustice. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, former BFSA President Lynnise Norris noted that peer institutions, such as Princeton and Harvard Universities, gave their employees the full day off. 

She called on Hopkins to do more to promote Black equity, observing a lack of Black male faculty members in particular.

“I worked at Hopkins for 23 years. It was an oppressive, toxic environment,” she said. “I was denied promotional opportunities because they blackball you when you speak up. I want to see opportunities available for everyone, not just a select few... Hopkins leadership to me does not look like the city of Baltimore.”

BFSA member Cynthia York, a project manager at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, stressed the need for the administration to listen proactively to Black voices. York helps run the Indispensable Role of Blacks at Johns Hopkins Exhibit, which highlights Black alumni’s contributions to the University, from medicine and science to the arts and humanities.

“If [students] don’t see someone that looks like them, they don’t feel like they’re part of campus,” she said.

York said that she has also experienced this feeling.

“I’ve kind of absorbed it. I’ve taken it as the way it is around here,” she said.

BSU Vice President Rahwa Yehdego, a rising junior, described how the underrepresentation of Black faculty members has affected her and her peers.

“Sure, you can increase the number of Black students every year, but more doesn’t mean that we have a better experience. Administration likes to say that we have a diverse student body, but what do they do to help protect, support and foster those students? The fact that we barely have any Black faculty is an issue,” she said. “People assume that we’re here to fill a quota. You already have impostor syndrome as a Black student at Hopkins, but other students and faculty validate that.”

She shared how racism has impacted her Black peers.

“I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve had negative interactions with professors, especially when it comes to trying to be candid and open with them and then getting different results than other students,” she said. “I had a friend whose advisor told him freshman year to switch his major because it would be hard for a Black student.”

Alyssa Thomas, who graduated from KSAS this spring, echoed Yehdego’s sentiments.

“As a Black student, you sometimes carry the burden of being the sole representative of your group in a space, and that can deter you from accessing resources and help that you need,” Thomas said. “I never felt like I could... seek help in the way that other students could because they felt like they had members of the faculty that identified the same way they did.”

According to the second progress report on the Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion, released in April 2019, five percent of professors in 2017-18 were African American, compared to 4.1 percent two years before. University officials drafted the Roadmap, a document outlining plans to make Hopkins more diverse, following demands from the Black Student Union (BSU) in November 2015

The Office of Multicultural Affairs, Yehdego said, is supportive but overworked. She called on administrators to expand the Center for Africana Studies and to develop resources specifically for Black students.

“I know that they’re hiring some new Black counselors, but the fact that it took something as tragic as what happened to get them to listen — we’ve been telling them the same things,” she said. “There’s a list of demands after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, and almost everything on that list hasn’t changed.”

Rising senior Harena Haile, a member of BSU, emphasized the need for greater financial support for affinity groups on campus. 

Plans for the JHPD, she added, should be abandoned altogether.

“No one asked for a pause,” she said.

The University decided to postpone the JHPD, Haile reasoned, because of national pressure to defend its image. 

Yehdego called on students to keep fighting against its implementation. 

Despite her concerns, Bell expressed her optimism in the University’s future handling of the JHPD.

“In general, I believe in the Hopkins leadership and administration to do the right thing,” she said. “I still have hope and faith that they will make the right choice and stand on the right side of history regarding this matter.”

At the protest, the BFSA collected suggestions that it plans to deliver to Daniels in order to promote racial justice at Hopkins.

Correction: The original version of this article identified Rahwa Yehdego as the president of BSU. She is the vice president.

The News-Letter regrets this error.

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