The Asheville School's Voice

A New Take On Race

March 31, 2018

On Civil Rights Day, the Asheville School community was given the privilege of hearing many inspiring speakers, including Professor John Major Eason. Professor Eason teaches in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University, and he has written a book entitled Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation. To become so well versed in injustice and the criminal system, Professor Eason first attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for his Bachelor’s Degree, then he went on to the University of Chicago to attain his Master of Public Policy Degree and then his Ph.D. Before he became a teacher and author, he was a community organizer, and then a political coordinator where he worked with then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama. A few weeks after Civil Rights Day, Professor Eason did an over-the-phone interview for the Ashnoca where he was very willing to discuss different ideas and the problems of today’s society.

What do you think about taking a knee during the anthem?

“I think that’s a matter of free speech. I saw [the Stall Street Journal], and I think they had that framed completely wrong… It’s an issue of free speech; it’s not free speech or patriotism. I think flag burning is a matter of free speech… so why wouldn’t take a knee during the national anthem [be]?”

Are we at a tipping point in society? Is this generation finally going to be the one to stand up and say enough is enough in terms of racism, Islamophobia, discrimination against sexual orientation, etc.? Or is this just going to be like every other time we thought we were at a tipping point in society, but then had to deal with the backlash of progress?

“I hope that happens, I mean saying ‘no’ to individual acts of racism or Islamophobia or homophobia [and] looking at systemic causes of these social ills, those are different questions… I’m hopeful for your generation. These are complex social problems so being able to police individual action around [them] is one thing, [and] standing up and making systemic social change is a whole different ballgame. You could just say that I’m hopeful that that [change] can occur.”

Do you think humor helps us to combat racism or does it just make worse by making it okay? If it does help, in what way does it help?

“Humor in some ways normalizes the fact that it’s happening; I don’t think it excuses it. Actually, I use humor to make fun of racist, sexist, any type of discriminatory practices because it’s the absurdity of the situation. So when I was using racism… or shorthand stereotypes to talk about racism I was more so pointing out the absurdity of how… if you live your life according to stereotypes, whether they’re based on religious practices, [or] sexual orientation… if you treat people according to the stereotypes, you are flattening them out, you’re really like a caricature yourself, so I think in certain settings it can help people get over themselves. That’s what I was trying to push you guys to do because there was such an uncomfortable silence, right, whenever you bring up these difficult subjects, there’s an uncomfortable silence, and it makes people more resistant to hearing what’s actually happening, or what’s going on, so when I give, like really lofty concepts, like defining race, or even trying to get you all to understand what racism is I can go on and talk about that in an abstract form forever, right? But to get students… to actually listen I’ve had to give into the more performative nature of lectures, so if I’m just gonna give you all a test on what a concept means that’s one thing, but for you to actually own it and understand it… [humor] makes retaining that concept easier… [I’m also] not just using jokes, I’m using my own experience, and I’m hoping that people can reflect on their own experience… because that’s how these things get perpetuated.”

When working for Obama what did you find were his most effective qualities in inspiring others to make a change?

“Making change through policy is very difficult, and I think as a state senator he did stuff that was very middle-of-the-road, and some of these were radical stuff, he did like just common sense stuff around race, like one of the policies I remember him enacting, actually he proposed it and it got passed, was having officers record the race of the passenger they pulled over just so we can get accurate count of whose getting pulled over, why, and things like that. So, he was just a pragmatist…I can’t say that he was particularly inspiring as much as he was pragmatic and provided a way for those of us who were like-minded to come together… His pragmatic approach to problem solving made him inspirational, but it’s not like he was a preacher, right?… It’s funny cause he’s like an older cousin so it’s weird… it’s like your older cousin became a rock star and you got to see him playing in the garage, and you’re like ‘oh, he’s okay’, but you knew he was technically proficient and really good but you didn’t think about him as ‘oh this is awe-inspiring.’… What I found best about Barack was he could, you know, allow people to be in their feelings and he’d give off the sense that he was empathizing with them but he wouldn’t be caught up in their feelings with them. So that’s actually a great quality that I think is most inspiring.”

What do you recommend for high schoolers who want to start enacting change and impacting the world now?

“It depends on what kind of change you wanna enact now, but I think you got to do more than just be on the internet, and reposting stuff, and retweeting stuff. I think you got to show up and build meaningful relationships with people and better understand policy, and how it’s created… So you can find an organization, you can just google…your interest. You can find an organization that would touch on your interest. I know community organizing has changed a lot but it’s still about face to face interaction and people having relationships, so if anyone gets a chance to actually go and attend a day or week-long training for any community organizing outreach around the country, I would encourage folks to do that, because then you actually get the nuts and bolts and you start to figure out a skill set… So as far as [a] concrete step, you got to know the groups, many of you know that groups like “Black Lives Matter” or whatever environmental cause floats your boat.”


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