New Spring 2015 course in African American Studies Ferguson, USA: Race and criminal justice in historical perspective

December 3, 2013

On August 9, 2014, an eighteen-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson during an altercation in Ferguson, Missouri, a majority-black suburb of St. Louis. In the months that followed, amid demands from protestors in Ferguson and their supporters that Officer Wilson be brought to justice, swirling and conflicting accounts of Brown’s death competed for attention. A grand jury examination of the evidence, and its subsequent decision not to indict Wilson has—far from bringing clarity or resolution—exacerbated tensions, raised troubling new questions, and sparked a new round of protests.

We may never have a full accounting of what happened between Brown and Wilson on August 9. But the events in Ferguson can be placed within—and can help illuminate—a long history of African American encounters with law enforcement officers and with the criminal justice system. This course seeks to trace those encounters, beginning in the era of slavery and ending with the events of the past several months. In doing so students will explore a series of critical questions: To what extent has the construction and the commission of the law been generated by racial prejudice and racial power? To what extent has a racialized criminal justice system—from the street to the courthouse to the prison—provided the grounds and the inspiration for movements of social justice? What lessons might we learn from the events in Ferguson that illuminate current structures of power, privilege, perception, and neglect? And how can we learn from these events—and the long histories trailing them—as we endeavor to build a nation that is more compassionate, unified, and just.

This course is inspired in large part by the engagement of VCU students in the events and the activism surrounding the Ferguson protests. It is grounded in a hopefulness born from the efforts of a new generation of Americans to turn tragedy into transformation. The course will be capped at twenty-five students, allowing classes to be grounded in group dialogue. At moments in the semester, our discussions will be joined by guest participants who can share their personal experiences with the criminal justice system. Assignments will challenge students to utilize academic rigor and digital technologies in a manner that fosters civic dialogue and participation.