More focus must be put on the wider system of discrimination in American society instead of focusing solely on law enforcement, New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow said in his open talk with Stony Brook students on Wednesday.
“We’re focused on the tip of the spear, rather than the spear itself,” Blow said. “Is there any rationale as to why almost all of the [excessive force] incidents we have seen have started as routine traffic stops? Is that just a fluke? It’s not a fluke.”
Blow visited Stony Brook University as part of Undergraduate College Commons Day. His memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is required reading for this year’s freshmen. The memoir recounts his childhood in rural Louisiana and how the state’s legacy of slavery influenced its modern day poverty.
Race relations was also the subject of Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Charles Robbins’ interview of Blow, and his open Q&A with students afterward.
“Let me tell you how this works. This is what the Ferguson report taught us,” Blow said, referring to the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department. “Local municipalities may run a budget shortfall. Rather than cutting services, which conservatives would like, or raising taxes, which progressives would like, they do neither.”
Blow described a system of discrimination found in the Ferguson report that focused on generating revenue through the use of police departments to make up budget shortfalls. This system included aggressive enforcement of nonviolent misdemeanors and the collection of extremely heavy fines as penalties for these citations in low-income, ethnic minority neighborhoods.
“All of a sudden it makes sense, systematically, that there are no clean hands,” Blow said. “If you’re on the side of town where this is not happening, the tax dollars that you are [contributing] are financing a black body face down […] on the other side of town. You don’t have clean hands. None of us have clean hands.”
As a columnist, Blow is no stranger to the topic of police abuse, with one of his op-eds published in August describing it as a “form of terror.” But the subject was not the only focus of his conversation at Stony Brook University. The sustainability of grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter and their impact on American society was also of interest to both Blow and his audience.
“At a certain point you need professionals [in these movements],” Blow said. “Somebody who it is their job, who can feed their family, to do this all the time in order for [these movements] to sustain itself. You can’t put your life on hold for nine months, a year, two years, three years, to do the work. Because you have to eat.”
Thomas Brown, a junior history, sociology and political science major at Stony Brook, expressed frustration at the current state of race relations during the open Q&A and asked Blow for his opinion on movements that accomplish their goals “by any means necessary,” up to and including violence.
“I do believe, as Dr. King said, that violence begets violence,” Blow said. “It’s a downward spiral. It creates the very thing that it seeks to vanquish. [King] is not as soft as people make him out to be. He is much more revolutionary. He still doesn’t believe in violence, but he does understand that there are civic forces at play.”
Brown, who had become interested in Blow’s visit to Stony Brook through his op-ed on the Million Man March, disagreed with Blow’s analysis.
“Ghandi died. Martin Luther King, he was against violence and he died. Malcolm X got killed,” Brown said in an interview with The Statesman after the lecture. “The only way to fight violence is with violence. If you think about it, this country was made on violence. People of all colors were brought here by violence. It’s either you want a ‘revolution’ with a little ‘r’ or a ‘Revolution’ with a big ‘R.’ ”
This was not the first time Blow has faced criticism for his statements. But Blow declared several times during the lecture that he is not bothered by his detractors as a columnist.
“Frank Ocean told me once about a guest columnist we had: ‘This guy’s not going to do well at all, because he wants everyone to like him,’ ” Blow said. “If you want everybody to like you, you shouldn’t be in this business.”
While Blow remains confident in his place at The New York Times, he is concerned about the changing nature of the news industry. One “dangerous” way in which journalism is changing today, Blow described, is an increasing ambiguity over who remains unattached to the issues that they discuss.
“I will often be on television, and there will be a panel of us,” Blow said, referring to his role as a cable news commentator. “And there’ll be one person who is a party operative for one of the major parties. That person literally gets an email every morning that says ‘This is our talking points.’ There are people who are retired from the military or from police departments who have a vested interest in that [organization’s] point of view. There are people who have made their entire living and their entire brand being activists and protesting at every turn. Those people can say whatever they want and never issue a correction.”
Blow attempted to distance himself from these types of commentators during the lecture by presenting his role as an columnist at The New York Times as being independent of activism. He also emphasized his unwillingness to be seen as directly associated with activist groups such as Black Lives Matter.
“It’s really important to me to maintain the separateness of a journalist’s role,” Blow said. “I often tell people I’m not an activist. I see my role as bearing witness. There are things that I care about, and I will write about those things. But issues are different from people. And getting too involved with individual activists on a personal level, I think that’s problematic.”
Jonathan Brierre, a freshman journalism major who had been invited to breakfast with Blow earlier that day, was one of the students who were inspired by his message.
“Honestly, I felt like I could connect to him on such a level that it was unreal to me,” Brierre said in an interview with The Statesman after the lecture. “I had just decided to follow him around all day to listen to him speak. Because honestly, his messages and everything that he believes in, is everything that I believe in. And it’s really refreshing to hear him say everything that he’s saying in front of everyone.”