WCU not immune to racial profiling

After the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida shook up the country, the presence of racial profiling on the Western Carolina University campus was the focus of a discussion panel on Tuesday, April 17.

The event was hosted by the Department of Intercultural Affairs as part of WCU’s Black Awareness Week and was organized by student George Townsend, a junior majoring in psychology with a minor in race, ethnic, and gender relations. Townsend comes from a “nicer” area of Raleigh and as an African American he fears that the Trayvon Martin incident could happen close to home, to someone like his younger brother.

Martin, 17, an unarmed African American, was walking to his father’s fiancee’s house in a gated Sanford community when he was pursued and eventually shot and killed by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch captain of Hispanic descent. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder but claims he killed Martin in self-defense.

For the discussion panel, Townsend gathered four expert panelists from the WCU community: Dr. Cyndy Caravelis Hughes, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice; Dr. Thomandra Sam, a licensed psychologist, culture and gender expert; Dr. Henry Wong, Director of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling; and Rakim Lash, a junior political science major and the Director of Student Diversity Council for WCU’s Student Government Association.

Wong made the point that Zimmerman became the aggressor when, while making a 911 call, he continued to pursue Martin after a police dispatcher told him to stop.  Additionally, by having a gun while on patrol, Wong said that Zimmerman broke the state of Florida’s neighborhood watch guidelines.

“We push things to the forefront in media and then we tend to forget about these issues,” said Lash. He wants to make sure this issue does not go away and that people continue discussing the case.

Hughes brought up the issue of the media’s involvement in the case, arguing that certain media outlets tried to justify Martin’s death by finding pictures of him making offensive gestures.

“What kid do you know doesn’t have a picture of him flipping off the camera?” asked Hughes. “It is ridiculous to think that because you have pictures of him that some people might find rebellious, he was a thug and his death doesn’t mean anything.”

Wong cited national statistics from 2005 which indicate that police pull over blacks and Hispanics more often than white automobile drivers. Townsend then asked the predominantly African American audience if any of them felt like they had ever been the victim of racial profiling on campus.

Janae McKinney, a black student, recalled being the passenger in her friend’s car when they were pulled over by two campus police cruisers. After the first officer collected her friend’s license and registration and walked back toward his car, McKinney said she heard him say to the other officer, “It’s okay, she’s not black.”

McKinney refused to cooperate when the campus police officer asked for her identification because she felt offended by his words.

Wong closed the discussion by encouraging the audience to report instances of bias, harassment or hazing at WCU to the university’s Bias Response Team. “As students you guys deserve to be heard,” he said.