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A Conversation With Race Relations Professor Sam Richards

Each semester, Dr. Sam Richards stands in front of a packed lecture hall to teach the largest race relations courses in the country. Often, he silences his 800-person class with unorthodox teaching methods and powerful, outspoken lectures.

Following demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality across the country, we sat down with Richards to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting, social media, and everything in between.

Onward State: What do you think about the current protests that are happening?

Sam Richards: Let’s take a step outside of this unique situation and look at it as a whole — protest movements and civil unrest.

When you get into certain situations where there really is an inability for many voices to be heard at the table, and to come to the center of the decision making, then the inability becomes more systematic over time and you start to have problems. When you get certain communities that are really left out and exploited to the point where life is so many ways is intolerable, and then the ruling elites all they can do is just send in the police. It happens in places where it’s not captured in the media too.

People are demanding that their voices are heard. The system is just far too unequal. People don’t uprise, riot, or revolt when things are basically more or less stable and when the opportunities are regarded as, and experienced as, relatively fair.

OS: When Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, he was criticized. Where do you think we would be today if the reaction to that demonstration was different?

SR: His was quite a peaceful protest. All he was doing was taking a knee. If people really understood the flag, and I totally get this allegiance to the flag, and people saying that you shouldn’t take a knee, etc. Well, then you shouldn’t have a swimming suit made out of a U.S. flag either. There are all sorts of things you shouldn’t do with a flag. So what’s the problem? Why don’t we listen to what’s being stated?

Some people didn’t have any understanding as to what that protest was really about. If they did, we wouldn’t be here. People would be very thoughtful about it. But sometimes, that’s the nature of how these things work.

OS: How do you think social media will impact protests against racial injustice and police brutality?

SR: One thing that is kind of interesting is that when you record somebody, eventually you forget that the cameras are on. They just act normally. One of the interesting things about the police is that what you see is what you get. They’re not thinking that the cameras are on, they’re just doing what they do.

People think, “Oh my god, if they did this while the cameras were rolling, what do they do when there are no cameras?” Well, they basically do the same thing. People are not getting all the stories of people who are really peacefully assembling and just getting the shit beat out of them by the police for no reason whatsoever. If that happens once it’s a problem, but it’s happening again and again. It should be disturbing to people.

OS: What are your thoughts surrounding the opposing arguments to the Black Lives Matter movement? What do you think about it?

SR: The default is “all lives matter.” Black Lives Matter emerged to give attention to the fact that the black experience in the United States is one in which black Americans experience more problems across the board. Everywhere we turn. Black people go to the doctor and are less likely to be prescribed pain medication. It’s almost like this subconscious thing. Everywhere people look, we see some time of discriminatory behavior.

“Black lives matter” is simply a way of saying, “Hey, pay attention to these things.” It’s similar to why we even have SOC 119 in the first place, to focus on and educate on race and relations topics and issues.

OS: What would you say to white people learning about inequity and the Black Lives Matter movement?

SR: The number one thing is don’t start with the assumption that Black and brown people have the answer for white people. They don’t have the answer for white people. What they do have is one perspective that white people should listen to more and more and remember.

One Black person or one brown person is just one idea. Think about the diversity in the opinions in the white community. The same thing happens in the Black community, the brown community, and the Muslim community.

They don’t have the answer because they don’t understand what it’s like to be white. They do have lots of answers that are important. The answer to these problems comes from an entirety of perspectives and opinions. Just keep thinking and listening.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a junior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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