Berkley Hudson brings life’s work to race relations committee
Faculty Council committee was established at Jan. 22 meeting to address race-related issues at MU.
Jan. 28, 2015
The walls of Berkley Hudson’s office are cluttered with photographs. Some of them capture joyous occasions — weddings, birthdays, anniversaries — but most of them don’t. Most of them are candid: prosceniums into the simple life of a simple family in rural Mississippi.
There’s a picture of two men out rabbit hunting. They’re standing in a field – one is holding the carcass of a recently slain rabbit. Both of them are smiling; nothing seems wrong.
But that photograph and others on Hudson’s wall belie the true character of the world in which he came of age. Mississippi in the 1950s and ‘60s was, as he describes it, the center of a “civil rights hurricane.” Hudson was exposed to a bevy of racial injustices, the likes of which are often cited as the lowest citizens of this country have ever sunk. There were personal injustices; shouts and murmurs of racial epithets spat at black men and women on street corners and in grocery stores. There was institutionalized racism; signage outside restaurants and schools denying service to certain Americans under the pretense of “separate but equal.”
The photographs on the walls of Hudson’s office are hung about a tall, stately bookcase. The hundreds of books occupying its shelves are the physical manifestation of the time Hudson has spent trying to make sense of his unique and cruel childhood. The days he’s spent wrestling with remembrances of uninhibited racism born of ignorance and hatred are on those shelves. The hours he’s spent trying to shake the spectre of a tempestuous, forlorn youth are on those shelves. The minutes he’s spent negotiating life after Jim Crow are on those shelves.
Hudson, a journalism professor, brings his life’s work and experience as a journalist and scholar to his position as the chairman of the new Faculty Council committee on race relations, which was announced during the council’s Jan. 22 meeting.
“(Race relations) is something I’ve been thinking, researching and writing about my whole life,” Hudson said. “I also think I’m a good listener, and that’s what’s important right now. For me to listen to the differences that are present, and also to identify where there are commonalities in this issue.”
One of the primary goals of the new committee will be to identify the nature of the problems related to race and ethnicity at MU.
Racial issues have been brought to the fore in part because of what has taken place on the national stage in recent months, but Hudson said racial issues have been a problem on this campus for a long time, despite what detractors may claim.
“I’m aware that not everyone believes there’s a problem,” he said. “But I’m very clear about the fact that there’s a problem. I don’t need Michael Brown’s death or Eric Garner’s death to make me aware of that.”
The issue was highlighted on campus by student demonstrations and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s listening session in December.
Students at the listening session criticized faculty and administrators for not responding to the issues sooner. Faculty Council Chairman Craig Roberts said the event revealed the severity of the problem.
“It was surprising to a lot of us,” he said. “We’ve always known there have been racial incidents. We just didn’t know it was a way of life.”
Hudson said the committee is still in its beginning stages, and that he will work closely with Faculty Council member John Lory and journalism professor Earnest Perry, who moderated the December listening session, to work out the details. Perry was unavailable for comment.
While the committee is a part of Faculty Council, Hudson said, its membership may not be limited to those currently on Faculty Council.
Roberts recognized during the council’s Jan. 22 meeting that it does not have an African-American member. He said it is sometimes difficult for white faculty members to be “in tune with the mistreatment of people of color … (it’s) a problem under the surface that we may not detect.”
Faculty Council member Karen Piper said council members plan to meet with student representatives from the Black Culture Center to get a sense of what specific problems should be addressed.
Hudson said he is still in the process of finding faculty members who are willing and able to join his committee. Because this issue is so closely tied to student life, he said, there is a place for student leaders at the table.
“MU has been and is a mainstream, traditionally, culturally white institution,” Hudson said. “We’re talking about big changes that still need to occur.“
Angela Speck, chairwoman of Faculty Council’s Diversity Enhancement Committee, said she believes a part of the problem is that many people are in denial about the extent of race relations issues.
“When you start to explain to people that they don’t know what it’s like because they’re not black, they get all defensive about it,” she said. “That’s part of what we need to overcome.”
A discrepancy in faculty satisfaction between white MU faculty and faculty of color was quantified in 2014, prompting additional study by Faculty Council. As of fall 2012, 57 percent of faculty of color said they were very satisfied or satisfied with MU as a place to work, compared to 70 percent of white faculty. Results were from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education survey, which measures faculty satisfaction, show that faculty of color at MU are significantly less satisfied than their white counterparts.
“For a decade, I’ve thought there’s a climate problem on campus,” Piper said. “I’m glad Ferguson kind of spotlighted that for us. At this point it’s in the initial stages, but I’m optimistic.”
Hudson said he also plans to draft a resolution that will make an empathetic statement about the need to continue discussing the issues of race relations on campus and commend Loftin for the work he has already done regarding the issue.
MU Spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said Loftin has agreed to hold additional open forums in February, March and April to provide updates on actions being taken and collect feedback from the community.
Hudson said that while there are many parts to the issue of race relations, the goal should be working to create a culture of inclusivity on campus. Many students come to MU having only lived in homogeneous environments and coming to MU means having to learn to mix with the rest of the community, Hudson said.
“There’s a lot to learn,” he said. “You can create a culture where that falls away. You can create a culture where you have people who are attracted to work here, play here, be here together who have a shared common value of respect, discovery, excellence and responsibility. I’m an idealist in that way, that I can envision that kind of place.”