To explore anti-Black racism in America and to help Siena students learn what is theirs to do in the fight for social justice, Andrea Smith-Hunter, Ph.D. is teaching her new course “Black Lives Matter: Issues of Race, Class, Identity and Power.”
The course grapples with three key areas of inquiry: the roots, ideology and resistance to anti-Black racism. The 31 students are taking into account how race is interwoven with class, identity and power - what Smith-Hunter calls “the radical intersectional ethos of #blacklivesmatter.” They are exploring how anti-Black racism took hold in the United States, the ideas that undergird racial hierarchies, and the range of political strategies and tactics used by Black activists and their allies.
Smith-Hunter, a professor of management and sociology, has been considering developing a course on these topics for several years, starting with the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, then Michael Brown, and George Floyd, and the dozens of other Black Americans whose deaths have captured international attention. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 were her impetus to move ahead with creation of the course.
“I wanted to connect with this generation of students and hear what they have to say,” she said. “They have been a major part of the recent demonstrations.”
Smith-Hunter is a native of Jamaica and said she personally witnessed police brutality while growing up on the island nation. In that more racially homogenous society, class distinction rather than race was often the prompt for abusive police treatment of the poor.
She felt strongly enough about the topic that she offered to teach it for free (she was turned down on no pay) and is willing to share her syllabus and course content with other faculty members in order to encourage discussion of the movement and the history behind it.
“This course is about more than Black Lives Matter,” she said. “It’s about social justice. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about the Franciscan mission to create a more just and humane world for everyone.”
The class is exploring topics such as housing, education, mass incarceration, income disparity, stereotypes, and more on a variety of levels: personal, community, societal and international.
“Their discussions are excellent; not heated, but respectful. They are really digging deep for meaning.”
Thompson Collins ‘23 said the course has allowed him “to better understand what it is like to live in this country as a minority.”
“It has giving me a perspective that I have never been able to see before based off where I live,” he said. “It has really opened my eyes to the injustices and racial issues that Black people face every day in America.”
Amir Taylor ’22, who is pursuing a self-designed major in critical race and ethnic studies, said the course is not about demonizing any racial group.
“This is about humanizing the plight of African Americans as well as other cultures, ethnicities, and traditions,” he said. “I think it is important to note that this class isn't made up of only African American students, but students from all backgrounds who want to learn, who want to hear, and who genuinely care about their brothers and sisters at Siena. Every student should want to take this course or something similar, because it is a brave space where we learn and grow together and that is what Siena is all about.”
Smith-Hunter said ultimately she wants her students to determine their own personal roles in the fight for justice, whether those roles be large or small.
“I want every student to become a social activist,” she said. “That’s doesn’t always mean a demonstrator or protestor. It means they consider becoming invested in social justice in some way in their lives, to pursue a career that contains some element of justice. It can take many forms.”
When students ask what just one person can do, she tells them, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can do your part, and encourage others to join you.”