By Andrea Mueller, Saint Joseph’s University ’21
As a student at Saint Joseph’s University, I have listened as faculty, fellow students and friends shared their personal experiences of racism through casual conversations and University forums on racism. Over the past three years, my ears, eyes and heart have been opened to see the injustices of racism in my own unconscious bias, on my own campus, and in this world that is not my own. There are perspectives that I cannot fully understand without living them.
These stories remind me to not only be constantly vigilant against my own bias, but to look outward to hold my greater community accountable in anti-racism policies. Thus, when given the opportunity to write for Connections, I decided to interview three Saint Joseph’s University faculty who are helping to lead the way for our campus community.
Dr. Phyllis Anastasio is a social psychologist whose research focuses on how media shapes our perceptions and behaviors. At the start of the Spring 2020 semester, Dr. Anastasio asked me to join a research team examining racial bias in police shootings and how the media could play a role in perpetuating bias. Dr. Anastasio said, “It seemed like a natural research question: Do media reports of fatal police shootings treat victims differently according to their race?”
The research team began their work in September 2019 by utilizing the Washington Post’s Public Database of fatal police shootings. The team looked specifically at victims who were fleeing the scene, to investigate possible racial differences in shootings when the victim was not posing a threat to the officer.
The analyses showed that in proportion to White victims, more Black and Hispanic victims were fleeing when shot. Moreover, Black victims were twice as likely to be fleeing on foot when shot than White victims. These preliminary findings were presented in a student poster presentation at this year’s Eastern Psychological Association virtual conference.
After I joined the project in January, we started a content analysis by randomly sampling victims from the Washington Post’s Public Database. The main variables we looked at were the quantity of articles covering the victims, article length, victim’s race, type of photo (e.g. mug shot vs. other format) and mention of criminal record. Our research questions and methods are continuing to be modified, and our project is still in progress.
I recently had the opportunity to get Dr. Anastasio’s expert insights about this social psychology research project in an interview conducted by e-mail. I wanted to know how social psychology research intersected with anti-racism. She explained, “Social psychology examines how our external social world influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, as well as how we influence others. We categorize people into gender, racial and age-based categories automatically, unintentionally, effortlessly. Thus, the ways that all races/genders/age groups are portrayed in the media, and certainly the stereotypes that are passed along to us, are extremely influential in our understanding/misunderstanding of others.
“On a societal level, systems must change in order to level the playing fields: educational, vocational and professional opportunities have to be made equally available to all. Imagine educational differences between a well-funded public school and one that is strapped for teachers and supplies. That difference occurs quite early in a child’s life, and with every passing year, the gap becomes greater and greater.”
Dr. Anastasio’s research on how the media could contribute to racial bias is still in-process, but she did offer some possible implications for the study’s outcomes. She said, ”If we do find that the media treat non-White victims of fatal police shootings in a harsher manner than White victims, the logical conclusion is that this media coverage may help to perpetuate the ‘Just World Phenomenon,’ or ‘they deserved it’ type of thinking, further helping to perpetuate negative stereotypes, which help to perpetuate negative treatment, etc. You can see the vicious cycle that negative media coverage could and does have.”
My interview with Dr. Anastasio made me curious about what other academic anti-racism research is taking place at Saint Joseph’s. Dr. Susan Clampet-Lundquist studies urban sociology and examines the effects of public policy on families in low-income neighborhoods. She said, “Whether we are looking at housing policy, the criminal legal system, public education, or other social institutions, the thread of systemic racism is clear throughout. A necessary step in anti-racism advocacy is knowing your history and understanding one’s current socioeconomic context.”
Dr. Clampet-Lundquist asks her students to become more aware of racism by keeping a diary on what inequalities they notice in their daily lives, so that their social interactions highlight what they are learning in her course. She explained, “White people in the U.S. often live much of their lives in White spaces, and can have a deficit in understanding how to empathetically engage with people from backgrounds different from their own. If White people authentically want to be involved in anti-racism efforts, we need to be proximate to people from backgrounds other than ourselves.”
At Saint Joseph’s specifically, Dr. Clampet-Lundquist cited a new early-arrival program and a pilot addition to some First-Year Seminars as helping students to focus on inequality and racism. This integration of racial justice in the classroom leads us to Dr. Usha Rao, a graduate of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India, and a faculty member at Saint Joseph’s, who is seeking ways to integrate racial justice into the curriculum in her role as Founding Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning. Dr. Usha Rao explained, “Our mission is to help all Saint Joseph’s faculty develop competency in teaching and learning interculturally.”
Faculty members have developed and offered many anti-racism initiatives to their peers through the Office of Teaching and Learning, including:
An intensive Summer-long seminar for faculty entitled, ‘Decolonizing the Curriculum,’ to help the faculty incorporate contemporary anti-racist pedagogy into their classrooms
An online seminar on ‘Inclusivity and Engagement in Online Teaching’ and a series of online classes on ‘How to Have and Facilitate Difficult Conversations in the Classroom’
Two year-long faculty learning communities on multicultural teaching and learning, and environmental racism and justice
At Jesuit institutions, which are centered on the dignity of each human person and rooted in academic excellence, we have the perfect platform to conduct anti-racism research. All students and faculty members have the ability to utilize our specific disciplines in order to discern our role in eradicating racism. In the words of Dr. Rao, “While there is a lot of work still to be done, both at Saint Joseph’s and in the world at large, I believe that the University is taking important steps in the right direction.”
Andrea Mueller is a senior at Saint Joseph’s University, where she is majoring in psychology. She served as the Summer Intern at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) from May through August 2020.