On Jan. 20 of this year, Najee Ali Baker was shot and killed on Wake Forest’s campus. Najee’s death marked the 10th of the 11 school shootings that took place on American soil in the first 23 days of 2018. Twelve days after the senseless death that deeply saddened the Winston-Salem community, contributing writer Ryan Wolfe wrote an opinion article that concluded that Vice President of Campus life, Penny Rue, was partially at fault for the shooting.
The article concluded that Rue’s implementation of unconscious bias training for the Wake Forest University Police Department (WFUPD) inhibited the officer’s abilities to prevent the shooting and effectively police our campus.
To defend this conclusion, the article cites the William-Moss police report that was investigated by retired police chiefs of North Carolina Central University and Garner. This report was ordered following several allegations of racist attitudes towards students of color on campus by WFUPD.
The article asserted that the report found that none of the allegations by students of color rose to the level of actual racial bias, but rather instances of racial insensitivity. The article then claimed that Rue’s implementation of unconscious bias training directly in spite of these findings to unfairly sanction the WFUPD.
In addition to recklessly placing blame and dismissing the very real problem of racial insensitivity at our predominantly white institution, the article is inaccurate. At the conclusion of the Williams-Moss report, investigators stressed the necessity of “providing additional training to the University police personnel in the area of conscious and unconscious bias and cultural differences.”
Wolfe’s selective omission of this recommendation in the article would lead readers to believe that Rue’s actions were unfounded.
Not only was Rue’s pursuit of bias training an appropriate first step considering the allegations of racial insensitivity that were confirmed by the investigation, but the training was encouraged by the investigators from larger police departments.
Furthermore, to suggest that the shooting could have been prevented if WFUPD had not been subjected to unconscious bias training is a non-sequitur. The bias training neither detracted time from any training already in place, nor did it diminish the importance of other training courses.
The most troubling part of the article is the suggestion that it is not WFUPD’s job to be the most inclusive department on campus, but instead to keep Wake Forest students safe from “the dangers that lurk outside of our wall.” This divisive rhetoric is symptomatic of the “us versus them” mentality that is unconsciously fostered in an institution such as Wake Forest. While it is of course the job of WFUPD to keep campus safe, it is just as much their job to promote a safe and healthy on-campus environment for all of our students.
Students of color constituted 50 percent of student arrests in 2016 despite only making up 28.3 percent of the student body, according to the WFUPD website. The Williams-Moss report argues that these statistics do not hold up as evidence of racial biases, but it is certainly a worrying trend. According to several studies, including Devah Pager’s “Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” these statistics do not indicate that students of color commit more crimes. Rather, they are congruent with the national incarceration demographics, which have been found to reflect the Reagan administration’s “war on drugs” that effectively targeted and criminalized people of color. People of all demographics are equally as likely to commit a crime, but people of color are significantly more likely to be prosecuted for a crime. It is nearly impossible to cultivate a safe environment for students of color if they are arrested on campus at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers.
Wolfe’s article exploits the profoundly personal loss experienced by the Winston-Salem community and the Baker family to undermine University investment in inclusivity and diversity. Additionally, the article frames inclusivity and safety as exclusive goals, insinuating that the WFUPD is incapable of being both unbiased towards students and protective at the same time. I feel as if it is not only possible, but imperative to ask for both. I would encourage the University’s continued pursuit of action that may help departments on campus to be more inclusive and diverse. We have a long way to go.