“Racism arrests the development of American democracy,” says Gallatin alumnus and faculty member Frank Roberts (BA ’04, TISCH MA ’05). In the fall of 2016, Roberts will teach his third iteration of a course that has kept pace and evolved along with the Black Lives Matter movement and seen the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. “With Black Lives Matter,” says Roberts, “you have young people who are saying that the millennial generation will be the generation to finally dismantle this hurdle to realizing the uniqueness and potential grandness of the democratic experiment.”
Black Lives Matter (BLM), a political movement that began as a hashtag, has grown to be a dynamic—and sometimes contentious— modern civil rights movement. Erupting in response to the 2012 murder of African American teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who killed him, BLM has gained momentum in the years that have followed in the wake of other recent shooting deaths of African Americans, often at the hands of the police.
The idea for developing a course on the movement emerged when Roberts was teaching “Race, Ethnicity, and Popular Culture.” He wanted to bring together some of the concerns that he and his students had about how the media shapes narratives about race and inequality and how it can be anchored to a particular moment. Since 2014, Roberts and his students have tracked not only the movement and the events that gave rise to it—as recent as the summer 2016 deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—but also how these have been covered in the media.
“It is not coincidental that Black Lives Matter emerged in the context of a black president,” notes Roberts. “One might argue that the height of the racial tension that we saw in the United States in past years was a backlash and response to Obama’s presidency. Students need to see how this movement all connects to this larger story of what it was like for this nation to live in Obama’s America, an age that is coming to an end.”
Into the classroom, Roberts has brought not only pop culture but also critical figures from the BLM movement to speak with students, including Dr. Cornel West, activist DeRay Mckesson, VH1 Host Marc Lamont Hill, New York Daily News Senior Justice Writer Shaun King, and 2008 Green Party Vice Presidential Candidate Rosa Clemente, among others.
“We are witnessing a profound democratic reawakening in the United States,” says Roberts. “Black Lives Matter is the most important and influential US social movement in the past forty-five years. It speaks to a long tradition of members of the African American community taking the lead on forcing the American democratic project to actually reach its ideal.”