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Public Health New Mexico

UNM Faculty Talk Combating Anti-Blackness In The Wake Of Racist Threats

Assata Zerai, UNM Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, opened and facilitated the virtual town hall on May 12 (pictured is a screenshot of Zoom call).


The FBI is investigating an online attack on a UNM professor last week that included a threat of lynching at his home. In response to the racist messages, UNM held a virtual town hall Tuesday featuring black faculty talking about ways to combat anti-blackness on campus.

The violent threats against Dr. Charles Becknell, Jr. and the Africana Studies program were sent on Thursday, May 7 through an internal UNM special events form, and by email and Facebook posts, according to UNM. UNM says “vile anti-black messages” were also sent to University Libraries.

The IT department says they couldn’t trace them because the attackers used technology to hide where they were coming from. UNM Police Department Lieutenant Larry Bitsoih called the incident a hate crime.

Dr. Kathy Powers of the political science department said during the town hall on Tuesday that these attacks are part of a long history of black educators at UNM and across the world facing intimidation and violence for doing their jobs.

"We are often killed for controversial ideas," said Powers, referencing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and the targeting of black leaders during the McCarthy era in the U.S., among other examples. "The work that I do on reparations for mass human rights violations globally -- but in the United States and most importantly the African American community -- has been very controversial for me."

Black people have long felt unsafe on UNM campus, Powers said, and that’s been worsened by a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting African Americans, and by the murders in the last few months of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other black people by white vigilantes and police.

Powers said the UNM Black Faculty Union wants continual police protection for Dr. Becknell and his family, increased security for the Africana Studies program, a survivor-based rapid response task force on how to respond to future incidents, and the creation of a truth-telling commission "to document systems and behaviors that create and sustain anti-black racism, white supremacy, and racist assaults in any form."

Provost James Holloway said his office strongly supports those efforts.

Structural anti-blackness is maintained at UNM by hiring and workplace practices, said Dr. Kirsten Buick, associate dean of equity and excellence for the College of Fine Arts, including an expectation that graduate students and faculty of color will stay and study in their so-called lanes.

“When these students enter the job market at colleges and universities, they are expected to fill those diversity positions that allow for a kind of 2-for-1," Buick said, "while preserving other areas of study for White students who are not expected to ever have to acknowledge race or racial bias in what they are allowed to study and now allowed to teach.”

Buick suggests a new three-way mentoring structure, in which newer faculty of color would be paired with a senior member in their department who’s undergone training and a faculty member of color outside their department.

"And finally, new faculty who arrive at a program rather than a department, with a tenure home that is actively hostile to their presence, suggests that now is the time that Africana Studies should be granted departmental status, with tenured and tenure-track faculty housed within it," Buick said. 

Africana Studies members have been making this request for over a decade of the program’s 50-year existence. Departmental status would allow more job security, better pay and more graduate opportunities.

Mark Peceny, dean of the UNM College of Arts and Sciences, said in an email to KUNM Thursday that the college does not have plans to convert Africana Studies to a full department.

Several speakers mentioned fears among black students about whether they’ll be safe when they return to campus, as well as anger and overwhelm.  

Dr. Stephanie McIver, director of counseling services at UNM Student Health and Counseling, said those are common responses to vicarious trauma that have a damaging psychological effect over time.

McIver urged other people to make statements of support "and to choose a side. These events are not events that call for neutrality, but call for support."

Sociology professor Dr. Nancy Lopez closed out the virtual town hall by asking everyone to think about how they would know they’d been successful in combatting anti-blackness at UNM, five years from now.

She said for her, it would mean spaces would center African ways of knowing, "as well as explorations of the theoretical and technological legacies of African-descended people. A substantive and unapologetic critique of settler-colonial logic predicated on anti-blackness will also be present."

The town hall also featured performances by black artists. UNM student, organizer and KUNM music host Ebony Isis Booth shared a poem she wrote about being a black woman and part of a small statistically considered demographic of people in New Mexico.  You can listen to the full poem below. 



KUNM's public health coverage is supported in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and by listeners like you.

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