SIGNAL PEAK -- Two viruses are stalking the nation.
One is the coronavirus, the agent of COVID-19. The other is racism.
Scientists are working on a vaccine to inoculate against coronavirus. The vaccine against racism calls for a different kind of expertise. People who have studied racism and its origins. People who have experienced it.
Derrick Span qualifies on both counts. He’s a social science professor at Central Arizona College. He teaches, among other things, “Racial and Ethnic Minorities.”
Span is also Black. So he knows about racism first-hand. He confronts it with the non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. And sometimes with humor.
Span, in person, is warm and thoughtful. At least as close to in-person as a Zoom-style interview would allow. I had asked to speak to him in his office at CAC San Tan, but the campus was closed. A precaution against coronavirus. So we Zoomed.
Span started off speaking about his mother, Virginia Bryant. She was active in civil rights in their hometown of South Bend, Indiana. King flew there in the early 1960s to give a speech at Notre Dame. Virginia greeted King at the airport and rode with him to his hotel.
Somebody had written a racial slur on the door. King’s host offered him a new room. He declined, Span’s mother said.
King said, “I’ve been called so many names, I’m immune to it.”
Span never met King. But his mother sparked his interest in civil rights. And the church. He eventually left South Bend to attend the Interdenominational Theology Center in Atlanta. There he met King’s then widow, Coretta Scott King. She was giving a talk at the center. She had lunch at the cafeteria. Span asked if they could have a few words. It ended up a two-hour conversation, one-on-one.
They talked about the civil rights movement. And the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Coretta let him in on a secret. Two weeks before the famous 1963 Washington speech, King gave a talk in Detroit. He spoke about a dream he had. In Washington, he started on a different tack. His wasn’t connecting with the crowd, Span said Coretta told him. A popular singer changed that.
“You could hear Mahalia Jackson in the background, yelling, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’”
King pivoted and made history.
Span earned a Master of Divinity, then headed to Binghamton, New York. He got a social sciences master’s degree at the state Binghamton University. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he worked for the Urban League. Under then-Gov. Tom Ridge, he helped establish a state agency that focused on grants for community projects.
He moved to Arizona in 2008 and got his doctorate from Northern Arizona University. He began teaching at CAC. His students are often the first in their families to attend college.
It’s not Harvard. But with Span, it might as well be.
“The only things that separate a Central Arizona student from a Harvard student are geographical location and probably the income of the family,” Span said.
He can’t do anything about that.
But he can about what he sees as most important.
“The expectation of the professor.”
The expectations are high. The subject matter is often dense.
He will delve into abstract theories of history, including the dialectics of Hegel and Marx. He brought them up in our conversation. Fortunately, I wasn’t tested. I likely would fall short of expectations.
But his lessons also dig into a history that go to the origins of racism in America. They date back to colonial times. Plantation owners and Southern leaders created the notion of race to hold onto power.
“Racism didn’t create slavery,” Span said. “Slavery created racism.”
Slavery also planted the seeds of police violence against African Americans, Span added. Plantation police known as slave patrols tracked down runaway slaves. If captured, they were often beaten. Or worse.
“Our time now is inextricably meshed and tied to events on the plantation, centuries and centuries ago,” Span said.
Beliefs about race flow from generation to generation. Here, Span brings up the idea of socialization. It begins early in a person’s life and, over the years, can harden into prejudice.
For Span, prejudice isn’t just a social science concept. It’s a life experience.
He recalled the time he stopped for a cup of coffee at a Circle K near campus. He was dressed in a suit, on his way to class — before the lockdown. A white man and woman were outside, leaning against the wall. They had a cart with their belongings.
On his way out, Span said, “Good morning. How are you?”
The woman said, “Good morning, how’s Africa?”
It wasn’t a first time for Span. His students were taken aback, though, when he told them. They asked Span how he handled it.
“I told her that I’ve been to Africa and I hope, in the not too distant future, to go back again. And when I do, I’ll tell the people of that great continent that you’re inquiring.”
His recent encounter with a white police officer went better. He was out for his morning walk, heading back home. Span lives in Florence. The officer pulled up in a patrol car, got out and asked Span where he was going. Span said home. He asked Span if he had ID.
Span said: “Nothing more than telling you who I am.”
Things could have become tense. Span could have become resentful, defensive. Instead, he used his head. He opted to de-escalate things, with a bit of humor.
“I said, ‘Officer, I know exactly why you stopped me.’”
“He looks at me and says, ‘Why?’”
“And I said, ‘Because you thought I was Al Sharpton.’”
They both laughed. Span then introduced himself as a professor at CAC. With that began a conversation that lasted more than an hour.
Would the officer have questioned Span if he were white? Hard to say. I’m guessing not.
In any case, following the death of George Floyd, police are under a microscope. It took a particularly brutal show of police violence to get there. Nearly nine minutes worth.
Span doesn’t speak of defunding the police. The key lies in training, teaching officers how to de-escalate encounters. So they don’t go from bad to deadly. They should be taught what he calls soft skills, not just the mechanics of shooting a gun and making arrests.
“Training,” he said, “that recognized the worth of human beings.”
It has to be more than words. Soft skills have to be embedded in the human heart. With soft skills training, Span believes, the officer in Minneapolis would have not drained Floyd’s life with a knee.
How much training? Enough to erase a prejudice hardened by years of socialization. It’s a tall order.
But here’s the good news. Attitudes about police violence on blacks are changing. More people than ever recognize something should be done. More people are talking about it.
That includes the intelligentsia of Pinal County. Every Thursday, staff and faculty at CAC connect online and discuss what they’re seeing in their communities. They talk about race and other issues in a post-George Floyd world — in and outside their own disciplines. Last Thursday, some 70 people joined the conversation, including the CAC police chief.
Professors of color have opened up about their own experiences.
“Feelings can run deep,” Span said.
It’s a discussion we’re all having. Span hopes it will lead to a vaccine for that other virus. Racism.