A Zoom town hall to address anti-Blackness within the University of New Mexico community was held Tuesday following a series of racist online attacks hurled at Director of Africana Studies Program Charles Becknell, Jr.
On April 30, two separate special event request forms were submitted that contained racist slurs and threats directed at Becknell, as reported by the Albuquerque Journal.
“I know that everybody here knows why we’re here,” UNM President Garnett Stokes said at the start of the town hall. “A member of our faculty was recently a victim of what I think was a horrendous hate crime.”
UNM Police Department Lieutenant Larry Bitsoih said the FBI is investigating the case but that no suspects have been identified. UNMPD Detective Michael Gonzales said the accounts were “well hidden” and that the two IP addresses were pinged to Germany and Australia. IP addresses are numeric designations that can be used to identify the location of internet users.
Jeff Gassaway, an information security and privacy officer for Information Technologies at UNM, said attackers are using technology that hides their true location which makes it difficult for law enforcement to identify perpetrators.
But Becknell’s experience — although different in manifestation — is not unfamiliar for Black faculty members at the University.
Kathy Powers, a UNM political science professor and president of the Black Faculty Alliance (BFA), said her work on reparations, both within a global and American context has caused controversy and personal risk. Powers said the BFA has been revived out of concern for protecting Black faculty.
“Black faculty do not feel safe on this campus,” Powers said.
She added that Vice President for Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Assata Zerai and Nancy López, director of the Institute for the Study of “Race” and Social Justice, faced similar issues for studying intersectionality.
“We have to be concerned not only about his security — there should be concern for security of all Black faculty in the program of Africana Studies and on campus in general,” Powers said.
Powers said threats toward Black faculty members and the Africana Studies Program at UNM extend far into the University’s history.
“It’s not unusual, unfortunately, for faculty to be targeted for their very right to express their academic freedom ... especially at this University,” Powers said. “Threats of lynchings and murder — there are faculty who have found nooses on their cars — this is throughout the history of UNM. There have (also) been threats of violent rape on campus that are very difficult to prove.”
From 2017 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of reports filed with UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity centered on racial discrimination, according to an infographic presented by Zerai.
Powers said that what makes Becknell’s case different is that there’s a recorded date and threat toward him as an individual and toward the Africana Studies Program as a whole.
Powers, on behalf of BFA, also called for a continuation of the police protection Becknell and his family had previously been receiving, increased campus security for the Africana Studies Program and the creation of two distinct task forces.
Powers said the first task force — which would be composed of Black faculty, UNMPD, the Albuquerque Police Department and UNM administration — would develop an emergency response protocol to hate-based threats against UNM Black faculty because of the prevalence at which it occurs.
The second task force, Powers explained, would act as a truth-telling commission to document UNM’s history of racist assaults and threats as well as the current systems and behaviors of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. The commission would also propose solutions to address the issues to UNM’s higher administration.
Kirsten Buick, a UNM professor of art history and associate dean of equity and excellence, spoke on the structural anti-Blackness still active at the University.
Buick highlighted the status of the Africana Studies Program as a program, rather than a department, as evidence of structural anti-Blackness on campus. The Africana Studies Program celebrated its 50th anniversary at UNM in 2020.
Buick also proposed actions for the University to take to lessen the structural barriers for Black academics, such as the strengthening of DEI, creation of a multilayered mentorship program for faculty of color and granting Africana Studies departmental status.
“Now is the time that Africana Studies should be granted departmental status, with tenure and tenured-track faculty housed within it,” Buick said.
Racism experienced by Black faculty at UNM has also impacted students.
Brandi Stone, director of African American Student Services, said students communicated distress over what transpired with Becknell.
“Students have expressed concern for Dr. Becknell and the Africana Studies faculty and staff — there’s anger and resentment that this is going on,” Stone said. “There’s additional concerns about what happens when they come back to campus, what does that mean for safety … but there is solidarity amongst Black students.”
Stone said students in the Black Student Alliance have been working to address and amend anti-Black behaviors at UNM since 2015 and that they will continue to do so.
“Our students are concerned and upset,” Stone said. “Some students have expressed feeling overwhelmed with anxiety of this instance paired with our national climate and recent coverage of Ahmaud Arbery and others who have recently lost their lives, but they are ready to have critical conversations to unpack this anti-Black narrative.”
Alyssa Martinez is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @amart4447