In light of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday yesterday, we’re looking at notable contributions that students have made to Wikipedia that shed light on systemic issues that African-American communities have faced, and continue to face, in this country.
Ask any educator and they’ll be sure to tell you that history – not to mention present day – is full of African-Americans who have contributed to the collective culture and history of the United States of America and the world at large. Last winter students in University of Michigan instructor Fabian Neuner’s class wrote and edited Wikipedia articles on Black Lives and Deaths. Their work was thought provoking and intriguing, especially as it helps showcase people and issues that the general public may know little to nothing about.
Students in Neuner’s class looked at topics that included police related matters, eugenics, racism and prejudice, and incarceration. The criminal stereotype of African Americans is one such topic and students greatly expanded the article to include information on self-reporting statistics and more information on the stereotype’s history. According to some historians cited in the article, the idea of a black person as a dangerous criminal was heavily perpetuated during slavery times as a tool to suppress rebellions. This stereotype persisted throughout the years and, according to the executive director of the Sentencing Project Marc Mauer, it became more threatening during the 1970s and early 1980s, leading Melissa Hickman Barlow to remark that “talking about crime is talking about race”. This has led to some groups isolating themselves from their local police force.
There have been attempts to breach this gap, as in the case of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). CAPS used five tools—problem-solving, turf orientation, community involvement, linkage to city services, and new tools for police—that were intended to help lower crime and bring unity between the police and community. Results from the strategy showed that while overall crime did decrease, there was no proof that the lowered crime rate was a result of CAPS. Some areas actually experienced more crime. A study showed that the results also found that the strategy worked best in areas where the citizens were more financially and socially secure and had more in common with the police. The study also pointed out that while CAPS was more likely to succeed in these communities, these areas also had a racial divide that led to a lack of coordination.
Part of what makes student work invaluable is that they help expand knowledge on underrepresented topics and people like Kalief Browder. This article was fairly short when the students found it. But through their work, they expanded it to about three times its length. Kalief’s tragic story began in the Bronx during 2010, when he was sixteen. He and a friend were stopped by the police, who suspected them of stealing a book bag. Despite not finding the bag and the accuser changing their story multiple times during police questioning, Kalief and his friend were arrested. While his friend was allowed to return home while awaiting the trial, Kalief was held in jail due to his past criminal record and was taken to Riker’s Island when his family was unable to immediately afford his bail. Kalief’s stay in jail was met with beatings, abuse, and degradation from both staff and inmates. To make matters worse, the Bronx District Attorney’s office had a backlog of cases and Kalief was forced to remain in the jail for three years. During this time he was offered several plea bargains, which Kalief refused, citing his innocence. He spent 800 out of his 1,000 day stay in prison in solitary confinement, due to Kalief’s involvement in fights that were often provoked by others – especially prison staff. Kalief rapidly lost weight while in prison due to meal portions not being big enough for a growing teenager and also due to reports of his prison guards deliberately starving him. He also experienced lapses in his mental health and Kalief tried to commit suicide on several occasions. When his case finally came to trial in 2013 his trial was ultimately dismissed due to his accuser having left the country, leaving the courts without any testimony. Kalief was finally free at 20 years of age, however the inhumane treatment in prison and his unjust sentence left him with indelible scars, causing him to become withdrawn, depressed, and suicidal. He and his family attempted to file a lawsuit against the New York Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Corrections, but met with no success during Kalief’s life. Kalief Browder committed suicide on June 6, 2015. His death sent shock waves throughout the community.
As stated above, the work students perform on Wikipedia is incredibly important. Sometimes it’s a major expansion like the one made to the Kalief Browder article, other times it’s copy-editing and small additions. No matter how large or small the contributions are, they still help expand the largest general reference work on the Internet – Wikipedia. Their contributions help ensure that this information is accessible to billions of people worldwide.
If you are interested in using Wikipedia with your next class, visit teach.wikiedu.org. Or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can gain access to tools, online trainings, and printed materials.