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‘Even laws that are not racist can have racist consequences’

Guest lecturer Janet Jackson would like to see everyone benefitting from diversity

Admittedly, American law isn’t as openly racist as in the days of slavery, or when the ‘Jim Crow’ laws allowed separate amenities and provisions to be provided for black and white Americans until 1964. A lot of progress has been made, says Janet Jackson, who spent this year working in the Faculty of Law at the University of Groningen (UG) as a guest lecturer from Kansas. ‘But although the blatantly racist laws were banned over 50 years ago, a lot of the current legislation still disadvantages certain minority groups. Often black people.’ These are the mechanisms that she is studying at her home base, Washburn University school of Law in Topeka, Kansas, where she teaches a course unit entitled ‘Race and Law’.

Janet Jackson (photo: Reyer Boxem)
Janet Jackson (photo: Reyer Boxem)

‘It’s most evident in criminal law. The law states that you may not make a distinction between black and white. But the decision about whether or not to prosecute someone is made by human beings, and every human being is prejudiced in one way or another. Black men are more often sent to court to be tried by a jury. Under the law, juries do not have to reflect society. So the jury members (often white) are also prejudiced.’

‘They’ve seen prisons full of black men on TV. This affects their judgement and increases the chances of black men being sent to prison, whether they are guilty or not. And so the problem goes on.’

As she is a guest in the Netherlands, has only been learning the language for four months and isn’t entirely familiar with Dutch law, she is loath to make firm assertions about the possible racist consequences of Dutch laws. ‘One thing I am certain of is that there is an area of overlap in the Netherlands between law and race. It is evident in your constitution, for example. There is a good reason for Article 1 clearly stating that discrimination based on origin is not permitted. If this type of discrimination were not a legal issue, you wouldn’t have to write it down.’

‘But Dutch criminal law also leaves room for human prejudice. Take the discussions about refugees, for example, one of the most important political topics in which colour plays a large role.’

Rules or systems that treat a certain group unfairly, whether intentionally or unintentionally, evolve quite easily, says Jackson. ‘Particularly if the group making the decision is exclusively made up of people who will not be affected. They are sometimes totally unaware that the decision they make may not be beneficial to everyone, simply because they have never seen things from the other perspective.’

This is why diversity is so important, says Jackson, who is keen to stress that this does not only concern race, but also gender, orientation and physical ability. ‘The more perspectives represented at the table, the more balanced the decisions will be. Inclusion is just as important as diversity. You don’t just need a diverse group at the table, they must also be prepared to listen to points of view from every quarter.’ So she is delighted that her guest university, the UG, has chosen ‘all inclusive’ as the theme for its forthcoming anniversary celebrations.

And Jackson is very enthusiastic about the theme of the large-scale conference linked to the anniversary, ‘Growing together: celebrating diversity and fostering inclusion’. ‘This shows that ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ aren’t just problems that need solving, but can also be good and turned to our mutual advantage.’ Countless pieces of research prove this, she says: companies with more women in top positions have better annual results. Groups in which people with different origins work together are more creative and better at solving problems.

‘I’m an optimist, and happy with every step in the right direction. The themes of the anniversary celebrations and the conference represent such a step. But we mustn’t so be naive as to think that this will get us to our destination.’ She was recently stopped by a student in the corridors of the Harmonie Building, a black woman like her. ‘She asked me whether I was the new visiting lecturer. Said she’d stopped me because she rarely saw lecturers like her. I asked for her number and we went for lunch together a couple of times. Being able to identify with someone in this way is what decides whether someone thinks that the UG is a good teaching institute, or feels like home.’

Janet Jackson will address the anniversary conference on ‘inclusive societies and sustainable peace’. She sees universities as inextricably bound up with society, and would like to see them not only forming their own inclusive micro-society, but promoting this inclusive message outside the walls of the academy.

This is what she teaches her students in Kansas, who she still supervises from a distance. They run an advice consultancy for people who want to start a small business or non-profit organization. Diversity has also played a role in the leadership training course that she gave to honours students in Groningen.

Personally, she has felt very welcome both in her Faculty and in the city. This was hardly a surprise. When she and family were still deciding about spending a year abroad, it soon became obvious that Groningen was the city that she’d set her heart on. In fact, she had already decided to move to Groningen anyway, before her appointment at the UG had been finalized. If it didn’t work out, she’d spend three months in the city until she found a job at another European university, she thought. ‘Luckily, I was offered the job that I really wanted, so we can stay here for a whole year.’

She has a neighbour from Groningen at home in Kansas. This neighbour’s love for her homeland infected the Jackson family and they also fell in love with the city that they had never visited. Their feelings proved to be justified on their first visit to the Netherlands 10 years ago. She immediately made friends with their neighbour’s sister, too. ‘She was a great help with the language.’

Jackson’s daughter attends an international school and her husband works as a volunteer with a refugee organization. ‘Even though we’ll only be here for a year, we’re keen to play a part in Dutch society. That’s not difficult in Groningen.’ A case of inclusiveness in action.

Text: Franka Hummels
Photo: Reyer Boxem
Source: Broerstraat 5

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.58 a.m.
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