Soledad O’Brien’s ‘Black in America’ tour brings discussion on racism to Stony Brook

When former CNN personality Soledad O’Brien brought her “Black in America” tour to Stony Brook University, she did not lecture anybody.

Instead, in front of a near-capacity crowd at the 1,050-seat Staller Center for the Arts Main Theatre on Feb. 16, O’Brien fostered a conversation. It was not about telling the crowd that there is racial tension in society today, but immersing them in it.

Soledad O'Brien introduces her "Black in America" Tour to the crowd at Stony Brook University.
Soledad O’Brien introduces her “Black in America” tour to the crowd at Stony Brook University. (ANDREW EICHENHOLZ)

She used the case of Eric Garner to demonstrate the consequences of police brutality on African-Americans. In that incident, which was caught on tape and went viral on the Internet, Garner was put in a choke hold by a New York City police officer and eventually died.

Luis Paulino, a 2011 graduate of Depauw University, was himself a victim of police brutality in 2012. He was on hand at the Staller Center to discuss his experience, and the aftermath of the incident, shown below.

Paulino was clear and to the point on his recollection of the incident. “I saw hate for the first time,” he said.

Stony Brook Senior Vice President for University Advancement, Dexter A. Bailey, said he was happy to have a national figure such as O’Brien speaking to the campus community, especially since her father was a mechanical engineering professor at the school.

“It’s actually quite exceptional. I think she’s really the perfect person in my mind,” Bailey said about having a speaker on racial issues come to talk at Stony Brook, adding that she is someone, “who crosses a lot of boundaries both from an interracial marriage herself, to what she can bring to the table today.”

O'Brien facilitated the discussion with Joan Morgan, Luis Paulino and Etan Thomas. (ANDREW EICHENHOLZ)
O’Brien facilitated the discussion with Joan Morgan, Luis Paulino and Etan Thomas. (ANDREW EICHENHOLZ)

Professor Theresa Tiso of the Department of Physical Therapy said she would give any of her students who attended the event extra credit.

Gene Alexander Peters, an educational consultant currently working with Farmingdale State College, thought those in attendance were receptive to the discussion.

“The audience definitely seemed very concerned about the issue,” Peters said. “Many times you have audiences that get distracted or easily dissuaded.”

The eyes of those in the crowd were glued to a video that O’Brien played in which both a young white man and a young black man chiseled away at a chain that locked a bike to a pole in a park. Nobody paid attention to the white man, while crowds gathered to take pictures and call the cops when the black man was doing the same thing, illustrating racism in society, even today.

That is just one of many examples that O’Brien used throughout the two-hour-long program to show that racism is indeed an issue in society today.

After the panel’s discussion, O’Brien opened the floor to questions from the audience.

Etan Thomas took questions from the crowd after the panel's discussion. (Andrew Eichenholz)
Etan Thomas took questions from the crowd after the panel’s discussion. (Andrew Eichenholz)

Etan Thomas got arguably the greatest round of applause on the evening, when he was the first to attack a question regarding February’s labeling as Black History Month.

“I do wish that could be broadened to general society,” Peters said about the discussion of racial tension. “If you look in terms of hope and optimism which a lot of people do have and speak to, I think this gives the opportunity, that maybe then that message will then be broadened.”

The crowd hung around after the program ended, to either discuss racism and their feelings on it amongst themselves, or to meet and greet one of the panelists or O’Brien herself.

Attendees stuck around after the conclusion of the program inside the theater. (ANDREW EICHENHOLZ)
Attendees stuck around after the conclusion of the program inside the theater. (ANDREW EICHENHOLZ)

Leroy Smalls, who works at Brookhaven National Laboratory as a senior applications engineer, felt that the racism issue was important for the local community to hear and discuss.

“This was happening in Suffolk County,” Smalls said. “Because Soledad was able to rise into who she is and she came from this area, maybe that provided opportunity to come and address this issue in Suffolk County.”

After the event, Paulino discussed what it felt like to be part of O’Brien’s panel, which also included former-NBA player Thomas and writer Joan Morgan.

The “Black in America” tour continues tonight, Feb. 17 at the University of Georgia at 7 p.m., followed by appearances at the University of Houston and Florida International University on Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, respectively.

There, O’Brien will reiterate a message that she has emphasized.

“Of course, black lives matter,” O’Brien said. ” Obviously, black lives matter.”



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