How The Issue of Representation Impacts Central Illinois

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The slow police response to the 2021 disappearance and later identification of ISU graduate student Jelani Day contrasted with high-profile investigations of missing white individuals

The issue of unequal representation of cultures has plagued the nation since its birth, often resulting in the perversion of people’s natural rights. In central Illinois, it extends that perversion through aggressive discrimination.

Although minorities have seen more representation on screen, their everyday lived experiences haven’t. Instead, stereotypical mirrors of minorities are represented by America’s dominating culture. This amplifies the cultural disconnect between races, which creates an environment of division and misrepresentation.

Injustice and Invisible Context

In the case of Shamar Betts, a Black man from Champaign, the issue of representation has kept him behind bars. In May, 2020, Betts was charged with inciting a riot after the murder of George Floyd. He took to Facebook to grieve the murder, ultimately in his emotional turmoil calling for a riot at Market Place Mall.

Following the riot and his arrest, Betts was depicted as an opportunist by publications who failed to acknowledge the emotional weight of the situation. Even users on Twitter were quick to judge, with one person saying “the dude incited a riot and y’all are mad he got convicted for it. I don’t feel sympathy for him.” During his trial, Betts was painted as someone taking advantage of a national tragedy, rather than mourning the death of someone in his racial community.

According to the August, 2021 Public i article “Scapegoating and the 2020 Marketplace Mall Riots,” Floyd is never mentioned throughout the prosecution’s commentary. The murder of a Black man stopped the world and inspired generational change. That is something that is bound to impact other young Black men, causing wells of grief that would undoubtedly drive some to act. Yet he was never mentioned. Rather than his emotions being addressed, Betts is represented as a man who sought crime. Now he is stuck behind bars, a life thrown off course because of the disregard of situational context.

Betts is currently serving a four-year sentence in federal prison. He was also ordered to pay at least $1.5 million in damages by US District Judge Michael Mihm.

The Persistence of Private Misrepresentation

 That isn’t the only case of the issue of representation throwing a life off course. Take Jakai Martin, an openly queer student at Illinois State University. On October 15, 2022, Martin was “physically and verbally assaulted by a fellow Illinois State University student . . . at an off-campus event in celebration of Illinois State University’s ‘Homecoming Weekend,’” according to a post on their Instagram. They were also referred to as the f-slur, which signifies a bigger problem.

In the full version of the post, titled “Queer Students Are Not Safe at Illinois State University,” Martin said “numerous Illinois State University students have grown up in a society that has enabled them to believe that they can physically and verbally assault their peers in front of an engaged audience.” This is due to how they perceive different cultures.

Say you have a grandfather who was a racist. He didn’t filter his views around your father, passing them down. If your father’s views went unchecked and he was able to pass them down to you, then you now have preconceived notions about other cultures, whether you’ve interacted with them or not. This has been the case with youth across the country, with racism surviving through generations. This has resulted in them taking their notions with them into the world.

Although ISU provides safe spaces like the Multicultural Center, they don’t provide a campus-wide shield from prejudice. Although people across campus work to counteract the sprouting prejudice, there is still a lack of understanding. This lack of understanding has created a dangerous culture for people like Martin, and it has to change.

Invisible Pain, Absence of Urgency

 It has to change because of people like Betts. Like Martin. Like Jelani Day. Day was a graduate student at ISU studying speech language pathology when he went missing on August 24, 2021. Two days later, his car was found in the woods of Peru, IL with the plates missing. His phone was found along I-74 and his clothes on the bank of the Illinois River.

His body was found on the riverbank on September 4. It wasn’t identified until September 23.

In an NBC Chicago interview, his mother Carmen Bolden-Day said, “He wasn’t depressed. He didn’t have any kind of pressures that would make him want to escape this life. So I do feel as if someone was involved.” Yet to this day, the circumstances behind his death are unknown. The LaSalle County Coroner said he drowned, but what led up to that drowning is still undetermined.

The issue of representation comes into play in the sense that there was no urgency to solve the mystery of Day’s death. Historically, the death and disappearance of Black people has been downplayed by society at large. You can look at the lynchings of Black men in the early 20th century as an example. Or the murders of several Black queer youth by Jeffrey Dahmer in the late 20th century. Or the response of Chicago police officers to murders in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Time and time again, this nation has shown how little they value solving Black death in comparison to everyone else. After Day’s death, the departments responsible for investigating dragged their feet with the release of the information they had.

Instead of acting with urgency, they were working behind closed doors to determine what to tell the public. They were drawing up a media plan before focusing on the circumstances behind Day’s death, while giving conflicting information to his mother. She still doesn’t have answers. The cultural disconnect between Black people and the rest of the country has denied a family justice in favor of optics. This pattern cannot be allowed to continue. We must work to remedy the issue of representation.

But how?

Solving The Issue of Representation

 For starters, we must be hyper-critical of the media we consume. This means analyzing the behind-the-scenes of media presentations: the language used; how certain groups are portrayed in comparison to others—looking outside of the worldview presented on-screen.

Then we must put ourselves in the shoes of those who don’t look like us. Our lived experiences teach us a lot, but unless we try to understand other people’s experiences, our scope of the world will forever be limited.

We must also sit down and analyze the codes we live by, as we may begin to find flaws in them. Because there are people in our state who aren’t able to express their truths due to standards set by those who refuse to understand them. This fosters misrepresentation, which usually leaves us fending for ourselves.

And we’re tired. Tired of constantly having to fight to be understood. Tired of struggling. Tired of waiting for change.

If we want to enact change, we must all do the work to understand one another—individually and as a community. This won’t be easy, as it requires unpacking the prejudice we’ve learned from yesterday’s sins. But if we want a safer, more inclusive world for everyone, it must be done. If not, the issue of representation will continue to plague us all.

Marcus Pruitt is a 21-year-old journalism student at Illinois State University. He writes with the goal of liberation for all at the forefront, and to expand the minds of his readers.

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