Justin M. L. Freeman Interview

Leading the march for equity

Justin M. L. Freeman, a senior (May 2021) in the Kelley School of Business, spoke with a passion that inspired a crowd of thousands at Bloomington’s Enough Is Enough March on June 5. Already a seasoned activist, organizer, and educator, Freeman is dedicated to leading a new generation he believes is motivated to confront and end systemic racism. He recently spoke with Emma Cline, a student journalist in the College of Arts and Sciences, about his experiences as a Black student on the IU Bloomington campus and offered a vision of what must happen next as the Bloomington campus and community work to end systemic racism.

Why do you feel it was important for Bloomington to have its own march for the Black Lives Matter movement?

Having a march signals, or says, many things. To name a few, having a march says to the Black community that it is loved and cared for—that the community doesn’t stand for police brutality. Having a march signals there are issues in our own Bloomington community that have not been resolved, there are issues in our own IU community that have not been resolved. Having a march signals that there is still progress to be made; the immediate and surrounding communities are not content with the status quo. In my opinion, you can never say or signal those things too many times, as they are still true. That’s why it was important for Bloomington to have its own march for the Black Lives Matter movement.

This should have been the same reaction when KKK recruitment flyers were being distributed around Bloomington last summer. This should have been the same reaction when members of the Farmers’ Market were exposed as undercover racists and Neo-Nazis. This should have been the same reaction when [IU Professor] Eric Rasmusen publicized beliefs and incorrect research that undoubtedly would impact his students and the greater IU and Bloomington community. This should have been the same reaction when [IU Professor] Charles Trzcinka made some racist statements on his Twitter account. That was just this past academic year — need I say more?

Of course, I feel it was important for Bloomington to have its own march. However, I feel it’s more important that Bloomington make actual, systemic changes to accept and empower its Black community to reach equity between ethnic groups locally. I don’t care about moving feet and shouting chants if no pen touches the paper by the people in power.

What has your experience been at IU, specifically as a Black student? What challenges do you face that white students might not even consider or have to worry about?

Overall, my experience has been great at IU. Academically, socially, and professionally, I have experienced things no one in my family has and that I never thought I would. However, in terms of race relations, it has been almost the opposite. Racism, biases, microaggressions, and prejudice is very real. My hardships are compounded by the fact that I’m a low-income, first-generation college student.

This intersectionality of personal economics, education, and race is an interesting one. I’ll share an example: Thinking back to freshman year, one night I was watching YouTube videos on how to tie a tie so I could go to a networking event at the Kelley School of Business — I had never needed to know how to tie a tie before. That’s what it’s like being a low-income student. As I proceeded to head out of my room and down the residence hall, I heard a floormate tell a racist joke: ‘Why did the blind officer shoot the white guy? … because he thought it was the black guy.’ As I walked past the room I could see my dorm room neighbors laughing, amongst others. The same dorm room neighbors who jokingly said they’d never let their future daughter(s) date a black guy earlier that same week. That’s what it’s like being a Black student. In this specific situation, the challenge of being first-generation comes in the aftermath because at the time I didn’t fully understand how to navigate college. My mind was full of thoughts like: Am I supposed to tell someone about this? Who do I talk to about this? What do I tell them? Will they believe me? Will they be able to empathize with me? Where the hell are the Black people? Why would someone who smiles in my face make that joke behind my back? Did I do something to deserve this?

Outside of that specific situation, the list goes on: Why do I feel like my voice represents the entire Back race when I’m the only Black person in the class? Why does no one in my class or student org look like me? Why would my classmate compare the difficulty of this assignment to the difficulty of slavery — in front of me — as the rest of the group members (all white) brush it off? Why would a professor I was supposed to take classes with next year publicly say and defend his belief that blacks don’t belong in most higher education institutions? What do you mean KKK flyers were distributed at my apartment complex and potentially in the Kelley Living Learning Center? Did I get this position because I’m Black or because I earned it?

I have to consciously and constantly code-switch to fit in during class, events, and interviews to assimilate to a White-washed culture based on White standards. I have code-switched so often I tend to question my own 'Blackness' and what it means to be Black. I could dive into specific challenges that I face that white students might not even consider or have to worry about, but I think simply sharing that specific event that occurred my freshman year, and has vividly stuck with me into my senior year, demonstrates just how disparate the Black and White experience is at IU and abroad.

How do you think we sustain this movement, and what does it look like going forward?

I think we sustain this movement by doing nothing. The longer nothing is done, the longer people will protest and riot. We shouldn’t have a movement fighting just for the country to finally treat us and our respective lives like we/they matter. I’d love to see this movement end...with a happy ending of equality.

I’m not entirely sure how this movement for Black equality looks going forward, but I believe you will see Generation Z stepping up to spread the values we believe in, such as equality. Personally, I will continue to lead my respective communities as best as I can. I like to think I will be the MLK of my generation — one of the greatest Black leaders to walk this earth. Not because of what I can say, but because of what I know I can do for my people.