Lecture to examine how civility represses Black voices and actions

March 31, 2021
Ersula J. Ore of Arizona State University will present the 2021 Center for Democratic Deliberation Kennth Burke lecture on April 14 at noon ET.

Ersula J. Ore will present the 2021 Center for Democratic Deliberation Kenneth Burke Memorial Lecture on "Civility, Rhetorical Impatience, and the Reclamation of Time: The Case of Sandra Bland" on April 14 at noon ET. 

IMAGE: Arizona State University

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ersula Ore’s research on how the rhetoric of civility is used to preserve existing power structures comes not just from her scholarly research and expertise in rhetorical studies, but also from her own experience being arrested by an officer who threw her to the pavement after stopping her for jaywalking.

She will examine these themes in the Center for Democratic Deliberation’s 2021 Kenneth Burke Memorial Lecture at noon ET April 14. Her lecture, “Civility, Rhetorical Impatience, and the Reclamation of Time: The Case of Sandra Bland,” places civility in the context of racism and anti-Black violence — arguing that civility is used to constrain speech and actions from groups who pose a threat to existing power structures, particularly Black women.

“In the context of Black women, calls for civility are often an appeal to a stereotyped past that draws a false equation between submission and respect to evade justice,” Ore said. “This is just one way civility discourse enforces existing structures of power.”  

Ore, the Lincoln Professor of Ethics in the School of Social Transformation and associate professor of African & African American Studies at Arizona State University, was walking home from teaching a class in May 2014 when she was verbally accosted and thrown violently to the pavement by a university police officer — an incident that will forever be part of her life after police dashboard camera footage of the altercation went viral.

“I was lying in jail and thinking about how I was going to make my actions legible in court, how I was going to battle claims that I was unruly, disrespectable, crazy, angry,” Ore said. “It was the constant presumption of guilt that animated my body, that made me worry about how to frame my innocence.”

Ore was still thinking these questions through when, a little more than a year after her own experience, Sandra Bland was thrown to the ground and arrested by a police officer in Illinois during a traffic stop. She was found hanged in her jail cell three days after her arrest, and her death was ruled a suicide.

Ore argues that the rhetoric of civility was used by the state of Illinois to justify Bland’s death, as they claimed it was her inappropriate behavior during her encounter that led to her arrest and death.

She acknowledges that there are no easy answers to how society should reckon with the relationship between power and race. But, she hopes that sharing her story and the story of Sandra Bland will bring wider recognition to the problems civility brings to the ongoing struggle for justice and equity.

“This is a work in progress. Thus, my aim is to simply highlight the relationship between race, rhetoric, and time and to demonstrate how Black women combat forms of capture invoked by appeals to civility.”

Center for Democratic Deliberation Director Xiaoye You worked with Ore during her time at Penn State and is excited to welcome her back for what promises to be a very timely lecture.

"Dr. Ore’s talk will prompt us to reflect upon the legacies of colonialism and racism in the United States, which have used rhetoric of civility to discipline minorities, particularly minority women,” You said. “It will get us started on reimagining community care beyond policing."

Ore’s book “Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity” won the 2020 Rhetoric Society of America Book Award. The book explores lynching as a racialized practice of civic engagement that has, from the 1880s onward, communicated the meanings and boundaries of citizenship in the United States.

Ore received both her master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn State. She is a recipient of the Kenneth Burke Prize in Rhetoric, awarded annually by the Center for Democratic Deliberation to a graduate student in the College of the Liberal Arts, as well as the Alumni Dissertation Award from the English department.

The Kenneth Burke Memorial Lecture honors the legacy of the American literary theorist, poet, essayist and novelist for which it is named. Burke taught at University Park; his papers are archived in the University Libraries.

Visit democracy.psu.edu/virtual-events to register for the lecture.

Last Updated April 15, 2021