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George Mason students defend 'Trayvon Martin' class

Thursday - 10/17/2013, 1:22pm  ET

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Professor Rutledge M. Dennis lectures to his evening sociology class. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

FAIRFAX, Va. - A fall class offered to George Mason University students has drawn criticism from around the world because of one name in the title: Trayvon Martin.

When sociology professor Rutledge M. Dennis first listed his new sociology class, Plessy to Martin: Race and Politics, he didn't expect the backlash he received.

Without an understanding of what the class would cover, hate emails came pouring into to the professor's office and the school from as far away as Germany, when news came out earlier this summer.

"They thought it was a class in which I would bear down on Zimmerman or bear down on the right to carry guns," Dennis says.

Students in the class will learn about the social change made by Martin Luther King, Rodney King and Angela Davis as well as discuss Trayvon Martin.

The class is also offered under the title "Race and Politics, Trayvon Martin" under African American Studies.

Dennis came up with the idea for the class after seeing the emotional response the case elicited from the public.

"It reinforced the idea that race is an important variable in American life even though we've been trying to minimize the impact of race. As a sociologist I ask myself, and as a black person also, 'What would be the consequences if this is in fact a purely racial issue,'" Dennis says.

Dennis' students say they can't understand why some take issue with the class. They say the conversation challenges their understanding of how America deals and has dealt with race.

"These are difficult conversations that people don't want to have, but we must have them," says part-time student Thomas Williams.

Classmate Genny Lush agrees they're learning outside their comfort zone, but it's advancing each students' understanding and perspective of race.

"We actually haven't even gotten to Trayvon yet. We started with the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. We're going on a timeline," Lush says.

Most students says they were intrigued by the class' title, especially after watching the trial and the media storm surrounding it earlier this year.

"Coming out of an environment where every day at work we sat up and watched the Trayvon Martin case, I thought that would be interesting," says Noland Smith Jr.

Smith was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of race, gender and age in the class that he says is made richer by discussion from different perspectives.

"A lot of the conversations we have around relations, perspectives and views are based off of different individuals in the room. It's probably one of the best classes I've ever sat in," he says.

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