Dear Sage Community,
I write today in response to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed across the nation in the week that has unfolded since that tragic day.
Before sitting down to share my thoughts, I watched the video footage of Floyd’s death. I needed to avoid averting my eyes and confront the brutal actuality that was caught on film: a dying man pleading to breathe; gathered onlookers pointing out in horror that he had become unresponsive; the police refusing to relent in crushing the neck of a handcuffed man. It is heartbreaking, horrible, unnecessary, and infuriating.
And it has stirred this nationwide response partly because it is on video for all to see. But for every instance of excessive and deadly force captured on film, how many countless others are undocumented?
This moment calls us to respond in several ways. First, there must be justice for George Floyd, and it is clear that public attention has brought needed scrutiny into the judicial process, just as it did when videos of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia gained public attention. The world is watching.
We must also remember those victims not caught on film and work aggressively to address racial inequities in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. How police are trained, how instances of excessive force are investigated, how the laws are enforced, and how African-Americans are viewed and treated in the criminal justice system can be reformed.
The recent incident of the dog walker and the bird watcher in Central Park was a vivid reminder that African-Americans are viewed as threatening in even the most normal and ordinary circumstances. That ingrained stereotype shapes everything from daily microaggressions to racial profiling.
And it underscores the larger issue we must continue to address: the deep-rooted racism in our society — conscious and unconscious; individual and institutional.
The New Yorker republished today an essay by James Baldwin from 1962 because of its enduring relevance to the events of this week and the tenor of our time. I was too young to read it when it came out, but it became part of the book The Fire Next Time, which was a big influence on me as a college student in the 1970s. The essay, from fifty-eight years ago, is timely.
Baldwin describes the terror to parents of raising black children in a white society knowing their child’s smallest misstep could have tragic consequences, and he talks of how, as a child himself, he discerned the fear in his parents: “Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await…his mysterious and inexorable punishment.”
Baldwin concludes that “It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy…It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.” Baldwin uses the image of the foot on the neck as a metaphor; it is a contemporary reckoning to see it made real. Similarly, the desperate cry of “I can’t breathe” has come to symbolize the struggle to survive in a racist climate.
What role can Sage play in this story that is so much bigger than us? The saying “Think Globally; Act Locally” is relevant. We aspire to build a supportive and inclusive community. But, of course, we are not immune to or apart from the dynamics of our whole society, including prejudice driven by race, gender, or class. We need to be conscious and candid of our own limitations and work to build capacity and vision for a better world, even when that work is difficult and frustrating. The events of this week and what they epitomize affect us all but have special force for our students and employees of color, and that needs to be respected and understood.
I have thought often during the pandemic about what an unsettling time it is for our students to be just making their way in life with this new level of disruption, uncertainty, and isolation. The vivid manifestation of our society’s racist underpinnings fits oddly and painfully in the midst of this pandemic. It forces us to question platitudes about our “all being in this together,” but it ultimately reinforces that our destinies are inextricably intertwined. Baldwin put it as “We, the black and the white, deeply need each other if we are really to become a nation.” To read that sentiment in today’s context and know it was written half a century ago is to be bitterly reminded of the depth of our challenge.
In spite of the darkness in this moment, I firmly believe that college, and Russell Sage College in particular, is a great place to be when our thinking and behavior need to be challenged, when what we take for granted needs to be questioned and overturned. It is helpful that our new general education program includes a core course dedicated to intercultural studies and that service-based engagement with the community remains a vital part of our curriculum.
In the days and weeks ahead, I invite all of you to reach out to me with your responses to what is unfolding in our country and your suggestions for ways to engage these continuing challenges. I am thinking about all of you in the Sage community right now and anxious for us to be together in the fall to take on this work together.