Through my President's Message column, I am attempting to create a series around the theme of inclusivity. I am writing this column on May 31, 2021, a momentous day in the history of our country, the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when White rioters attacked and destroyed a wealthy Black community in Oklahoma, killing as many as 300 people. The past two years or so have seen a significant deterioration of our race relations and a stark reminder that as a nation, we are called upon to be inclusive, given our racial diversity.
On one hand, our history is ridden with persecution, mistreatment, and violence against the African American community. In the past five years, we have had event after event of loss of innocent lives, African American lives, in police and other encounters. Most recently, we have seen a sudden increase in violence against scores of innocent Asians due to misguided and misplaced perceptions about the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, all this unfortunate and unnecessary violence and loss of life have illuminated and shocked us into acknowledging how much we have chosen to ignore, to stay silent and watch by the sidelines, and how much we need to do in a conscious manner to restore equity and inclusivity in our perception of race relations and in all we do, be it in our professional workplace or our private lives.
I have to confess that I am no expert on this subject. I have not overtly experienced violence or deep hate because of my ethnicity, but like many of you I have experienced covert manifestations, be it in opportunities that I was overlooked for or in a promotion that was delayed or denied or in “microaggressions.” I feel fortunate that I have not had to live in fear of being an African American man whose odds of being a victim of violence or death at the hands of police are far higher than any other race or the opposite gender. I also feel fortunate that I have colleagues and leaders in the College from whom I can learn more, listen to narratives, and generate the introspection that is necessary for me to become a better person.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is probably the best recognized symbol of the need for racial equality and George Perry Floyd the most recognized name, which continues to haunt our collective conscience. Swedish economist Karl Gunnar Myrdal, at the invitation of the Carnegie Corporation, explored the social and economic problems of African Americans in 1938-1940 and published the book “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” in 1944. In this work, he proposed his theory of the root cause for why African Americans were perennially disadvantaged: that “poverty creates more poverty.” As Janell Ross wrote in her piece “Americans Have Learned to Talk About Racial Inequality. But They've Done Little to Solve It” in the May 24/31 issue of Time magazine, Myrdal explored, “in statistical detail, the evidence of the great American lie—the gap between the nation's ideals and its racial reality.”
The BLM movement has spread to other countries and inspired an introspection into class or ethnic diversity and how minority groups are treated. Even in countries like India, where discrimination extends to people with darker skin tones because they may represent origins from lower castes (an unfortunate reality of a tiered system of classification and India's colonial history), there is a new sense of urgency to get rid of the class distinctions and promote equality. The children of earlier generations of Indian immigrants to the U.S. were known as the “coconut generation” because they were “brown on the outside and white on the inside.” In recent years, they no longer identify themselves that way and are among the most vocal proponents of racial equity and justice.
COVID-19 and the challenges of the pandemic have unfortunately brought with them a new phenomenon of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes. The genesis of this phenomenon may lie in people being misguidedly led to believe that COVID-19 is of Asian origin and so vengeance must be exacted on anyone of Asian descent. Unfortunately, some of our political leaders have been culpable in fanning the flames by feeding into and encouraging such misconceptions. While the tragedy of one ethnic group turning on another for one reason or another is a worldwide phenomenon and not unique to the U.S., one would have assumed that since every race besides Indigenous people were immigrants at some point in time, we would be able to live in harmony.
Where do we go from here? We can dwell on our sordid past and relive our errors of commission, or we can move forward and explore how we can become an antiracist community, profession, and world. I am so proud to say that the College issued a pledge on Oct. 21, 2020, to be an antiracist organization and to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
We now need to move from talk into action. The National Museum of African American History and Culture explains well the different forms of racism that may exist and that being antiracist is not a “passive role of not endorsing racism” but an “active role of speaking out against it when one encounters it at any level.” What is poignant is the statement on the organization's website asserting, “No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make.”
In the National Equity Project, Kathleen Osta and Hugh Vasquez talk about implicit bias and structural racism. They make several suggestions that we could certainly adopt as we move on in our journey to be more antiracist:
- 1. Situate learning about implicit bias in a historical and socioeconomic political context.
- 2. Highlight and interrogate the ways that current policies and practices create and reproduce inequitable outcomes that serve to reinforce our implicit biases and the ways in which our implicit biases lead us to reify (and justify) existing inequities.
- 3. Understand that structural racism, othering, and exclusion have become normalized and result in policies and practices that ensure access to opportunity for some and exclude others.
- 4. Don't confuse the fact that “we all have implicit biases” with immunity from responsibility as the benefactors of the current inequitable structural arrangements.
- 5. We are all connected—our fates are linked. Working for social justice is not about “helping those kids” or “those communities,” but about dismantling structures that exclude, increasing access to opportunity and building healthy, inclusive communities in which we all belong and can thrive.
- 6. Any effort to interrupt implicit bias and its impacts must be accompanied by efforts to dismantle structures that exclude and build structures that provide access to opportunity or create new opportunities.
I invite you to read the book “How To Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, which will stimulate your own contemplation about your antiracist journey. The book includes a quote that I believe sums it up: “We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let's know how to be antiracist.” I pray that you will join me as we as a College continue that journey, moving from being a silent spectator to being an active participant in antiracism, to becoming more inclusive.