Just a few of the names of those whose lives were stolen in the last decade: George Floyd (May 25, 2020), Dreasjon “Sean” Reed (May 6, 2020), Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020), Ahmaud Arbery (February 23, 2020), Botham Jean (September 16, 2018), Stephon Clark (March 18, 2018), Philando Castile (July 6, 2016), Jamar Clark (November 15, 2015), Sandra Bland (July 15, 2015), Tamir Rice (November 22, 2014), Ezell Ford (August 11, 2014), Michael Brown (August 9, 2014), Eric Garner (July 17, 2014), Trayvon Martin (February 26, 2012).
As we mourn the most recent losses that have stricken the United States, we also cannot ignore the dramatic and debilitating disparities that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that the current pandemic has hit Black Americans especially hard: over 24% of those who have died are Black, but they constitute just 13% of the population. Black Americans have been disproportionately hammered by job losses, food insecurity, inadequate access to health care, loss of education, anxiety, and depression.
To be sure, the pandemic has hit other Americans of color and Americans living in poverty, or with low incomes, or employed in the service sector, especially hard. The suffering is pervasive, heart-breaking, and frequently devastating. However, if history is any guide, Black people will be among those who suffer the most, and the longest, in the economic recession that now envelops our country.
I would like to share a (slightly adapted) quote with you that has, despite its origins in fiction, guided my thinking and actions throughout my life since I first read it as a teenager:
“I wish it had not happened in my time. So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”*
The most precious gift we can receive is the opportunity to decide what we will do with the time that we have. And so I ask of each of you:
What are we to do at such a time as this?
Perhaps the first thing we should do is to again recognize that, as shocking as the recent videos have been to many of us, the behavior captured in those videos is not shocking, or even slightly surprising, to Black Americans. The behaviors captured in those videos – the violence and the indifference – are another manifestation of the systemic racism that has plagued the United States for over 400 years, as both Black Americans and Native Americans know all too well. The racism now so evident is an often hidden, subtle, and transmissible system of advantage that normalizes the White experience. No White person is completely immune, and there is no vaccine.
What are we to do at such a time?
Tragedy can motivate us to address inequities and injustice, as currently exemplified by the inclusive, widespread demonstrations demanding fundamental change. For those of us who can remember the 1960s, the scenes across America now are agonizingly familiar. Although progress was made in that era, the current state of our country is sufficient evidence that the transformative goals, sought by so many, were not fully achieved. Let us not miss this opportunity to move the United States much closer to becoming a country with “liberty and justice for all.” We have seen enough horrific videos that capture violence and injustice. Black lives matter.
What can the University of Rhode Island do at such a time?
URI, and American higher education more broadly, have missed or mishandled too many opportunities to help guide our nation to becoming a just and humane society. Let us not squander this one. Let us agree to expand our transformational goal around community, equity, and diversity to include URI becoming a national, even global, leader in the battle against systemic racism.
Let us agree that URI should exemplify a clear and consistent commitment to anti-racism, to equal justice, and to liberty and safety for Black Americans and other marginalized groups.
Let us help the United States to move toward the time when everyone awakens to face a new day, with the same confidence as White American men overwhelmingly do, without fear of being insulted, abused, beaten, arrested, or killed.
Let us not forget that research universities must live in the real world – we must deal in facts, data, and truth, even when these are uncomfortable, inconvenient, or inconsistent with the myths we tell ourselves about who we are, and what our country is. And we must prepare our students to live in the real world, to critically examine their own myths and assumptions, and to be prepared to succeed and lead in the global effort to overcome the challenges of the times in which they live.
What specifically can URI do at such a time?
First, I recognize that these steps are incremental but nonetheless challenging to implement in such times. However, I believe these steps can move us closer to becoming the university we should be. I have initiated conversations with University leaders to implement the following:
- Create diversity coordinators in each college and division of the university who will work in collaboration with the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity on issues specific to their college/division related to recruitment and retention, professional development, student success, and curriculum development.
- Develop the policies and procedures for strategic opportunity hires to promote and retain underrepresented staff and faculty.
- Increase the recruitment and enrollment of undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented groups.
- Expand the Multicultural Faculty Fellows Program.
I hope that all members of our URI community – faculty, students, staff, supporters, and partners – will join together to create the kind of university you so richly deserve.
*From The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien