Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Many university presidents are sending letters to their communities following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Most of these missives speak about bringing their university communities together and expressing their values. Those letters are just not enough. “Statements of our values,” like “thoughts and prayers,” have become devalued by too frequent use.
As a general rule, I avoid the role as the commentator-in-chief of the daily news cycle, instead focusing my remarks on issues that relate to higher education in general, our specific University and reputation, or another university if we need to be in solidarity. Events on city streets happen every day. This is a catastrophic time in the world, yet I can’t use the “bully pulpit” in a way that becomes diluted and ineffectual. We all need a voice. We are a university, not a presidency.
However, we now reach a tipping point. A terrible incident in Minneapolis has become a torch in the world. And the disturbances have come as far as the “little gem-of-a-town” of Redlands, with angry, obscene graffiti on University signage and looting in North Redlands over the weekend.
This isn’t merely about Minneapolis. Or one moment. Or even one person’s death—or three. The core of the problem is the treatment of blacks and other persons of color every day of their lives. The social fabric has been rent. This affects us all deeply and emotionally—but more profoundly if we are in a minority, powerless, poor, unemployed, ill, hungry, or marginalized by the impact of a pandemic. These issues are being politicized at the highest levels of our governments.
It is possible to argue we’ve come a long way since the heroic Civil Rights Movement (which in this moment is sounding quaint to some ears) and certainly since the cruelty of slavery or the dehumanizing Jim Crow legislation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But what remains with us today is that very dehumanization—and its latest face is George Floyd. Enough. No more inhumanity. Stop it now.
With all the pandemic and unemployment and hurt and death around us, we may well ask, “How much more can we take?” It’s hollow for me to even ask. It’s hypothetical. Many of our fellow human beings awaken every day wondering plaintively—how much more can I take?
Some of us remember another chaotic year, one that James Fallows looks to for perspective in his recent “Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?” piece in The Atlantic that compares 2020 with 1968. In the face of assassinations, foreign warfare, domestic carnage, and political disarray, I vividly recall the demonstrations of 1968 that I experienced as a college student, which impressed on me the importance and power of collective action.
We can also look for inspiration to the struggles of labor in the 1930s, the Stonewall riots of 1969, or the Beijing Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 as other times that called for immense courage and purpose. We will emerge with greater solidarity, within the University and in this country. But it will take social and political activism. It will take passion. And it will take time, I suppose.
Yet, I’m feeling the way you are—the urgency of now. Let me tell you who I am, from where the urgency comes: As a young graduating physician I took a solemn oath. It said to me that all men and women are fully human and deserve great care and no harm. How could one human harm another? That is the question buried in the DNA of a violent and racist society.
If I were addressing an in-person rally rather than a virtual one, I would speak and then “pass the mic.” In that spirit, I include some words below from others in our community. Let us all profess what we believe. That’s what a great university does.
Provost Kathy Ogren writes:
“American history demonstrates time and time again that we are a nation that must ever struggle together to achieve the promise of liberty and justice for all. Today, with grief and outrage, we affirm that Black Lives Matter and Enough is Enough. Let us all ‘take a knee’ together. I turn to the eloquence of Frederick Douglass in his 1857 speech, “West India Emancipation.” Douglass wrote: ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.’”
Senior Diversity and Inclusion Officer Christopher Jones, Jr. remarks:
“The events in recent days are present-day reminders that this country continues to have work to do in living out the meaning that all of us are created equally. Like many, I mourn the senseless deaths that have caught the nation’s attention in a way that for many communities, sadly, has not been unusual. As I continue to struggle with my own feelings and emotions, I am reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once told us ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Even when it is difficult to see in the short-term, we must remember, and I believe, that justice will be present in the end.”
Art Svenson, David Boies Endowed Chair of Government, says:
“Once again, we ask ourselves, ‘Who are we?’ And once again, separate and unequal is the answer. Education, the rule of law, health care, criminal justice, opportunity, neighborhoods, quality of life, jobs, name it, we are a nation separate and unequal. True before the Constitution, true because of the Constitution, and still true now in spite of the Constitution. Our body politic is sick and has been since 1619—no video necessary. Educate our youth about justice, fairness and decency so that one day the dreams of all of children’s children will come true—and one day the voices of all of us will be believed. In the meantime, for those in government responsible for our sick bodies and our sick body politic, November couldn’t come soon enough.”
Professor Yolanda Norton, who is H. Eugene Farlough Professor of Black Church Studies, offers:
“There is no nuance or complexity about what happened to Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery. Embedded in the fiber of this nation is the disease of white supremacy and racism. The problem is not new nor is it not newly exposed. The reality for Black people in this country is that, regardless of socio-economic class, gender, or education, our race makes us vulnerable to public, state-sanctioned violence. We have reached a critical impasse in this nation that requires intentionality and thoughtfulness to deconstructing racial aggression. Now is a time when silence makes individuals complicit in the marginalization of minoritized populations. Your time at the University of Redlands has to be more than what happens in the classroom, it is also the experiences and encounters that create thoughtful, engaged citizens. Find your voice and use it to create a more just and equitable society. Be attentive to the ways that you hold one another and the leaders of this community and beyond responsible for its embodied, active commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These are not just buzzwords; they are life or death realities for Black people. And to the Black students on campus, be gentle with yourself. Feel what you feel. Do not feel obligated to hold the cultural responsibility of others as they try to make sense of their privilege.”
Travis Martinez, deputy chief of police for the Redlands Police Department, writes in a letter to Jones and several others in the U of R community:
“I cannot tell you how disgusted I was with the actions of all of the officers portrayed on the [Minneapolis] video. In addition, the initial investigation conducted by the Glenn County Police Department in the Ahmaud Arbery homicide does not instill confidence in that specific agency. Understandably, the African-American community may have concerns as to whether or not something like what has occurred in Minnesota or Georgia could happen in Redlands. I have already reached out to all of the leaders in the local African-American churches along with the Redlands Human Relations Commission and offered to speak with their organizations as to how we have instituted policies, procedures, and training to prevent something like what happened in both of those states. I want to extend the same offer to you and the University community.”
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Kendrick Brown reflects:
“We are struggling with major challenges as a College . . . . While these efforts have been happening, however, I want to acknowledge that my attention has been fixed on other important events wracking our nation. Since March, I have watched in horror, fury, and despair the prominent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. As I have struggled to express my reaction to loved ones similarly shaken by these tragic events, a friend shared a profound reflection that passionately expresses what I have been experiencing. I share this essay, ‘I Am So Tired,’ written by Robert M. Sellers, Chief Diversity Officer of the University of Michigan . . . a powerful statement [that] acknowledges what so many of us may be feeling during this turbulent time.”
Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies Jennifer Tilton says:
“As we mourn, we must commit ourselves to understanding how we got to this point as a country and to the hard work of transforming our police and our nation so that our ideals of equality become realities in all of our lives. Black-led protest movements of the past have pushed this nation to take steps towards justice. Now it is time to listen more deeply and commit to transforming all of our institutions and communities so Black Lives Matter. When they do, our entire nation will thrive because racism pollutes our nation at its core and stands in the way of addressing most of the problems we face. As a University, we need to commit to leading difficult conversations about the role police play in our society, the destructive power of fear, and how we can create more humane (non-law enforcement) ways to respond to real community problems of mental health, trauma, and poverty. We must provide students with opportunities to use all the arts of citizenship, their voices, their bodies, and their minds to lead our nation to a stronger future. And, for those of us with racial privilege, we must avoid the temptation to shut our eyes to the realities of racial injustice all around us and to always remember that many don't have that luxury.”
I invite others to send me your thoughts on this historic moment. We can fill up the blogs. But we can also join the rally.
And I join with you in committing to do the work necessary to create a more just and compassionate world.
Yours in solidarity,
Ralph W. Kuncl