silence is NOT an option

This week the Chronicle published the article “Higher Ed’s Toothless Response to the Killing of George Floyd,” written by two of my colleagues, Jason England and Rich Purcell. Every paragraph, every sentence hits home; it is worthwhile to read in its entirety. However, because the article is behind a paywall, here are excerpts:

What does it mean when an ice-cream company, Ben & Jerry’s, can come up with a clearer message of solidarity with protesters and against injustice than a university can? It means that higher education’s interest in fighting racism is, at best, superficial and, at worst, cynical.

We are black men on the faculty at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. On the afternoon of June 2, Rich was among a group of faculty and staff members asked by our dean to brainstorm a written response to the killing of George Floyd and to plan campus programming. Rich was the only black man involved. Jason — a faculty member with a background in civil rights who grew up in a traditionally overpoliced community and was recently racially profiled by the police — wasn’t consulted at all. When the statement was released, Rich discovered that the language and editing he had contributed had been eschewed, disregarded.

We now find ourselves in a predicament at once peculiar and familiar: to advocate for our self-interest — our community, our rights, our safety, and our dignity — puts us in a position of jeopardizing our self-interest (our standing with university administration, and, given that he isn’t tenured, Jason’s livelihood). We’re also left to contemplate our personal and professional value to the university. We seem to exist as props, to be displayed as proof of the university’s nobility and virtue —but not as intellectuals to be engaged.

[W]e’ve seen statements that serve no higher purpose. They are not messages but, to re-appropriate a term from Daniel Boorstin, pseudo-messages. They simply reaffirm the proclivity of college administrators to ape moral and ethical commitment to social concerns while, in fact, keeping the unruly social world at bay. They are written for an audience that bears little relation to the actual student body, staff, and faculty.

It is both right and possible to construct a statement that confronts the glaring issues of social inequity, the legitimization of extrajudicial violence, and the foundation of anti-blackness that props up our country. It is both right and possible to construct a statement that clearly supports the bodily sacrifice of the protesters and the desire for freedom and true democracy by black women and men. Instead, we get exercises in equivocation and dissembling that have little interest in speaking truth to power or in telling us who is responsible for injustice and why. These statements feign care for the community but ask us to deal with structural inequities not through collective action but by directing us to the university’s buffet of self-care services.

We’re tired of people hiding behind Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, so we do not invoke his words lightly: It is up to university leadership to choose where we go from here: chaos or community? We have a chance — indeed, a duty — to elevate the discourse on race, class, police violence, and human dignity. We absolutely must force conversations about the spirit and philosophy that demean so many blacks and relegate us to the scrap heap in this society. We are devastated to wake up in a world where the university, the institution in which we invest our energy, love, and purpose, cannot rise to meet the very grave moment in which we live.

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