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Department of Ethnic Studies

Anti-Black Racism Statement

To Our Students,

We write to you to offer support and care.

We write to you in the wake of the murder of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man who was full of life and possibility and joy and love for the many people who cared for him. While on his way home on January 7, 2023,  Tyre was stopped in his car, arrested, and beaten by multiple police officers in Memphis. On January 10, 2023, Tyre died from the violence done to his body during the arrest. His family shared that the violence done to their son and brother and loved one rendered him unrecognizable. 

Elsewhere in this country, we are witnessing the legalized suppression of Black theorists, historians, writers, and artists whose intellectual labor has included archiving the centuries of state violence and the refusal of the intentional erasure of Black history, art, literature, and resistance. The threats to ban an AP African American Studies Program should be seen as an act of silencing and an act of state violence. As Toni Morrison reminds us, “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense.”

The work that we do in Ethnic Studies is urgent, always. The work that we do recognizes the relationship between the history and systemic racism we study and the continued eruption of violence in our present moment. Even with our knowledge of this violence, the continual act of bearing witness to its repetition weighs deeply and heavily. And we recognize your hurt and pain as well, and the need to come together as a community to care for each other, affirm our desire for transformative justice and a reciprocal human recognition that could guide toward collective healing and radical hope.

A Long History of State-Sponsored Anti-Black Violence in America

The writer James Baldwin said to be Black and conscious in America was to live in a constant state of rage. Without a close look at history, it may be hard for many in the United States to understand this statement. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a recognition that historically, and currently, there are structures in the US that place less value on the lives of Black people. This is a stark reality that is easy to ignore if you are white; impossible if you are Black. Indeed, without historical context, it is impossible to understand the intricacies of white privilege or how white supremacy is inseparable from our nation’s development and its rise to world super-power status. 

The issue of policing is a long-standing problem of horrific proportions. Like all American institutions, we know the history of policing cannot be told without telling the history of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. The very first state-funded police forces were not created to serve and protect, but as slave patrols that scoured cities and countryside looking for Black people to return to slavery, where they were subject to the cruel physical abuse and sexual depravity of their white masters.  The murder of Tyre Nichols forces us to realize that reforms are not the solution to the rampant, systemic anti-Blackness that persists.  Police body cams, diversity training, raising the age requirement of officers, requiring college, and even integrating police departments to include Black and Brown officers:  all these reforms utterly failed Mr. Nichols and thousands of Black women, men and children every year.  All these reforms still allow any police officer–white, Black, Asian or Brown–to murder (or believe they will get away with murdering) Black people due to the anti-Blackness that is inseparable from American policing.  Black people have known this for generations–for centuries even–going back to Black overseers in slave labor camps (commonly known as plantations).

Dr. Jelani Cobb illuminates the issue plainly and effectively in a recent New Yorker article

In 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois noted that among the most corrosive effects of racism was its tendency to make its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt. When the Black-nationalist firebrand Marcus Garvey gave rise to the “Black is beautiful” movement, a century ago, he wasn’t trying to convince white people; he was addressing Black people who had never considered the possibility that those two adjectives could coexist. The famous doll tests designed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which Thurgood Marshall used in arguing Brown v. Board of Education, emphasized the ways that Black children internalized the belief that white dolls, and implicitly white people, were better and more beautiful than Black ones. (In 2010, CNN commissioned a psychologist to design a similar pilot study, of a hundred and thirty-three children in schools in Georgia and New York. The white children associated whiteness with positive attributes at a “high rate”; the Black children made the same association, but at a lower rate.)  [Racial bias studies showed that] nearly half of whites harbored anti-Black bias, as did a notable minority of Black people. The notion that racism is exiled to the periphery of Black environments is a misconception. 

Policing, as an institution, is only one of many institutions that make up and govern American life.  Throughout all American history, from the writing of the Constitution to the present day, the United States has been committed to building and sustaining systems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. History shows that all American institutions, such as those of higher learning, including Santa Clara University, serve to maintain the status quo of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Declarations of anti-racism or diversity training do not make the critical changes required to uproot patriarchal, heteronormative, classist racism.  Instead, those performative band-aids enable universities and other institutions to continue with the business of harming communities of color.  A very simple but powerful example of this is described in Michelle Alexander’s lecture and book, The New Jim Crow in which she illustrates America’s move from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to current-day mass incarceration. All these systems work to do the same thing:  oppress Black people and destroy communities of color. 

After slavery, we saw the Jim Crow era, a hundred years of lynching, humiliation, and voter suppression across the United States.  Along with the physical threats and violence, symbols of white supremacy were erected in the form of statues and the prevalence of the Confederate flag. These monuments were not an historic Civil War-era phenomenon, but rather the racist response to Black freedom struggles in the early twentieth century and during the Civil Rights Era

In the early 1960s, Gallup polls revealed an astounding level of white privilege which indicated that white Americans were oblivious to racial disparities. In the series of Gallup questions, respondents were asked whether Black people had “as good a chance” as white people to access education, and if Blacks were treated fairly in their local communities. 85% of white people believed that Black Americans had the same opportunity in education as white Americans, and 69% of white people perceived that Blacks and whites were treated equally within their communities. This was at the height of segregation, when Black schools were inferior, and Black people were daily humiliated, forced to sit at the back of buses, refused services at restaurants, and were not allowed to register to vote. Meanwhile, police across the country stood in the way of Black voting rights, harassed, arrested, and terrorized Civil Rights workers, and enforced segregation. Local law enforcement and the federal government worked together to demonize Black culture and organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. This organization was established to protect Black neighborhoods from police brutality and created community aid programs such as free breakfast for school kids, ambulance services, health care services, and medical clinics. Currently, we see all manner of protest being denigrated, from kneeling to marching. 

While it can be tempting to wave away these historical facts as things that happened “back then,” it is critically important to recognize the ways in which Black and Brown people in this country continue to struggle against oppressive systems. Though there are no more “white only” signs, police and vigilantes acting as police restrict Black people from walking, jogging, playing, or just living. We also still see racial disparities across all areas of our lives.

The United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation-state on earth – and by a wide margin (with about 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. boasts approximately 25% of the world’s incarcerated humans). This has occurred largely since the early 1980s, with the proportion of American prisoners increasing about 280% in 30 years (1980-2010). By the turn of the 21st century, Black men born in the 1960s were more likely to have gone to prison than to have completed college or military service. 

Even though we are all supposed to be playing by the same rules, disparities abound in the implementation of those rules. For example, Black and white people use drugs at similar rates, but Black people are six times more likely to be arrested and subsequently prosecuted for drug use. In fact, if Black and Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x people were incarcerated at the same rates as white people, prison populations would decline by nearly 40%.

Black people, who are 12% of the U.S. population, make up 37% of prison populations. Currently, one in three Black men will serve some amount of time in prison, while one in 17 white men will serve time. Black women are over twice as likely to be incarcerated than white women. Fully 13% of the Black adult male population have lost the right to vote due to their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the states with the most restrictive voting laws, 40% of Black men are likely to be permanently disenfranchised.

Even in hospitals, white supremacy endangers Black lives.  Of current white medical students and early-career doctors, 60% believe Black people’s skins are thicker and 12% believe Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than those of white people.  This results in doctors ignoring Black people who complain of pain, often resulting in complications and death.  A recent New York Times article reported that Black women are nine times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women.  

In the age of COVID-19, Black unemployment is at 16.7%, while white unemployment is at 14.2%. This is nothing new: historically, Black unemployment is higher than white unemployment. Before the pandemic hit, white unemployment was at 3.1%, while Black unemployment was 5.8%. 

Black trans and gender-nonconforming individuals face discrimination across all areas of life, from employment and policing to healthcare and housing. A third of Black trans and gender non-conforming people have less than $10,000 in yearly income, which is more than twice the rate for trans individuals from all races (15%) and eight times the general U.S. population (4%). Black trans individuals are also less likely to own homes and are often denied access to homeless shelters. When they do obtain access to shelters, they often experience harassment and physical or sexual assault. 

The Ethnic Studies Department is keenly aware of the tremendous influence university students have had on affecting social change in modern society. From the Freedom Riders and student protesters during the civil rights era, to resisting totalitarian communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to protesting foreign wars, to supporting women’s movements, and many more, university students have stood at the vanguard of important social movements.

We cannot forget those who have stood against oppressive systems: Native Americans and their allies at Standing Rock, who fought to protect our environment, increasingly under threat due to climate change. Black trans women like Marsha Johnson who were instrumental in the Stonewall Riots, which paved the way for the LGBTQA movement. #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke and the many trans and cisgender women from all backgrounds who have spoken out against sexual harassment and assault. Many of these movements are led by people from a variety of backgrounds who are the same age as our students or younger. Faculty should openly stand with students who fight for change on this campus and in our community.

Our Ethnic Studies Department is ready to move forward, to uproot anti-Black racism in our own department, our classrooms and to push for change on the Santa Clara University campus.  In the coming months, we want to hear from students to connect, reflect, share and hold space for your input, ideas and suggestions.  We will hold town hall meetings and other events to hear your voices–which should always be the heart of our program.  After these conversations, we will publish our pledge to you, our students, that will include a list of commitments that we will make to better serve you.  At that time, we will also create a list of demands based on the needs of our department–students and faculty–to send to Santa Clara University administrators.  SCU can do better.

Here is a short list of just a few ways to connect with others:

Critical reflexivity that acknowledges our positionalities, subjectivities and proximities to power/privilege and modalities of oppression is necessary and an ongoing practice and process. We are differently positioned and situated along the assemblages of racial formations in the United States. And, we are also uniquely implicated in anti-Black violence and white supremacy when we remain silent, passive, apathetic or willfully (or unknowingly) ignorant, or reluctant to educate ourselves and those among us about the coloniality of power that manifest as anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity and whiteness/white supremacy. To disrupt anti-Black racism, violence, whiteness and white supremacy we must do the work of educating ourselves and those among us – family, friends, peers, neighbors, coworkers, community members and others. Below we offer a few resources to guide your process of critical reflexivity, of unlearning/relearning. We also offer some resources on well-being, healing and transformation, as well as allyship and solidarity in action. 

Current times ominously remind us of past eras and the words of Malcolm X who said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” This statement is our effort to acknowledge the knife, remove it, and start the healing process.

In Solidarity,

The Santa Clara University Ethnic Studies Department