Anthony Hazard is an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
What does it mean for individuals and institutions to be ethical in a society built on genocide and enslavement? How do we as humans living in U.S. society comprehend a set of ethics within a historical legacy of sanctioned racialized segregation? In this moment of unrest, insurrection, ongoing police violence, and murder of African Americans captured on film and blasted around the globe, we might pause and consider the questions we are asking ourselves about our existence in this system. One question I’ve asked myself several times since the video emerged of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd last month is: What does it take for non-Black people to squarely focus on this country’s murderous and racist origins, and what does that mean for us in the 21st century?
The month of May for me, and many scholars of race, was a nonstop engagement with people of all backgrounds, friends, family, students, strangers, colleagues, about interpersonal and structural racism, Black death, the history of policing, the carceral state, white allyship, the list goes on. But at the core of these exchanges has been the desire for understanding and answers.
In most cases, historical explanations proved useful, as did sociological analysis, music, and everyday anecdotes. But folks remained troubled. How could this be happening today? How could three police officers hold George Floyd on the pavement and take his life while he was handcuffed and clearly subdued? How could the fourth officer very casually stand silent as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening? Did the officers act within the bounds of Minnesota law? Why did it take so long for Derek Chauvin to be arrested on the charges of third degree murder and manslaughter?
As we await those answers, what has emerged for me as an educator, a historian, and a Black man, is that we have yet another moment in which individuals and institutions continue to fail Black people. It is yet again revealed that when one’s humanity is in doubt, under the banner of “race,” there exists no set of moral principles that individuals and institutions hold themselves to when it comes to the dignity, well being, and respect of Black life.
The collective pain circulating throughout the month of May continues into June, and family members, friends, and certainly my Black students carry the burden of this violence on their minds and in their hearts. This pain, of course, is exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic for my students and their concerns for the physical well being of themselves and loved ones, as the virus has disproportionately impacted African Americans. For the seniors in particular, completing their time at Santa Clara University (SCU) without physically being in community to celebrate their achievements has been excruciating. The trauma of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd at the hands of vigilantes and law enforcement adds to the trauma wrought while trying to thrive and survive in this society.
It is no secret that Black students face enormous challenges at SCU due to the lack of Black students and faculty, and dearth of institutional support. What I’ve witnessed and experienced in my nine years at SCU has recently been confirmed by the Campus Climate Report (2019), and seconded by Fr. O’Brien in his statement to the university community on June 1. While the 2020 cohort of graduating Black students have not had to face the Yik-Yak racism of 2015, they have traversed campus amid the heightened public racism fueled by racist backlash to President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, culminating in the 2016 presidential election victory for the Republican candidate.
Black students at SCU need support now more than ever from the faculty, staff, and the institutional structure. If we are indeed to locate and comprehend the institution’s shortcomings when it comes to “social justice,” then we must center the voices, needs, and health of students who embody the “diversity” that SCU and other institutions of higher learning have become particularly adept at articulating but not achieving.
These challenges exist across the country of course, with crystal clear ethical implications in our present moment. As Senior Editor Andy Thomason recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “nationwide, college presidents acknowledge the immense outrage over the killing of Floyd as well as the disproportionate toll of the novel coronavirus on communities of color,” but more broadly, “other leaders emphasized the role of colleges in combating bigotry.” Duke University’s President Vincent Price gets to the heart of the matter of the dual threat of COVID-19 and racism, stating, “this ongoing history of structural and sustained racism is fundamental and deeply distressing injustice, here as elsewhere.”
On the morning of June 1, former President Barack Obama issued a statement in which he reminded us, “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.” The apt title of Obama’s statement, “How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change,” is a call to action. It is time for Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) to respond with robust action. The time for commissions, task forces, and “conversations” is over. Endowments, millionaire and billionaire donors, and fundraising campaigns must be tapped immediately to expand mental health service infrastructures, with a focus on hiring highly qualified professionals who have lived experiences as Black people. Following the lead of Marquette, SUNY Binghamton, UT Austin, Penn State, and Emory, cluster hires of Black professors who are scholars of race must happen now.
These measures would immediately relieve some of the tremendous burden and isolation that Black faculty endure as well. Leaders of PWIs must realize now, how demoralizing it is for Black students to feel that new buildings and campus beautification are more important than their sanity and humanity. Solidarity is a verb. The ethical implications couldn’t be clearer. The time for action is now.