Friday, June 12, 2020
President Harvey Stenger
Office of the President
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000
A SOCIAL CONTRACT THAT BLACK LIVES MATTER
Dear President Stenger,
I am writing in response to your Wednesday, June 10 Message to Binghamton University Community regarding recent effects of structural racism roiling the nation; namely, as you put it, the "disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color," "the horrifying murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery," and I add as well, a long list of African American, Native American, Latinx, and Asian American men and women murdered at the hands of law enforcement officials.
September 1, 2020 will be my thirtieth year at Binghamton University. During this period, I have witnessed tragically the hardening of racial hostility among white students, the intensification of institutional racism by campus administration, and flagrant displays of white privilege at all levels of campus interactions. Many appear clueless about the centuries-long histories of brutality, oppression, and exploitation of Native Americans, African Americans, Chicano/a Americans, and Asian Americans. We all know that structural racism is the undeniable underlying factor propelling police brutality all around the country, and that this brutality has been ongoing for over 400 years for Native Peoples and African Americans. We know that structural racism pervades this campus and the larger Binghamton community; and yet we are all shocked that anti-black racism exists, and that black people continue to be brutalized under the auspices of law and order.
What we all witnessed in the horrific deaths of Messrs. Floyd and Arbery was not new if we are to be honest with ourselves (see Mapping Police Violence). We know that utter disregard of black lives is responsible for the extra-judicial killings of unarmed black men and women by the police, and that the American legal system has long protected the police and given them judicial relief. In the last five years, we have either seen or read about the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and many others. Just last month, May 23, 2020, two days before the murder of Mr. Floyd, a SUNY Dutchess Community College student, Maurice Gordon, was killed by a New Jersey state trooper. In fact, I am reminded that 50 years ago, it was a similar kind of racial uprising that birthed the Department of Africana Studies at Binghamton University, in 1969. Although the department was created to fight the racism and institutional oppression flourishing in the educational field, its mission to do that required educating the next generation of students about the African American experience as a way to banish the ignorance in which racism festers. Unfortunately, like everything else in racialized America, institutional racism prevented the university from taking full advantage of the department's mission to transform the narrative; rather it strategically marginalized and ghettoized the department. Binghamton University, like other universities around the country, failed to seize the momentum to fundamentally strive for racial and social justice. Now, the pressing question is, what will our legacy be?
The trauma of our African American and Latinx students, many of whom come from neighborhoods terrorized by the police, is incontestable and immeasurable. From the onset of their educational lives in primary schools, they have been policed, surveilled, terrorized, and unjustly treated by educators and the police. Those experiences are no less traumatic when served by educators and administrators rather than by the police. The effects of anti-black racism are real. On this campus, our black and brown students have continued to be ignored, disparaged, dismissed, misunderstood, and ill-served. As if these difficult experiences are not hard enough, some have had frightening encounters with the campus police as well as the police of other jurisdictions of the Broome County area. The question we should all collectively be considering is: Can we honestly claim to serve all our students or claim we are working for social justice, when we routinely ignore the concerns and wellbeing of our black and brown students, when we question their personhood, and force on them daily barrages of psychological assault? We claim inclusion and diversity as our university mission. But are we fostering inclusiveness and valuing students of color when our campus fails to live up to its public relations claims, and we trivialize their protests against racism and call in the police to break up their campus sit-ins?
I raise these issues not to focus on the past but to use it as a guide to advance a practical solution. We are doomed to fail if we do not heed sankofa epistemology and learn from the past to change the future. Let me state upfront that while I am undeniably concerned about the wellbeing of our black and brown students, I also care about the wellbeing of our mostly white students, many of whom are well intentioned and desire to be agents of change. That they are entrapped by the ideology of white solipsism and white fragility does not mean they are happy with the status quo. Although they are beneficiaries of racial privilege, the terms on which that privilege is secured diminish them morally.
I see this as a moment of change, as an opportunity for Binghamton University to courageously advance the mission that was central to the formation of the Department of Africana Studies, but which the university abandoned. African American experience must be taught and become a foundational course across all disciplines as we collectively work to uproot the lies of white supremacist ideology and lay bare the racial justice exceptionalism of American plurality. I am willing to attribute the shock that many felt about the murder of Floyd and Arbery to a lack of knowledge and awareness about police brutality in black communities. But we know that ignorance can no longer serve as a cover in the new social justice reality we seek to build. For far too long, we have lived in two opposing worlds in America: a secure world of whiteness, and one in which the world outside the cocoon of whiteness is the Hobbesian state of nature. We can no longer assuage our guilt by harping on pathologies and giving credence to false and misleading narratives about affirmative action that present African Americans as unworthy beneficiaries of privileges. All those self-serving narratives serve the illicit objective of concealing the massive economic and social divestment from black citizens and black communities while hiding the unjust systemic transfer of wealth to white citizens and communities. To the extent we are shocked by the colossal racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths and the vast global protests fueled by police brutality, we must admit complicity in the systemic brutalization of fellow Americans.
One way to address the problem is to take seriously our role in social change and transformation. We must ensure a radically different experience for the next generation, one which includes honestly teaching them about the currently skewed foundation of America's exceptionalism and sharing the true experiences of blacks in building this country. This cannot be a matter of half-hearted measures or the utilization of obstructionism to return to old ways that have not served Binghamton University well. In my view, this is a radical moment that calls for making Africana courses core requirements across the university which all students should be mandated to take to be versed in the appropriate civic language of the new America. To serve, work with, and interact as Americans, "We the People" can no longer be the code for "We the White People." That "more perfect Union" must "promote the general Welfare" of everyone and truly secure the "Liberty" of all.
Let me declare my support for the initiatives the university has taken so far. I welcome the steps announced in your message to the community. The reallocation of funds from the campus police department to other campus services, such as mental health services, is a courageous move. But we need to go further, beyond mere fund allocation, to ensure that systemic change occurs in accessing those services. With the racial disparity of COVID-19 in mind, most of the services to receive the allocated funds have not always served well our black and brown students who come to this university with past and ongoing trauma of police terror and brutality in their different neighborhoods in New York City and other parts of the state. In fact, some of those campus emergency services, and the staff hired to run them treat black students discourteously and fail to offer them the full assistance they require. It would be sad if again black students' experiences of racial injustice and brutality become the basis of progressive initiatives while they continue to face racism and discrimination in receiving those essential services.
Lastly, we cannot deflect the pain of students of color by devaluing racial oppression as misunderstanding rather than as a matter of social justice. To avoid trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement and, as you stated, to "realize a society where Black Lives Matter," we must be clear about who will be the beneficiaries of the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship being set up with an endowment of $1.5 million. While it is designed "to support future African American leaders who seek racial justice and endeavor to make a positive impact on the world," we must remember the challenges opponents of affirmative action had mounted to gut racially specific programs. The Clifford D. Clark Fellowships began with lofty goals of serving underrepresented minorities, but it had to be watered down to include three additional categories: "raised in a single-parent household, first-generation college student, and history of overcoming disadvantage." The result of this policy shift from "underrepresented minorities" to the expanded eligibility requirements has been a diminution in the number of black and brown graduate students being recruited to Binghamton University.
In concluding, we should consider two important questions: what measures are in place to protect the racially specific goals of the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship? And, to what extent will the $200,000 reallocated to the annual budget for the Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellowships be used to increase the number of still underrepresented black graduate students? As we mull over these questions, let me underscore that all these initiatives are predicated on raising the number of black faculty in the university, and in Harpur, the largest of the Colleges. Clearly, the continued whitening of departments through faculty departures will severely impact the recruitment of black graduate students to this university.
SUNY Distinguished Professor
Department of Africana Studies, and
Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000
Founder: Africa Knowledge Project <http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org> for Critical African Studies
JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies
West Africa Review