A Statement from the Interim Faculty Director
Black person: Guilty until proven innocent?
Dear colleagues and students affiliated with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC):
The past several days have been painfully unsettling for Blacks in the United States, for other Americans who care, and for much of the rest of the world that has expressed empathy and solidarity. This is evident in the now week-long protests that have taken place in various American cities and around the world. The videos we have seen of the senseless murder of George Floyd, under the knee and weight of Minneapolis ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, who didn’t seem to care at all about the possible consequences of his torture of the victim, is too reminiscent of a similar horrific incident six years earlier. In 2014 Eric Garner, a Black man, also died at the hand of a police officer who applied a choke hold on the victim for much too long, while the latter was gasping for air and telling the police, “I can’t breathe” – the same sentence uttered by George Floyd when he was being held by the police.
The same week, Amy Cooper, a New York City White woman, thought she could abuse the privilege of her race in the United States by falsely calling the police to come and arrest, Christian Cooper, an unrelated Black bird-watcher who was simply asking her to leash her dog in Central Park, as required by a law intended to protect wild life. The incident evoked, among many others, the tragic lynching of Emmett Till in 1941, after a White woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. These incidents are the tipping point of a series of many in recent years which have turned Black men in particular into a species relentlessly endangered by the law enforcement system, among other societal structures. Black women have not been spared by the police’s overreaction. In March, police officers in Louisville, Kentucky stormed into the residence of Breonna Taylor and killed her by shooting indiscriminately while searching for drugs nowhere to be found.
Even those Black people who are well established cannot help wondering when their turn might come to either be falsely accused or be gunned down by zealous or heinous guards or police officers who think they are empowered to “shoot to kill” rather than simply arrest those they suspect of having committed a crime. Wasn’t the well-renowned Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates handcuffed by the police in 2009 at his own home because a female White neighbor thought he was breaking into the house, presumably because he did not appear to belong in the neighborhood? The arrest took place after he had shown his state ID, which confirmed he lived in the premises. However, the police officer who responded to the call alleged misconduct (as Professor Gates contested the unnecessary investigation) to justify the arrest!
Constant racial profiling haunts many of us people of color, causing us to feel unsafe outside our homes. The ongoing public protests show that the time has come when many people of all races have decided to rise against the perduring race bias in the United States and other systemic injustices in the enforcement of the law. The protests are also against pervasive socioeconomic inequities that have been made more conspicuous by the fatal casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some members of our university community have been painfully and often silently affected by all these unsettling events, which are aggravated by our nation’s president who not only appears to be confused and overwhelmed, unable to unite and lead the citizens through the crises of the time, but is also insensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised. Ironically, he wishes to repress the protests by using military force against his own citizens in the same way he accuses China of doing in Hong Kong! For us, nonetheless, it appears to be more and more dangerous to be Black or, more generally, a person of color in a polity that White supremacists want to claim as exclusively theirs.
This is the time when we need to express more social solidarity, which is not mutually exclusive with social distancing. We can support each other in many ways, including virtually, thanks largely to some of the same technology that has helped us save this spring quarter at the University. We can also use this time for experts among us to educate us and guide us through the traumas that some of us are undoubtedly experiencing harder than some others. We at CSRPC remain attentive to these experts’ advice and will, within the range of what we can do, assist those of us that are particularly distressed. We stand together as one community and will continue to do so throughout these trying times.
I would be remiss not to underscore that CSRPC is foremost a research center and that our faculty affiliates’ scholarly findings and teaching influence our readers and students. Race- and ethnicity-related aspects of the present health and social crises are prompts for us to think not only what we can investigate in the future but also what courses we can offer or how we can adapt them to issues we notice now. Our sustained scholarship can impact humanity in diverse constructive ways related to our areas of expertise on race and ethnicity. May we work together for a better America and a better world in which racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity is not at odds with inclusion, justice, and equality.
Salikoko S. Mufwene
Interim Faculty Director, CSRPC