My fellow members of our Teachers College community, we have been through a lot over the past three months. We have had our lives turned upside down by a global pandemic no one saw coming last fall. We have battled stress and exhaustion. And we have mourned the loss of friends and loved ones.
Yet through it all, we have rallied day in and day out to keep our focus sharp, our spirits high, our community together, and our College strong. Whatever challenges we have faced, however novel or formidable, we have tackled together. And while I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us, I headed into the Memorial Day weekend with cautious optimism about the future.
However, the events of the past week – starting with the senseless and brutal murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, followed by the escalation of hateful rhetoric, violence and destruction, and culminating in the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters in our nation’s capital – have all but shattered my optimism. Not only did these events call up a lifetime’s worth of painful memories of horrendous discrimination and horrific acts of violence against Black Americans; they also are embedded in our country’s historical foundation and reveal the forces of racism that still permeate our institutions and culture today.
So, as I write to you now during this most uncertain hour for our country and world, I am worried and brokenhearted. And I am angry. I’m angry that my Black students, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens are subjected each day to indignities that I neither have or could ever experience. I am angry that they continue to pay a terrible toll for inequities and inequality in health and education.
And I am angry that the horrible fate that befell George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others also could just as easily befall any Black person in this country – including any Black member of our TC community. For Black Americans, each killing of an innocent and unarmed person furnishes yet another excruciating reminder of how the nation continues to devalue Black lives and bodies, and of how too many officers who are charged with upholding the law and guaranteeing public safety instead choose to perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy through terror and violence.
Make no mistake: Racism exacts a terrible, dehumanizing toll on all of us. We are living in a time when the most fundamental values that guide our society are being threatened and tested as never before during most of our lifetimes. The ideals of our democracy – the integrity of our electoral and criminal justice systems; the sanctity of law; and respect for the worth of the individual – are visibly under assault by the combined forces of powerful special interests, corruption, greed, and the disaffection of ordinary people who no longer believe that they have the personal agency to effect meaningful change.
Poor people and people of color bear the brunt of this damage, but for anyone to imagine that they are somehow safe from these forces is akin to ignoring warnings about, say, the dangers of a deadly virus. To put it more simply: When we avert our eyes from a horrible crime against another human being, we become complicit in a society that can disregard our own rights as well.
But we are not powerless to act. In fact, as educational institutions, we have the power to help end 401 years of racism. From the humblest pre-kindergarten to the largest university, schools are our best hope for instilling an understanding of human difference and the institutions of a participatory democracy.
Teachers College in particular has an important role to play. We are on frontlines of ensuring that every child has the technological access to continue with schooling, and that every teacher has the ability to connect with students under these difficult conditions. We are the health educators who can help reduce disparities in frontline care, as well as disparities in nutrition and fitness, which all bear on children’s performance in school. We are the psychologists who can shape the mental health supports that enable marginalized communities – whether in American inner cities or in refugee camps around the world – to continue pursuing lives of growth and fulfillment.
So, what can members of the Teachers College community do differently? We can continue to work to eradicate racism in our own community. We can continue to develop culturally relevant pedagogies, to support events and programming that promote equity, and to advocate for social justice in our respective fields.
We can make common cause with our Black brothers and sisters in a way that goes beyond expressing sympathy or outrage. We can look beyond the moment, and reaffirm that the fight against racism and inequity isn’t part of our mission – it is our mission. And we can recognize that the battlefront isn’t simply a protest march or a petition; it can also be a classroom, a community health clinic, a food cooperative, a clinical trial, a standardized test design, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Right now, each of us – including and especially those of us with power and privilege – has a responsibility to stand up against racial bias, racial hatred, and the evil of racism. Teachers College must redouble its commitment and resolve to fight racism and advance social justice for all. And we will. Four hundred and one years of racism is enough.
President, Teachers College