In 1938, President Clarence Stoughton, the first lay leader of Wagner College, decried anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and challenged the U.S. to root out its own racism. Eighty years later, bearing witness to the recent horrific murders of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Sean Reed in Indiana, I echo his cry.
The attack on Black Americans, as exemplified most recently in these killings and more generally through the disproportionate exposure of people of color to the ravages of the pandemic, is not something new; it is continuous with a long history of exploitation of Black Americans, a constitutional normal that never goes away. This deep truth may be papered over now and then, but it is always there. As those who experience it tell us, this grinding reality always threatens and takes a toll every single day. It does all of this while squandering human talent, undermining democracy, and dishonoring the sacrifices of veterans, social activists, and all who have dared to dream the U.S. could be different, even better.
I have devoted a life of scholarship to the study of racism and colonialism in the U.S. in the hope that my historiographic contributions on the Southern and Native American past would in some way enable all people to face the past honestly and then do better. It is clearer than ever that we need more than words; we need ideas and we need actions.
For four months every human being has feared being felled by COVID-19, but for four centuries every American has been infected and harmed by racism. If we don't learn the many lessons of this highly racialized pandemic—scientific, sociological, about leadership, about communication, about truth, about what divides and what separates us, about the horrible disparities that divide us and the grotesque inequalities that define America in the early 21st century, about our better angels and worst inclinations—and instead just go back to business as usual, then we are doing a grave disservice to ourselves, our community, and our country.
We must aim higher. It’s our responsibility as educators and our duty as a distinguished private college dedicated to the public good. As teachers we practice hope, always believing that if we do our work well then the young can and will make the world a better place. At Wagner, we affirm our students’ promise and power to right things. We do this every day and now I want us to do so in focused ways on June 19th, positioning this day as a key turning point.
June 19th, otherwise known as Juneteenth, commemorates June 19, 1865, the day enslaved Black Americans were informed of their liberation, well after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This year it will be observed with respect and action at Wagner College.
As a community, we will suspend all normal work on June 19th, with the exception of essential campus operations, so that all staff and faculty can focus on race and injustice, to take time to reflect, connect, mend, and engage with this subject in an intentional and focused way.
As a community, let us take on with renewed commitment and vigor the project of hammering into shards the rock of racism in America.
We will be following up with ideas and resources to help everyone engage with this critical subject, even those who are less familiar or comfortable doing so. Combating racism is essential work for all of us; here is a link that may be useful: https://www.antiracismproject.org/resources
In the meanwhile, we invite our Wagner students, faculty, staff, alumni, and partners to collaborate with us in defining how Wagner will be part of making an America worthy of its highest aspirations. Send ideas for actions we can take and ways we can make best use of the day of June 19th to advance this critical healing work at and beyond Wagner to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you believe you have been the victim of racial discrimination or harassment at Wagner, please contact the college’s Chief Diversity Officer, Jazzmine Clarke-Glover (email@example.com) or Assistant Dean of Campus Life, Dr. Ange Concepcion (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please know that Wagner is committed to its mission in supporting college-wide efforts for equal opportunity, equal access, and affirmative action. Our student Counseling Services and the Employee Assistance Program also remain available to support you as we face these challenges, which are as grave as any posed by the pandemic and cannot be ignored while it rages on or after it passes.
Return to normal? No thank you. Let’s do better than that, starting today, intensifying on June 19th, and sustaining the work forward without fail thereafter.
Joel W. Martin