September 14, 2020
Dear CSREA Community,
Greetings. This was slated to be my customary introduction to our annual report for CSREA. Looking back on my previous letters, one will find mentions of highlights of events, new programs, and the expression of many thanks for all the hard work and commitment that goes into bringing such programming depth and breadth to the campus and broader community. I hope you will closely review our events and programs from last year and know that we remain dedicated to building community, knowledge, and creative insights on race to inspire, educate and produce a just world. For the remainder of this letter, I want to address the current crises that grip our nation.
From the start of my directorship seven years ago, in this director’s letter and elsewhere, I have frequently shared the urgent underlying belief that shapes my vision as director for CSREA, that–
“our future fundamentally depends on how well we understand race in America. Without comprehensive teaching and research on race in -- our hope for just, peaceful, multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy is in peril.”
This warning seems inescapably true today. As we manage what has been dubbed the two pandemics, COVID-19 and systemic racism, the relevance of this claim comes sharply into focus. Everyone has been hard hit by the pandemic, but Black, indigenous, and Latinx deaths due to the coronavirus have been significantly higher due to various risks generated or heightened by systemic racism. This has taught us just how much these twin threats reinforce each other.
This year, we witnessed yet another season of the vivid and painful normalcy of police brutality against Black people. The footage of George Floyd begging for air, while Milwaukee police officer Derek Chauvin calmly maintained his knee on Floyd’s neck choking off his air supply for nearly nine minutes was one of the most disturbing things I have seen. It was also a tipping point.
The response as millions of Americans poured into the streets to protest was equal parts tragic and inspiring. We then watched, with bewilderment and incredulity, the increasingly militarized response to the democratically protected rights of citizen protest and the deployment of the well-worn, but effective criminalization of such demonstrations when led by Black people. During this last leg of the presidential election season, the frame of “law and order” was yet again utilized to stoke white fear of racial justice demands. Nearly every facet of this dynamic is part of a much longer set of conditions and strategic responses to demonize cries for racial justice. I am angry about all of this, but I am also heartbroken.
Over the past seven years when I have made the claim that our future fundamentally depends on how well we understand race in America this claim was not always perceived as having merit. In fact, sometimes it was often dismissed as an overstatement or exaggeration. Race, many said, was no longer a major issue and that focusing our attention on race was part of the problem. Of course, many others have been generative, critical, and generous parts of our community that recognize the value of studying and understanding race and ethnicity. For this connection, support, and collaboration, we are extremely grateful.
We cannot continue to wait for a catastrophic tipping point to attend to the central role of systemic racism in our society. Waiting until the fires are burning and the crisis is too large to ignore--is frankly part of the problem. It hampers our ability to manifest the change our world so desperately needs. As should be clear, beginning to think about a racial pandemic response plan in the middle of a racial pandemic is too late.
Racism is not the only catastrophe in America and the world, but it is an urgent one that needs our on-going, in-depth, consistent attention, and investment. A peaceful, just society depends on it.
Joy + Justice,
Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America
Chancellor’s Professor of Africana Studies
Associate Dean of the Faculty for Special Initiatives
P.S. The work of the Center requires resources and sustained financial support. As a funding priority in the BrownTogether campaign, CSREA is poised to become a more generative force in fueling the discovery of new modes of thinking by faculty, artists, and community leaders on the most pressing social, political, and cultural concerns in contemporary society. We hope you’ll consider supporting our work.