Several affiliated groups at Emory, including the Black Student Alliance, NAACP, and Change@Emory, asked me to speak at the February 27th Rally Against Racism. This is what I had to say.
I am here to reflect on President Wagner’s remarks in his Emory Magazine column and its relationship to structural issues and culture on campus. By now, you likely know that President Wagner invoked the 3/5ths compromise to advocate for the cuts to academic programs this past fall. The 3/5ths compromise is one of the more troubling moments in U.S. history, when white politicians of the North and South defined the relative value of enslaved women and men, who could not vote, as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of political representation.
When I first read and reread President Wagner’s column in disbelief and horror, I asked myself, “Is this my battle?” I am graduating this year and have one foot out the door. But then I thought of my students, some of whom are here today. As a specialist in African American and postcolonial literature, I can’t stand in front of my students in our Global Blackness class three times a week and tell them that the historical legacies of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism are important but not do anything when these very legacies are making themselves known on campus. So yes, I decided, this is my battle. This is our battle.
This is not a battle against President James Wagner, though his fitness as a responsible, moral leader has been very much in question over the past few years. This is a battle against forms of racism at Emory, both overt and subtle forms of racism that appear in Wagner’s column and in the other issues raised by my fellow speakers. Are we, as a community, going to be satisfied with a university that celebrates its diversity in numbers but relies on the few of us who are committed to anti-racist work to explore these issues in the classroom? Are we, as a community, going to be satisfied with a university that reacts to racism rather than being proactive about it?
Vice President Gary Hauk’s response to Wagner’s column, that everyone who read it in advance and didn’t realize there would be a problem was white, is illuminating. Emory cannot be a place where ignorance serves as an excuse for poor judgment. This is time for us, as a community, to explore just who is responsible for recognizing problems before they arise. (Hint: It’s not just people of color.) This is the time to explore how a university like Emory, one with a significant minority population located in the South, can pay lip service to diversity but allow institutional racism, ingrained in the university’s administrative, trustee, and judicial structures, to thrive. While this problem is not unique to Emory and reflects wider structural racisms in the U.S., isn’t our obligation as an academic community to challenge them? To take up Emory’s identity as a place “Where Courageous Inquiry Leads” to address these concerns head-on?
So, I ask you, members of the Emory community, to join me in making a few more demands of our university:
1) The return of the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity as an interim advisory body to the administration on issues of race at Emory
2) A commitment to re-evaluating Emory’s shared governance structures and inclusion of student and faculty representation
3) An intensive university-wide self study that addresses casual, intentional, and institutional racism and leads to a clear, committed stance against racism at the university and an agenda for structural reform reflecting that commitment.
We ask these of Emory because accountability for racism is our shared responsibility as a university community. It is my battle. It is our battle.