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A Conversation About Race

September 1, 2020 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 3, August 2020

Fostering Moral Development: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Alan Acosta HeadshotOn May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, died while in police custody in Minneapolis after being arrested for allegedly paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. He certainly was not the first Black man in the United States to die in police custody; a long, long list of Black men throughout U.S. history have died or have been killed while in the custody of the police or other forms of “authority.” Floyd’s death, coupled with a rash of the senseless killings of Black people in the last several months, including, but not limited to, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abrey, and Tony McDade, sparked protests and demonstrations throughout the U.S. and the world, as a growing chorus of people of all racial and ethnic identities demanded justice.

To say that I was shocked, troubled, angry, confused, and hurt by these killings would be a dramatic understatement; I am not sure there are words in the English language that could possibly encapsulate my feelings. These deaths are yet another (frustratingly recent) entry in the (too) long narrative about race and the mistreatment of Black people specifically and people of color and Native American and Indigenous people broadly in the U.S. In looking at my own social media spaces and in conversations with people I love, I noticed my White friends and family viewed Floyd’s death as one of the most overt, graphic, viscerally visual examples of the mistreatment of Black people at the hands of the police. His death, laid bare on video, seemingly created an awakening of sorts in their own racial consciousness and spurred a call to action. They expressed that what made the death so shocking for them was the casual, almost routine nature of how the officer callously ignored Floyd’s pleas of not being able to breathe.

For my family and friends who are Black or hold any other historically marginalized racial identity, the rage and shock of Floyd’s specific incident was situated within the larger context of the sentiment that “this keeps happening” or “they keep killing us” or “I can’t keep explaining this to my White friends and family.” For many people of color, including myself, we are tired of having to tell people that in 2020, racism is real, it directly harms and affects me, it indirectly (and in many ways directly) harms and affects my White friends and family, and that as long as racism, both individually and systemically, exists,  my life, and the life of every person of color and every Native American and Indigenous person is in ongoing danger.

While I think we must have critical, substantive, ongoing conversations about the role of law enforcement in U.S. society and how to ensure law enforcement does not kill or mistreat Black people, other people of color, or Native American or Indigenous people, I feel that discussion is just one part of the broader conversation about racial justice that higher education professionals and institutions need to be having at this time. For me, I also am still making sense of my contribution to that conversation. I believe all police need to view or treat Black lives and the lives of people of color as human, worthy of dignity and respect, which means not killing us. I also have worked closely with campus police for years and have family members who are and were police officers. Holding both of these truths at the same time is part of the personal processing I am working through right now.

Right now, and continuing in the future, higher education professionals MUST be willing to engage in thoughtful, critical, and difficult discussions regarding action steps to make our institutions more equitable for students, faculty, and staff. My concern for higher education professionals when it comes to conversations regarding creating more equitable institutions is that often, we are our own worst enemy. There will be a million reasons why there are constraints on our ability to make change, and those reasons are real—but that cannot stop us from appropriately and enthusiastically letting our voices be heard on racial justice issues. Students, faculty, and staff are looking for role models on creating equity on campus, and we need to embrace that challenge.

First, I believe it starts with us individually. As higher education professionals, we have a moral obligation to take responsibility for our own individual learning on equity, inclusion, and social justice issues. There are lots of resources to expand our understanding of race, identity, inclusion, and creating equitable systems. Whether it is reading a book or article, listening to a podcast, or attending (face to face or virtually) a training or professional development institute, there are lots of free or low-cost options for higher education professionals to grow their knowledge. For example, at my institution, I participated in the Bridging Cultures seminar series offered through the university’s human resources training series, facilitated by the Center for Global Engagement. This series gave excellent information about different cultures around the globe, how a person’s respective culture can influence their communication with others, and how to incorporate knowledge about different cultures into our personal and professional lives. These types of opportunities provide higher education professionals an easy mechanism for expanding and heightening their consciousness around equity and inclusion issues.

To make meaningful change, higher education institutions must also critically examine policies, practices, and procedures to identify possibilities for increased equity. This is really hard, because it is often difficult for professionals to fathom that a policy we create or procedures we establish would marginalize others; however, we often hear from professionals, particularly from marginalized identities, that higher education institutions routinely engage in practices that demean, diminish, and harm others and create inequitable systems. Higher education administrators, particularly those in positions of authority, must look for ways they can restructure processes and policies to create more equitable and just systems.

Higher education, much like society at large, is at an important point in time. If we work on ourselves and our institutional systems, we can turn our oppressive past into an equitable future.