Finding a path forward in a world of injustice
Many members of the Henry Ford College community have told me of their pain and outrage at seeing another African American, George Floyd, being killed by those who have a duty to protect and serve. Other recent events, including the death of Ahmaud Arbery, are emblematic of the chronic, systemic discrimination that has been in place for hundreds of years. Our nation has a long history of systemic racism and violence against people of color.
This message offers my views and observations on these difficult times.
Most importantly, I want to tell you who are worried, scared, and outraged that I hear your voices, and I stand with you.
Since the tragic death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis, protestors have conducted marches in cities across the nation, including cities in Michigan. I am impressed by the number of young people of diverse backgrounds who have peacefully joined to exercise their right to protest. True change in our nation will come not through violence, but from those who become the voice of change. That voice leads to the young woman or man who peacefully marches today becoming the next mayor, police officer, governor, senator, judge, and prosecutor in the future who makes the change for justice.
Several prominent leaders have expressed similar sentiments. I hope that they have impacted you as they have me.
Michigan’s Governor and Lt. Governor posted a video about the most recent incidents that I recommend you watch. Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II said, “too many black people and other people of color have experienced the brutality and suffocation pressed upon them by a system that has treated us as less than full human beings. The anger is natural and justified. I am also troubled. The pain of the convergence of these crises—social, political, and health—will be felt by those who can bear it the least: communities of color who have paid dearly for a virus that exposes chronic disparate health outcomes. And the poor, who surely will struggle to overcome these crises.”
He suggested a course of action: “We must organize. We must speak truth to power. We must teach others the lessons of Dr. King, Grace Lee Boggs, Dr. Frederick Sampson—our foremothers and fathers who used the tools at their disposal to combat injustice. As hard as this feels, we must summon the courage and self-discipline to confront these crises in non-violent ways that we know are impactful.”
Former President Barack Obama responded to questions about making “real change” on what he calls the “ongoing problem of unequal justice.” His statement is here, and I recommend you read it. He states that “it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times.” And he gives context to what we have learned in the past (the statement is shortened here):
First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.
On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.
Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.
So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.
Former President George W. Bush also recently added his voice to this discussion. I recommend you read his full statement. Here are some of his views (the statement is shortened here):
It is time for America to examine our tragic failures – and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths. It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.
America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity. The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our Union.
Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions. We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.
This will require a consistent, courageous, and creative effort. We serve our neighbors best when we try to understand their experience. We love our neighbors as ourselves when we treat them as equals, in both protection and compassion. There is a better way — the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice. I am confident that together, Americans will choose the better way.
As your College president, I agree with Lt. Governor Gilchrist and former presidents Obama and Bush. And I specifically point you to the former presidents because they show the same path to progress, despite the two men being quite different. It is their differences that make their similar conclusions so powerful. One is an African American man born and raised in Hawaii, and a civil rights lawyer and community organizer on the south side of Chicago, who became a Democrat and a U.S. President. The other is a white man who grew up as the son of a prominent politician (another U.S. President) in the South, spending summers on the coast of Maine, who became a military pilot and business owner, and later became a Republican and a U.S. President. Their differences are stark. But in today’s national crisis, the differences fade away to reveal a shared conclusion about the problems we face and the path forward. They both focus on what we share as people—our common humanity—because that is what binds us together.
Their views are supported by what we all understand about each other:
• we yearn to be respected as individuals,
• we hope to be part of a purpose larger than ourselves,
• we are outraged when a system hurts particular groups among us,
• we value the right to protest against unjust systems, and
• we do not condone violent outbursts and try to limit them.
Perhaps most importantly, the two former presidents and the Lt. Governor do not attempt to divide us by exploiting our differences. Any person of power who aims to divide us, especially during crises, is not a leader.
These are the principles of leadership and citizenship that we hope our students gain from their time at Henry Ford College. Education plays a vital role in modeling civility, respect, and understanding across races, cultures, religions, and other human differences. These are also the tenets of teamwork that we live as colleagues at our College. We know that we are better when we focus on our common humanity. Only then can we truly value the rich diversity of our various walks of life.
I conclude this message by speaking to our students and employees who are African Americans.
I can never fully know your struggle. But I hear your voices and feel your truth. Thank you for the courage of sharing your feelings of anxiety and anger. One of my colleagues shared that watching George Floyd’s killing is an “every-day event in the lives of black people” in our country. As sad as it is, I know this is a true statement. My natural inclination is to find some way to share the burden of this truth. But I will never know how it feels to be the person speaking that truth from lived experiences. I will never truly know the fear that another African American teammate told me he has for his young sons and their interactions with police officers. I will never worry like another African American friend told me he worries about making people scared because of the way he looks.
I understand why it is maddening and exhausting to live in a country where equal justice under the law is neither equal nor just. I understand that “Black Lives Matter” is a valid statement that our system of justice treats you as lesser—and that it is not an attempt to make other lives matter less. While I will never fully carry your burden, I stand with all citizens who oppose injustice.
Working together, our College will continue to be a community that respects all races and ethnicities. We will continue our belief that our educational mission requires us to display how people of good will accept and value our different perspectives. We will continue to show that diverse, inclusive teams are more effective. And we will take on the difficult questions of our society, giving voice to the oppressed and dignity to minority voices.
I pledge that you will always have my ear and my heart as we use education to advance a more just and equitable society.
Henry Ford College