August 3, 2020
Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alumni,
For the past few months, I have read, listened, and thought deeply about the experiences of racism and violence that Black students and alumni have shared, and which they endured across this country and also at Amherst. I have spoken before about the environment in which I grew up and the racism and violence that were endemic to it. I know how visceral and violent the belief in white supremacy can be. I have seen it first hand. I know how essential it is to many white people’s identities, even when its importance is unconscious and unacknowledged. Given what I have lived and what I have studied, I know there can be no neutrality about the fact of racism and no legitimate debate about the urgency of confronting it. It is time for me as a president, who is also white, to take stronger stands and to enlist the entire Amherst community in bolder efforts to make Amherst a truly equitable and inclusive place. For me, this is a time to transform what I know and what I have known into what I can do and what I can enlist you to do.
This summer has been another object lesson in how racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is woven into the fabric of the country. We have seen videos of the cold-blooded killings of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and Ahmaud Arbery by apparent vigilantes in Georgia. We learned of the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in her own home and the shooting of Tony McDade by police in Tallahassee, one of numerous killings of Black trans people. These killings show that a brutally racist past lives on in the present and that every one of us must do all we can to end it. The pandemic has also done its part to make the scourge of systemic racism undeniable, with its disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.
In this letter, I focus specifically on anti-Black racism, understanding that it has had a distinctive, very long, and deep-seated position and function in the economic, social, political, and moral history of the country. I recognize, too, that racism against Indigenous, Latinx, Muslim, Asian and Asian American people, xenophobia against people of other nationalities, and anti-Semitism are on the rise. These groups also experience the harm of discrimination and violence. The fight for greater justice and more truly democratic institutions has to be fought on all of these fronts, and at the points where they intersect, if the country and its colleges and universities are to make good on their ideals of freedom and equality.
For purposes of this communication, I feel an imperative to be as specific as possible about the impact that anti-Black prejudice and discrimination have on Black students, staff, faculty, and alumni, all the more so for those living at the intersections of other axes of discrimination—gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, ability and accessibility, to name a few. Ensuring the dignity, equity, and inclusion of all Black students requires a more nuanced and comprehensive approach than we have taken.
We will continue to see race and racism used as political tools. We may even hear that there are “good people on both sides“ of white supremacy, as a way of justifying and normalizing racist ideology and acts. In truth, there is only one legitimate response to the fact of anti-Black racism and the damage it inflicts. That response is opposition. And opposition requires that we take more intentional measures. We are a small college community with admirable aspirations and a history of leadership among our peers in educational excellence and in access and affordability. In 2016, the College was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence for efforts to provide forms of support that go beyond financial aid to ensure that students from low-income backgrounds are able not only to succeed, but to thrive. Yet our historically predominantly white college still has a long way to go if we are to realize our promise of racial equity and shared ownership of the culture of the College. Those of us who love Amherst and the purposes of its strong liberal arts education can and should dedicate ourselves to more significant change. This letter ends by outlining some of the actions to which I and my colleagues are committed. With this message, I seek your active involvement and ideas.
Many of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff have already started to respond to the painful events of the summer by being part of the activism that has emerged across the country. They have also directed our attention to what they experience at Amherst. There are critical moments in history when the call for change is resounding. This is one of those moments.
John Lewis’s funeral service last week powerfully reinforced the importance of history, our responsibility to it, and the duties that come with an understanding of it—obligations that are personal, institutional, and national. Congressman Lewis was eulogized for his extraordinary courage, sacrifice, conviction, and activism, but also for his dignity, kindness, and commitment to truth. Lewis was celebrated for the way he comported himself as a human being in the ordinary moments of life as well as when marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The service itself showed how beauty and artistry, music, love of language and rhetoric, mentorship, and critical self-examination combine with activism and legislation to create a better world.
Institutions like Amherst stand for those virtues. The College has articulated the ideals of opportunity, intellectual rigor, equity, community, and contribution to the larger society; Amherst has sought, imperfectly, to hew to those values. We constantly strive and end up seeing more clearly both the failures in our journey and the never-ending challenges ahead. The willingness to see failures and gaps, especially our own, and to acknowledge them is core to our mission and the reason we value critical thinking in the pursuit of truth and democratic ideals.