Speeches and Statements

At times like these, I grow so frustrated.  Things happen as if by script, following a formula I’ve seen followed for too, too many years.  A serious, grievous injustice is wrought; most folks remain silent—not because they condone the injustice, but because, expecting the system to respond, they wait for the blindfolded woman holding the scales to correct the balance, righting the wrong, vindicating the victim, and vanquishing the wrongdoer.

And then, according to formula, the system responds slowly, painfully slowly.  Folks take to the streets to petition the government for redress, and, then, after a few days, the system acts, and, finally, an arrest is made. 

We wonder, why so long?  The officials say that it’s because they needed to collect evidence, but, more and more frequently now, the evidence is on a video that seems so vivid, so clear, so unmistakable, that we wonder, what more evidence did they need?

So, we wonder, would the system have acted if folks hadn’t taken to the streets? And even now we still wonder, why were others nearby, others sworn to protect and defend, not charged as well?  Is it because not enough voices have been raised, not enough feet have marched the streets?  Or is it because more evidence must be gathered?  Can anyone feel confident about the answer to this question?

And as the situation spirals, we see the rest of the formula followed step by step.  Deep into the crisis, large organizations begin to speak—again, according to formula.  The President of the NCAA says that we “must . . . commit ourselves individually and collectively to examining what we can do to make our society more just and equal.”  No kidding.  Was an emptier sentence ever written? 

The Provost at one of my alma maters wrote to say that we must “rededicate ourselves and our talents to deepening understanding and addressing the complex challenges that permeate our society.”  Well, OK, but what, really, does that mean?  Was that event on the streets in Minneapolis really so dauntingly complex that we need to deepen our understanding to address it?

The Dean of my graduate school wrote to say, “We must do all that we can—using our voices, our skills, our knowledge, and our position—to speak out against these atrocious acts and create a more open, tolerant, and just society.”  Fair enough; now what’s the next step, I want to ask?  Let’s not reach for  “all that we can” just now, Dean; what’s one thing that we can do?  Just one thing that will prevent the death of another unarmed black man at the hands of a heavily armed police officer?

As president of a college that serves a diverse community of students, including some who feel the assault on Mr. Floyd as an assault on them, on their blackness, on their very persons, I feel as if I should say something about the moment; and yet, I hesitate for fear that anything I say will sound like these examples I’m sharing.

As predictable as clockwork, these statements flow.  Never quite at the moment of the event, but several days later, indeed, sometimes even a week later.  As if it weren’t immediately clear that the promissory note of which Dr. King spoke, the sacred obligation pledged at our nation’s founding, is not placed in default every time an unarmed black man dies a violent death in custody.  In custody!

Moreover, these statements made by people like me never seem to reflect the gravity of the situation.  They condemn “racial injustice,” a term so abstract and academic that it doesn’t capture the visceral assault at its very core.  Folks like me always promise to study the situation some more; better yet, we promise to prepare to study the situation some more, to examine more deeply the root causes of the terrible injustices that afflict the body politic and blah, blah, blah.

In addition to being slow to emerge and overly abstract, these statements often seem so condescending.  I’m a creature of my time, having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, when the last thing I wanted to hear was an expression of “support” from some old guy wearing a necktie.  I felt as if his expression of support somehow neutralized my passion, sapping its authenticity, taking something personal to me and making it something public, generic, and downright emotionless.

I appreciated Killer Mike’s straight talk the other day.  Repeating again and again his reluctance to offer remarks, noting his inability to offer anything positive for the moment, he offered the most constructive comments I’ve heard.  He spoke of his love for the police officers in his own family, of his rage at watching “a white officer assassinate a black man,” of the duty he owed to Doctor King and his grandmother, aunts, and uncles who belonged to the SCLC and the NAACP, and of the duty we all bear in this moment

“to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs. Atlanta is not perfect, we’re a lot better than we ever were, and we’re a lot better than cities are.”

Speaking directly like that is authentic; he can give voice to the emotions of the moment in a way that I never can.  I am an academic; there’s no escaping that, no way for me to pretend otherwise.  Which means I’m committed to the principles of reasoned inquiry, of study and debate, research and deliberation. 

And I’m an old guy wearing a necktie; just the sort of guy I didn’t want to speak for me when I was young.  I speak in Wartburg language; I talk of leadership and service, and I laud the value of taking responsibility for our communities and changing them through public action.  That’s authentically me.