Jim Henderson: Universities can lead the way in racial healing, progress

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Tuesday after Memorial Day 2020 was the day most of us were introduced to George Floyd, a 46-year-old father of two and resident of Minneapolis. The introduction was in the form of the horrific video, virally spread through social media, showing a police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until his unconscious body was unceremoniously thrown onto a stretcher. Three other officers stood by as Mr. Floyd repeatedly gasped “I can’t breathe” and onlookers pleaded with the police on his behalf. He died later that evening. 

Since Tuesday, public officials, community leaders, celebrities, and people in positions like mine have condemned racism, injustice, excessive force, and violence. For the first time, it has been difficult to find anyone defending the perpetrator other than the trolls and miscreants that always appear at moments like this. The collective outrage is important to healing. The challenge will be converting that outrage over the murder of George Floyd, the most recent illustration of the plight of the black community and the divisions that remain in American society, to lasting systemic change. 

As a Roman Catholic, I was deeply troubled by the past quarter century of unending revelations about clergy abuse. The bumper stickers “I am thankful for the thousands of good priests” spoke to me. I avoided the movie Spotlight. Confronting systemic evil in an institution you adore is contrary to human nature, or at least contrary to the nature of many humans. I found liberation once I realized confronting that systemic evil and loving my priest (and the thousands of good priests), my Bishop, and my church were not mutually exclusive. Similarly, confronting systemic evil within our society does not conflict with the deep love many of us hold for the history and promise of our nation.    

It is no great revelation that we are products of our experiences. Our values, our opinions, our philosophies, our perspectives are formed by the way we live. For far too many of us, those experiences are narrow. We live, eat, drink, party, and pray with people just like us. We build unenlightened existences without even realizing it. That limited context prevents us from understanding the circumstances and experiences of those who do not look like we do.

In some ways, universities are an exception to the separation prevalent in our culture. They are home to faculty, staff, and students from innumerable backgrounds. The institutions are by nature diverse demographically, experientially, and socioeconomically, yet the divisions we see in society at large are often every bit as present. This was revealed to me in the starkest way during my presidency at Northwestern State University. I was invited to a first BBPWI meeting. BBPWI, Being Black at a Primarily White Institution, was an organization designed to educate administrators and others about the lived experience of students of color. It was not confrontational, it was purely constructive, which made it in many ways a more difficult conversation. It forced, or perhaps it simply allowed me to go beyond the standard platitudes of white guilt and virtue signaling to a deeper understanding and an informed empathy. I left the conversation with more questions than answers, but I knew more about what I did not know.  

What I do know is the university houses a near-perfect ecosystem to contribute to the work before us as a nation, as a people. Universities, designed for knowledge sharing, cultural advancement, and discourse, are filled with young people with unbridled passion and faculty who have dedicated their careers to providing a space for developing the whole person. Even so, we will have to be intentional in creating environments to take on the difficult topic of race and justice. Our System has been addressing this issue intentionally the past three years by adopting one of the nation’s most aggressive diversity and inclusion statements as well as establishing a diversity and inclusion task force to address policies and practices that inhibit inclusion at all levels of our organization. Still, we have only begun the journey. 

More than a decade ago, Dr. Maya Angelou came to Baton Rouge, the celebrant of a Baton Rouge Community College fundraiser. I enjoyed her charisma, her humor, and certainly her poetry. It was a delightful evening until she knocked the wind out of me with a recitation of a piece not of her own but from Langston Hughes. The words she spoke that night are never far from me, “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say ‘eat in the kitchen’ then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I, too, am America.” We must ask ourselves are we willing to be America, to fulfill the vision of America we read about in our founding documents for all Americans. If the answer is yes, then active silence, passive ignorance, and occasional, transactional social media outrage are insufficient. We must commit ourselves to the pursuit of justice and vanquishing the systemic evil of racism. Then we too will be America. 

Dr. Jim Henderson is president of the University of Louisiana System and former Chancellor of Bossier Parish Community College.