The University of Missouri is the latest flashpoint for expressions of rage over the continuing prevalence of racism in American life and higher education. Black students at Missouri and elsewhere have organized effective protests in the face of ugly racial offenses. The Missouri university president and system chancellor both lost their jobs because of their indifferent and obtuse administrative responses to racially offensive incidents on campus; however, the resignations were less about accepting responsibility for a lack of moral leadership in the face of racism and more about the economics of big time college football. The Mizzou football team used the leverage of threatening a boycott of games, raising the spectre of a potential loss of $1 million in breach of contracts, to hasten the resignations.
While students at Missouri, Yale, Claremont McKenna, Purdue and other universities have been organizing protests that decry specific incidents of racial hatred and the corrosive environments of prejudice and hatred that allow such incidents to happen, some presidential candidates stumpting in Iowa and New Hampshire are revealing a stunning level of moral emptiness on America’s continuing crisis of racism and inequality. One candidate yesterday termed the protesters “disgusting,” another said the leadership resignations were because of “the politically correct police,” and several candidates said they were “too busy” to follow the Mizzou situation. Another candidate went so far as to blame President Obama, implying that if the president were not African American, perhaps there would be no racial unrest.
Really??? Have these candidates not paid any attention to what’s been going on for the last year in America, to Ferguson and Cleveland and Baltimore and so many other places where the abominable treatment of African Americans by law enforcement authorities has provoked widespread protests and given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement? What’s happening at Missouri and elsewhere is part of the ongoing national struggle with racism, the great American original sin that just does not seem to abate.
Some of these same candidates have repeatedly expressed shocking disrespect for human beings in other ways. They talk about rounding up and sending undocumented immigrants “back” as if they were herds of cattle; one candidate actually proposed labeling immigrants like Fedex packages. The presidential candidates talk about obliterating people in other countries as if human life were meaningless; they speak with utter contempt about people who disagree with them — even each other — and with a few notable exceptions, to date most of the candidates have demonstrated precious little concern for issues of social justice, human rights, civil rights, poverty and economic inequality.
Yesterday in Social Hall, Trinity Alumna Barbara Kennelly ’58 — former member of Congress (D-CT) and distinguished professor of Political Science — gave a lecture about the current presidential campaign that triggered some excellent student questions and comments. One student asked, paraphrasing here, “How can we care about the candidates when they don’t show they care about us, when they don’t address the issues we care about?” This student and others went on to cite the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the protests at Missouri and Yale, the concerns of African American and Latina students and communities about poverty and inequality that are not addressed by many (not all) of the current presidential candidates.
Professor Kennelly, as Trinity’s first alumna in Congress, is a marvelous example of the leadership of Trinity Women in the public square — she paved the way for Nancy Pelosi ’62, the first woman Speaker of the House, now Democratic Leader, and other Trinity Women who have stepped up to take on the great issues of each era. In yesterday’s talk, Professor Kennelly challenged today’s Trinity students to follow in her footsteps, to become deeply engaged in the issues of this era, to speak out about injustice, racism and the imperatives of social justice in law and legislation, in presidential politics as well as local elections.
Trinity students, faculty, staff and alumnae have a great deal of moral leadership to offer in the current confused and often disappointing political discourse. At yesterday’s gathering in Social Hall, I heard Trinity Women speak about the issues more coherently and with more moral clarity than we are hearing from many presidential candidates. Many Trinity students are already engaged in the current campaigns and in public interest work more broadly.
As the current presidential campaign heats up, I urge all Trinity students to step up, speak out, be involved and show leadership. I welcome ideas about how Trinity can be a place for genuine dialogue, reflection and action to promote justice and equal opportunity on campus and in our city and nation.
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Read my opinion piece in the Hechinger Report How Can Mizzou Heal?