In the Face of the Pandemic, Protests, and Possibilities – Remember B.R.E.D.S. Matter

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M. Christopher Brown II, Ph.D.

President, Kentucky State University


History is riddled with swaths of lived experiences that are redacted into just a few words.  The “Watergate Scandal” encompasses a break-in, grand jury testimony, and a presidential resignation.  The litigation “Brown v. Education” includes a catalog of court cases, a landmark psychological doll-baby study, and the so-called integration of America’s public schools.  The tropical weather named “Hurricane Katrina” connotes complex narratives of governmental neglect, racialized imagery of abandonment, and the near-collapse of a public city.

Today, we find ourselves in the crosshairs of such a moment.  The global intersections of COVID-19 and the police-abuse protests are primed for historical importance.  The “COVID-19” pandemic has introduced self-quarantine, PPE, vaccines, and governmental unreadiness into the public discourse.  The the dawn of emergence from more than 100-days of telework and sheltering in place, the national viewership was blindsided by the ghoulish and inhumane death of George Floyd.  The resulting days have been a complicated collection of local and global protests about the “police-state” in American society.

The thread that weaves these two seemingly disparate “moments” together is the unspeakable topic of race – racial bias, racial prejudice, racial discrimination, and racial bigotry.  Although no one speaks aloud the whispered questions of the day, they hang above our nation like swords of Damocles.  Why are the rates of COVID-19 deaths higher in racialized populations?  What is the proportionality of COVID-19 testing and healthcare services in racially disparate communities?  Why are the vast majority of national death-by-police cases involving white male officers and suspected black male criminals?  SHHHHH, let us not speak aloud the tapestry of pandemic, protests, and race.

This is a curious and uncertain time marked by more questions than answers.  However, I implore each of you as members of the Kentucky State University Thorobred Family not to let the current crisis go to waste.  As spring transitions to summer, we must harness all of our might and focus on finding new possibilities for our campus and our communities.  We must rapidly engage every opportunity to transform rather than reform our institutional positionality.

The history of American higher education has been marked by a continuing debate over who should have access to college and why.  Our founding as a normal school for the training of black educators to teach in the segregated black schools of Kentucky, Kentucky State University has been the cornerstone of educational access, the catalyst for civil rights progress, and the convener of conversations about the public good and social change.  This was the stake that I endeavored to drive in the ground with the founding of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal.  Kentucky State University has a vital role to play in advancing the Commonwealth’s workforce and enlightening the citizenry.

Sixty-three years ago this week, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited our campus to deliver the Spring Commencement address to the Class of 1957.  He spoke from the theme – “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.”  I took the weekend to re-read his address in light of the current pandemic and protests.  What he said on that day still holds true – the world does not need a new normal. The world needs a new different.  It is increasingly clear to me that in this era of new possibilities, Kentucky State University needs to shout from “The Hill” that B.R.E.D.S. matter.  We must emphasize in this moment of the pandemic and protests the importance of belonging, race, education, direct-engagement, and self-determination.

BELONGING MATTERS 

As an elementary educator, I was taught the importance of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – human nutrition, physical safety, belonging, self-esteem, and actualization.  Belonging is a cornerstone of the human experience after food, water, and human life.  Belonging is the need to feel a part of a collective – a family, a school, a neighborhood, or a faith community.

I must confess that even today, I struggle with my sense of belonging.  Patricia Williams in her 1991 book-length essay, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, declares that “subject position is everything.”  Every day and everywhere, I am perennially conscious of myself.  I am always trying to ascertain “my fit.” As I listen to the words of our students on social media and the hundreds of posts by protesters, it is clear that they are in search of belonging.  Far too many of our students verbalize a disconnect between their identities and how they experience Frankfort and their own classrooms.

I encourage all of us to embrace the historic culture of Kentucky State University and actively ensure that each and every student feels a sense of belonging.  The absence of belonging is a suffocating experience that leads far too many to metaphorically assert – “I can’t breathe.”  The breath of identity is snuffed out because of a lack of care, a lack of concern, a lack of compassion, and/or a lack of commitment.  No one should feel disrespected or disregarded.  I have even received dozens of emails this semester from faculty and staff questioning our workplace values and campus intentions.

Beginning today, each of us should take on the responsibility to ensure that our campus is culturally congenial and emotionally healthy for students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders.  First, we should challenge our core beliefs about inclusive excellence and make certain that our actions align with our intentions.  Second, we must practice unconditional acceptance or people, principles, and practices different from our own – we are not the center of the universe.  Third, we must make room for the “and” rather than the “or” – there are multiple ways to function and operate in this life.  Finally, we must prioritize internal reflection and healing of our own biases and limited ways of knowing – there is more than one way to swing a baseball bat.

In the face of the pandemic and protests, Kentucky State University can be a place where belonging matters.

RACE MATTERS

Every time I enter the state capitol, I mentally try to reconcile the histories of the two adjacent statues of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.  Every time I travel to Louisville, I am consciously aware that just on the other side is Dawson Springs, where the international headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan is incorporated.  A casual drive outside the town center reveals a parade of confederate flags in manicured lawns.  And as the only African American president among the state’s eight public universities, I am brutally aware that race matters.

The events that led to the current national display of protests against police brutality, racial inequities, and a deviation of theories of egalitarian democracy have placed race as leitmotif du jour.  Despite all of the euphemisms about people of color, ethnic groups, and social class, the construct of race is on full display, in black and white, for every eye to see.

As a federally designated historically black college, Kentucky State University is a governmental manifestation of the racial history of our nation and state.  The Statue of Liberty’s call to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  The homeless tempest-tossed, send them to me,” was an invitation to the immigrants to Ellis Island.  However, our campus founded as an invitation to the Ibo, Ashanti, Nubian, Masai, and Zulu – travelers without passports or visas to this country.  Travelers by forced migration rather than voluntary immigration.

In Blackness Visible, Charles Mills (1998), suggests that the notion “that race should be irrelevant is certainly an attractive ideal, but when [race] has not been irrelevant, it is absurd to proceed as if it had been.” Race mattered then and it still matters now.

When I arrived on the campus in May 2017, Kentucky State University was still choking from the thick smoke of racial crisis.  Even today, though rarely uttered, the issue of race still permeates core questions of enrollment, hiring, management, and culture.  This unacknowledged “construct” (rather than context) colors how community members perceive and understand policy actions, grading decisions, and opportunities to belong.  A critical examination of race on campus illuminates every person, place, or thing.  Although never honestly discussed, race is the most observable characteristic on our campus.

A race-conscious paradigm requires that all of us approach our work with a critical eye that sees invisible colors, especially black.   There is something both philosophically and ideologically malicious and genocidal about attempts to erase whole races, groups, and colors out of public life, history, and discourse.  In the book, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison says:  “I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me . . . because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes.”

Beginning today, each of us should take on the responsibility to have courageous conversations about race.  Race cannot be concealed or disregarded simply because of its controversial implications. Race cannot be masked because it brings forth feelings of discomfort, confusion, and fear.  Until now, we have been able to silence discussions of race on campus and in society. This diplomatic effort was premised on the belief that the campus should embrace the disease of colorblindness.  Colorblindness is a race-conscious ideology – one that simply chooses not to acknowledge race. As a result, too many of our students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders are unseen.  The failure to see race enables uncontrolled privilege and the abuse of power.

In the face of the pandemic and protests, Kentucky State University can speak up and speak out on the issue of race.  Lest we forget, it was the very reason for which we were founded as a historically black college in 1886.

EDUCATION MATTERS

Education really is the great equalizer.  Talent does not repose singularly in any one group of people.  Our Commonwealth and nation need an educated citizenry and workforce prepared to meet contemporary demands.  As we emerge from shelter-in-place orders and respond to the national outcry in the aftermath of several unarmed citizen deaths, Kentucky State University must reify the importance of education at the K-12 and the collegiate levels.  Dr. King said in 1959, “If America is to remain a first-class nation, it cannot have second-class citizenship.”

Sadly, the socio-historic nature of education in America is rooted in privilege and exclusion. At the primary, secondary, and collegiate levels, educational settings have been designed to promulgate the values, cultures, and ambitions of particular groups.  What was defined as knowledge has been warped and mangled – European baroque era music is considered classical, but not original or indigenous music forms for other groups.  The students we serve must be educated and not schooled.  A robust college education should train students how to think and not what to think.

There are smoldering embers in the minds of many adolescents across the nation.  When they arrive on campus this fall, there will be an expectation that they will “get what they paid for.”  A review of the academic desires of students enrolling in the tail of the COVID-19 pandemic reveals narratives of liberation, entrepreneurship, justice, and opportunity.  It will not be sufficient to offer them a curriculum designed to replicate the social order.  They want to dis