In the midst of protests across the nation sparked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and fueled by the killing of many other African Americans including Breonna Taylor, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Osaze Osagie, and others by law enforcement over the past several years we are reaching out to the Eberly College of Science to raise our voices for change. At the very foundation of our country we proclaim self-evident truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“ We are faced with the grim truth that the protection of the most fundamental of these rights, the right to life, is dependent on the color of your skin. The Declaration of Independence goes on to say “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” To effect these changes and secure the fundamental rights of all people, protests and demonstrations are the first and immediate recourse in a free society. Protests are unsettling and threatening to many in our society, and unfortunately, they can be subverted for other purposes resulting in violence. However, when fundamental rights are at stake, as they are now, protests and demonstrations are crucial agents of change.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, resulted in substantial improvements in the lives of people of color. Reflecting on those accomplishments and a hope for the future, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. However, this progress and hope for the future have been repeatedly and increasingly punctuated by the senseless killing of African Americans at the hands of our criminal justice system.
Danielle Conway, Dean of Dickinson School of Law, brought home this dichotomy of progress and fear. Dean Conway is an African American woman who could not have aspired to being a dean prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; she’s a beneficiary of legal changes which allowed her to advance in her career. But she has a son, a black man, and she worries everyday about his safety. When you read about the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Laquan McDonald and many others, you come to realize that her fears are well founded. Can we really claim progress when a parent has to worry about the safety of their children because the color of their skin? All other rights are secondary and conditional to the right to live.
What can we do as individuals and as a community to fight against racial hatred and acts of violence? First, as individuals we can stand against racial hatred whenever we see or encounter it. Our college has a code of mutual respect that mandates we treat everyone with mutual respect and dignity. Students, staff, and faculty are expected to abide by this code. Spreading vile, racist comments on social media as we’ve seen from individuals associated with Penn State recently is totally unacceptable, and people who commit such acts are not welcome in our college community. As individuals we can intervene when someone is being harassed. Our college in conjunction with Stand for State offers “bystander training” to do this effectively and safely. We can educate ourselves on the injustices that occur to other peoples. We can initiate, join, and participate in protests and demonstration against racial hatred and violence. We can make our voices heard to our local, state, and federal government representatives. We can work and contribute to electing local, state, and federal representatives who support laws and initiatives to protect and promote the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and pursuit happiness for all. Laws and leaders aren’t enough, but they are prerequisites for real change. What does change look like? It’s when a mother doesn’t have to worry about the safety of her son because of the color of his skin. It’s when faculty, staff, and students of color feel truly welcome and respected at Penn State and in the local community that they live. It’s when racial hatred on social media ceases. It’s when my black colleagues can drive anywhere in central Pennsylvania and not fear of being pulled over by the police because of their color. It’s when we finally accept and thoroughly embrace that all people are created with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life and the pursuit of happiness.
Douglas R. Cavener
Verne M. Willaman Dean