Racial Justice and Rollins College

A dispatch from Rollins College President Grant Cornwell in light of recent events.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Once again we are called upon to express our moral outrage over another instance of brutal racial violence. I have struggled for words because they have been said too many times. The morally tragic deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor must be added to the list of black Americans killed without justice ever being served that stretches back to the early days of the founding of this nation and the institution of slavery. Our nation, for all of its promise, is infected with racism in its very core; we have never had the moral fortitude to engage in our own process of truth and reconciliation. Still, the resurgence of virulent racism in recent years is a shift worth noting. All manner of incivility has been given permission—no, has been valorized.

At Rollins, we are a community grounded in a mission that inspires us to serve others with humility, kindness, and compassion, presuming a fundamental equality of moral worth and mutual respect towards all persons. What are our respective roles, then, individually and as a college, to be agents of change? What can we do differently, as individuals and as a college, to advance racial justice?

As we look to supporting our black students, colleagues, and community members, perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do as members of a predominantly white campus community is look inward. We would be missing the critical point were we to approach this national crisis as if the racism that motivated the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor is somehow out there, woven into our society, which it is, and not at the same time here, within our own community, itself a part of society. Where does systemic racism present itself in our individual interactions? Where do racial privilege and stereotypes and insidious racial micro-aggressions manifest in our campus practices? What personal behaviors are we willing to courageously examine and change?

Every member of our campus community engages our mission with a racial identity; many of them are contested, many are complex or in flux, some are understood by those who embody them, some are not. I am aware that I am a white male, that I move through the world benefitting doubly from unearned privileges and advantages. I rarely find myself in social situations where I need to think about my racial identity, and never do I think that my racial identity could be a source of grave threat to my opportunities, let alone to my life. This dynamic, this feature of white hegemony, is, I believe, why so many well-intentioned white people are attracted to the idea of ‘color-blindness’ as an ethical ideal. With all good intentions, one often hears white people proclaim with all sincerity that they do not see race, that they accept people for their particular and individual qualities, and that race does not matter.

What the differential mortality rates of black Americans from COVID-19 suggest, what the killing of black citizens with unconscionable frequency suggests, is that race does matter, that it matters to persons of color because they have to negotiate their pursuits and aspirations in a global social order where prejudice and racism are deeply and structurally ingrained, and that it matters to white people because we continue to benefit undeservedly, in big ways and small, by the accident of our racial identities.

When Dr. Martin Luther King famously proclaims that he has a dream that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he is not calling for a nation that is color-blind, but for racial justice, for a nation where health, safety, and opportunity are not distributed according to race.

I personally commit to trying to occupy my office in ways that advance racial justice, both in my own decisions and behaviors, but also, as I am able, to support liberal education around these issues. Statements made on tragic occasions do not change the world, education does, and that is our core purpose. I am grateful to our colleagues in the Center for Inclusion & Campus Involvement, Abby Hollern, Jade Taylor, Sam Vega, and Robert Whetstone, for launching this initiative with the following:

  1. A virtual gathering to support students of color is being held. Details will be sent separately to the community.
  2. A faculty/staff learning group has been initiated, specifically to assist white colleagues in learning and doing more. You can sign up to participate here.
  3. A student learning group will be offered to do the same work. You can sign up to participate here.
  4. If you would like to share a suggestion/feedback, we’ve created a way to do that here.

In closing, I offer this thought. There is a fundamental difference between the social crisis created by COVID-19 and the social protests over racial justice being witnessed throughout our nation right now. Eventually, I believe, we will be able to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 with a vaccine. There is no vaccine for racism, only a relentless commitment to redress the ignorance on which it is based with education. This is why Rollins College exists, it is why our mission is perennial, and it is the work we have before us.