Woke the Gator

February 5, 2023

Every once in a while I have to go to Florida, usually to visit with our wonderful Trinity alumnae there.  While there, I sometimes try to find a few extra hours to take my camera into the Everglades to marvel at the extraordinary array of wildlife.  I am always amazed at the natural beauty of the Florida wilderness… and also at the terrifying dangers that lurk so close to civilization.  Walking near the underbrush along small canals or lakes, I take care lest a gator or croc might see a delicious feast on the edge.  For me, Florida always has that paradox of remarkable beauty and extreme danger lurking just below.

The paradox of Florida — so much great wealth alongside deep poverty, so rich with a vast multicultural history and global culture, an old civilization encroaching the edges of the wild places full of danger, always alert to the threats of winds and seas — this paradox has taken on an even stranger and more disturbing life during the administration of a governor hell bent on denying some of the most basic facts of life.

Disease kills and needs the protection of vaccines — but not according to Florida Governor DeSantis!

Some people in the great State of Florida are…. I will say it here… GAY… but that’s not a word to speak in the earshot of Governor DeSantis!

Black persons — Africans enslaved by white Europeans, freed slaves running south, the large diaspora of Africans living throughout the Caribbean region —- such persons have played vitally important and sustained roles in Florida’s history and American history.  But not according to Governor DeSantis!  Nope!  Governor DeSantis, like the crocodile disturbed from  slumber on a hot afternoon, rises up to bite and devour any teacher, any librarian, any college professor or president (or College Board test) that dares to suggest that African American History is a worthy topic of study among Florida’s precious students for whom American history shall remain pristine, mostly white and very tidy.

BREAKING NEWS:  After I wrote that last sentence, the College Board released its new version of the Advanced Placement Course in African American Studies and the leaders of the College Board and its faculty advisors insisted that they did not consider Governor DeSantis’s criticism of the curriculum in developing the final course. Here’s Georgetown Professor Robert Patterson who was part of the planning team for the curriculum:

Accepting Dr. Patterson’s explanation, we still have this problem: no governor should be dictating any curriculum.  It’s still not clear if this “new” course will be adopted in Florida.  The College Board did itself no favors by remaining silent in the face of the Governor’s attacks on the AP course prior to its release, setting up the suspicion that the course is a politically-influenced product.  More to the point, the College Board’s leadership lacked the courage to speak out about the vital importance for Florida’s students, for all students, to learn African American history no matter how uncomfortable some of the readings and ideas might make the students.

DeSantis is now in open war with higher education in Florida, denouncing what he calls the “woke” curriculum; attacking programs to promote Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; denouncing programs that support LGBTQ persons; announcing that the future curricula of public universities will emphasize “western civilization” whatever that even is today; threatening to end tenure and driving “liberal” presidents from their offices while stacking the public boards with rightwing ideologues.

DeSantis is turning higher education into a propaganda machine for his own purposes, including is upcoming presidential bid.  He has turned public school teachers and librarians into censors, pulling books from libraries and threatening jail time for those who do not comply.  I wonder if he ever read Farenheit 451 or saw the movie?  I suppose he would also ban Kurt Vonnegut if he hasn’t already.

Higher education leaders across the country need to break out of their torpor and confront the authoritarian takeover of the academy in Florida and other states where governors are clearly itching to follow DeSantis’ lead.  We need to “woke” that gator, hard!  The racist underpinnings of much of the censorship and curtailment of academic freedom are clear.  The right-wing assault on the curriculum is not just a theoretical battle about Shakespeare v. Morrison or Plato v. Coates (a worthy curriculum has room for all!), but truly a pitched battle about our students and what they must learn in order to build productive, peaceful communities in the most diverse nation in human history.

Students need to learn the truth of American history in all of its bitter failures as well as its glorious triumphs.  The role of slavery in building this nation is essential to understand where we are today.  The struggles of immigrants — surely Florida, of all places, should understand this — are part of the fabric of contemporary society in these United States.  The oppression of Black persons not just as an historical fact but as a contemporary reality is a suitable subject for students to learn, to discuss, to consider as part of formulating their own philosophies of life that will guide them in their future endeavors.

Too many college presidents and leaders of higher education associations are silent in the face of the tremendous assaults on the autonomy and freedom of higher education, our faculty and students.  I wrote about this recently, see The Dumbing Down of the Purpose of Higher Education in the Chronicle of Higher Education.    Too many presidents tell me that we shouldn’t say anything, that we should stay out of politics, that we risk retaliation if we stand up for our purpose and our values.  I believe they are deeply wrong.  I believe that if we do not confront the danger facing higher education this year, we will see further erosion of our sense of purpose, our freedom to teach what we believe we must teach, the freedom of our faculty to research and engage in scholarship on any and all topics of their choosing.  In the end, our students and our society will be the real losers.

If we do not stand up for our right and the necessity of teaching our students how to manage diversity, how to promote equity and inclusion, what kind of leaders will they be in the most diverse nation ever in human history?

If we do not advocate for our immigrant students, our LGBTQ students and staff, our Black colleagues and students, what right do we have to award diplomas that specify higher learning — not governmentally-mandated lessons, not corporately-driven job training, not rote recitations of encyclopedia content — but higher learning which is the ability to see and understand the human condition from a broad expanse of knowledge, to engage in critical thinking about causes and solutions of human problems and planetary challenges, to accept the responsibility of being well educated to work for justice in the whole human community, taking special care to be of even greater service to those who are not so privileged?

Higher education is not a tool of any particular governor, legislature, member of Congress or presidential administration.  Higher education is one of the greatest assets of a free society, the counterweight to government so as to ensure a check on exactly the kind of intellectual oppression that is occurring in Florida.  We cannot afford the current silence if we are to have any hope of a vibrant future for higher education in this nation.  We need to “woke” that gator, even if it means risk to our own comfort.  It’s past time to sound the alarm. Who will join me?

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Time to Police the Police

January 29, 2023

(Also read:  A Traffic Stop by Trinity Psychology Associate Professor Dr. Stacey-Ann Baugh)

 

Hideous.  Grotesque.  Obscene.

Do we have enough words in the language to describe what we have seen on the video of the Memphis police beating of Tyre Nichols?

Do we have enough outrage left to be stunned by the utter depravity of the sight of police officers kicking, punching, tasing, hitting with a baton, screaming impossible commands, piling on and abusing this young Black man whose only offense seems to be Driving While Black?

Is there enough whitewash in all of Memphis to hide the lies in the follow-up police report?

Once more, to our utter shame and penetrating sorrow as a nation, we stand aghast at the level of inhumane, cruel, murderous misconduct perpetrated by people supposedly sworn to uphold the law against a person who should be alive this minute and enjoying a Sunday afternoon watching football games with his family.  Instead, his body lies at the morgue as his family prepares for his funeral.

The fact that the police officers responsible for the deadly beating are all Black adds to the shame and sorrow, but in no way mitigates the crime — if anything, the race of the perpetrators magnifies the crime many times over, exposing the harsh and malignant reality of what policing has become in this nation.  The metamorphosis shaped through and with systemic racism has occurred over the years as police departments have become more militarized, as the ideological and social crevasses in our nation have widened.  The police instinct to exercise enforcement powers in harsh, brutal, even sadistic ways surmounts race, ethnic and gender identities; brute power crushes all training, ethics and even common sense.

For the African American population in this nation, the change did not happen recently — policing has always been a brutal, cruel and inhumane reality of life for too many Black Americans.  How many Black men have lain on the streets before Tyre Nichols, their lives draining away under the knees of rogue cops or beaten or shot when handcuffs would have been more than enough, if necessary at all.  The video of Tyre’s last hours of consciousness expose the hypocrisy of the police action:  he was not armed, he was surrounded by 5-6-7 police officers all big burly men who surely could have taken him into custody peacefully.  Pulled from the car and brutalized immediately, he ran to try to save his life — and he paid dearly for trying to find safety.

Where do you find safety when the police are the perps?

Certainly, not all police officers are brutal, and our cities and communities need effective police presence for safety.  I am not among those who chant “defund the police” because that seems utterly naive and unlikely to achieve greater security.

However, I am wholly in favor of finding an entirely new way to educate and manage police forces.  The question, “Who will police the police?” is as old as Plato and demands forthright examination anew.  We need to get police training to back away from SWAT team bravado and focus on effective interventions, dispute resolution, and methods of apprehending suspects that are not violent or provocative.  Yes, there are times when the SWAT team is essential — but every encounter with suspects should not devolve into a murderous made-for-TV shootout.

Most of all, we need the police, the politicians, the media and the citizens of this nation to confront the murderous racism and lurking cells of white supremacy that have ruined the lives of too many Black persons and debilitated our society.

What happened to Tyre Nichols, and Keenan Anderson, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown, and too many others is evidence of a sick, murderous society that has abandoned its foundational principle of justice for all.

What happened to Tyre Nichols and so many others is, sadly and shamefully, the logical outcome of a society whose political choices have moved from merely confounding to grossly immoral.  The rise of the authoritarian state is well nigh, and its high priests are wreaking havoc on the foundations of our freedom and ability to live together in the most diverse society in human history.  Consider Florida with an out-of-control governor imposing appalling restrictions on teaching Black History (the topic of my next blog), and Texas and Virginia and other states whose political leadership wages war against librarians and teachers who teach the truth about American history.  Consider the failed former president whose vile rhetoric spawned a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and still he runs again and the media can’t wait to replay his every vicious lie.  He pits citizen against citizen, speaking of all who disagree in the most degrading ways, spewing lies and basking in the adulation of his “base” while media delight that the klieg lights are back on the whole disgusting show.

No institution of higher education can sit back and say, well, glad that’s not us!  In truth, if the nation’s colleges and universities do not stand up for justice and truth, who will?  This is not about membership in one party or another, or being liberal or conservative, all legitimate choices.  This is about the moral center of our society, the kind of nation we aspire to be, the quality of our lives together in communities.  Too many of my brother and sister college presidents say we should have nothing to say about any of this, that we should be “above politics” and let the problems of our times sort themselves out.  To them I say, find a spine!  If we who are privileged to have great educations, and privileged to lead institutions whose mission statements all recite nice words about justice and building good societies — if we don’t confront the evils of racism and white supremacy and police brutality, who will?

Let’s start by proclaiming anew that Black Lives Matter!  Let’s use our considerable stages and pulpits to raise up the demand for police and political accountability, for new ways of training and shaping the mindset of law enforcement.  Let’s also do more — MORE — to open the doors of our academies wider to the children and families of color in our cities who can benefit so much from greater educational advancement.   Let’s use our considerable university resources to hammer out solutions rather than sitting back and washing our hands of the gravest political and social challenges of our lives.

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Karon, Martin, and Devastated Dreams

January 16, 2023

(Karon Blake, screenshot from NBC News)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Quincy street in northeast DC is normally a quiet road, lined with modest bungalows and brick homes, with the peaceful Franciscan Monastery at the top of the hill, bisected midway by 12th Street with its dry cleaners and pubs, and, at the bottom of the hill, the Turkey Thicket playground and recreation center just across Michigan Avenue.  Also, adjacent to the rec center, is the Brookland Middle School where 13 year-old Karon Blake was a student before he was shot to death on the corner of Quincy & Michigan at 4 am on January 7.

A violent death in our city is a great sorrow at any time, but Karon Blake’s death has triggered a level of outrage, pain and anger beyond the usual grief at too much violence.  Fueling the outrage is the refusal by police and city authorities to name the suspect, rumored to be a Quincy Street resident who allegedly shot Karon for breaking into cars on the street outside the suspect’s home.  Mayor Bowser, MPD Chief Robert Contee and other officials have pleaded for calm, insisting that the investigation and judicial process must play out before an arrest can occur.  The outrage continues unabated.

In an effort to quell the anger and stop rumors on social media, the Mayor and Police Chief have revealed three aspects of the suspect’s identity:  he is a city employee but not law enforcement; the gun he used was legally purchased; and he is Black.

That latter statement, identifying the suspect by race, is a profound indictment of our nation’s failure to internalize the message that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to preach and teach so long ago.  Dr. King envisioned a society where people would be judged on “the content of their character” and not the color of their skin.  But in this deeply divided nation —- riven in so many ways by the ongoing consequences of slavery and racial oppression from 1619 to this very day — the color of skin still infects human judgment about other persons no matter how hard we try to say it does not matter.

Why does the race of Karon’s killer matter?  For many, if not most, it does not matter at all — a person who kills a child commits a reprehensible act regardless of the race of either.  But in this society hyper-charged over issues of race, the possibility that the shooter is white is immensely inflammatory.  But, paradoxically, why would the outrage be any less if the shooter is Black?  I get it about why Chief Contee felt is necessary to identify the shooter’s race, and yet, that very statement plays into the racism and hatred of the real racists in this nation, the white supremacists who will chalk this child’s death up as one more tally point about Black-on-Black crime.

“One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

So, the gun was “legal.”  Let’s consider that dimension of Karon’s case as well.  At last count, America has more guns than people, and the stockpile keeps growing.  The Second Amendment activists claim that the Constitution protects Americans’ right to amass guns in order to protect themselves and their property (and, oh yes, deer hunting…).   The death of Karon Blake is a natural consequence of a society that has invested more value in the “freedom” to own guns than in the protection of human life.  The shooter who took Karon’s life was protecting…. car windows.  Second Amendment activists rejoice.

The inability of this nation to have sensible gun control is a massive moral failure; the bloodshed as a result if overwhelming.  If the shooter was unable to possess a “legal” gun, perhaps he would have reached for his phone to dial 911 instead of reaching for his pistol in an act of pure vigilantism.  Anarchy is the result of a political system that cannot control violence, and the excessive arming of American citizens is a manifestation of the growing tendency toward anarchy in the United States.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Dr. King wrote his letter from the Birmingham Jail not in response to a KKK march or blatant government discrimination, but rather, in response to some of his fellow ministers who felt that his campaign of nonviolent protest was rocking the boat, an agitation that might incur the wrath of public officials.  They wanted less noise, fewer marches, more politesse.  Dr. King was biting in his response to his brother preachers:

“Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

We must shout it out — louder, louder, LOUDER!  Too many young people are victims of gun violence in the District of Columbia.  The potential of the rising generation is pouring out on our streets, wasting away in petty disputes and vicious vigilantism and senseless shootings.  Dr. King is remembered for preaching about his “Dream” but for too many of our children, the Dream is gone, replaced by the devastation of losses that mount higher each day.

Of course, the legal process must move forward, and perhaps we will soon know more about the case of Karon Blake and the man who shot him.  But if all that happens is information about that one tragic incident, we will have failed, once more, to make progress in addressing the most fundamental challenges our city and nation face when it comes to building a good society of peace where real justice is possible.

Justice for Karon Blake will not occur on the day that the suspect is arrested, or tried, or even convicted if that happens.  No, justice for Karon will only come when those of us in the supposedly responsible adult community develop a real and effective response to violence; when we stand up to the gun lobby and insist on a reduction in the private armories of citizens; when we practice what we preach by ending the tendency to use race as a prism through which we judge others and their actions. When we develop more effective educational and community responses to the tendency of some children to manifest disruptive and even violent behaviors, not by killing them but by responding with love, care and effective interventions.

Justice will only come when children can actually live long enough to realize their dreams.  The children must have dreams to start with — too many have suffered the devastation of dreams, childhoods ruptured by death and despair.  How many children in our city are suffering the trauma of gun violence, children like Karon’s siblings and friends and classmates?  Our schools, our educators, our community centers and volunteer services must find ways to help the children recover from the trauma they experience too often, to rebuild a sense of hope, to believe again in the potential of pursuing bold dreams for their lives.

“In a real sense all life is inter-related… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic Education

January 5, 2023

As Pope Benedict XVI is buried this morning at the Vatican, I have reflected on the only occasion when I heard him speak in-person.  In 2008 the Pope visited the United States and during that visit he called a meeting of the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities.  We met at Catholic University.  Here is the video of the address, worth watching, and also the text here:

In advance of this meeting at Catholic University, many conservative commentators opined that the Pope would use the occasion to smack down American Catholic higher education for being too liberal, for failing to uphold orthodoxy.  The critics were salivating.

In fact, the Pope did nothing of the sort.  His address was thoughtful, scholarly, and affirming.  He called the commitment to Catholic education in the United States “an outstanding apostolate of hope” and he cited the historic examples of religious women now saints — Elizabeth Ann Seton, Katharine Drexel — who led the creation of educational ministries to marginalized persons, particularly African Americans and Native Americans.  He called Catholic educators to be faithful to the teachings of the Church as essential to the work of Catholic education, but he did so in a way that was affirming and forward-looking.

For Catholic higher education and our faculty, most importantly, the Pope affirmed the “great value of academic freedom,” saying:

“In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

The Pope’s wise and thoughtful address was also very smart; presidents and faculty who went into the meeting fearing chastisement left thinking differently, admiring the Pope and being more open to the message about how we must balance our freedom with our responsibility to teach in fidelity to the Church’s mission.

In the week since his death, many commentators have explored the complex dimensions of Pope Benedict’s papacy, and his transformation from the doctrinal enforcer he was as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the more pastoral and reflective pope he became.  He succeeded someone who is arguably one of the great popes of all time, Saint Pope John Paul II, a gregarious world traveler and charismatic figure on the world stage for several decades.  He struggled with the demands of the job, and the relentless evidence of the sex abuse crisis that undermined so much of the Church’s credibility in the modern world.  Some say his greatest contribution was his surprise resignation in 2013, an act that led to the election of Pope Francis I, a completely different pope in world view, personality and action — and yet someone equally concerned about fidelity to Church teaching.  Benedict and Francis lived with the “two popes” phenomenon and in their overt respect for each other they presented a new, modern image of how the papacy can still be relevant in the modern world.

Rest in Peace, Pope Benedict.

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Let’s Make 2023 Better

January 1, 2023

The new year dawns against a backdrop of sorrow and heroism, criminality and selfless action.  A Pope is dead; the Pope will bury him.  A horrific war rages; the Ukrainian people rise, undaunted by each new terror.  A President faces potential criminal indictment at the recommendation of Congress; a man in a blizzard in Buffalo, turned away from a dozen homes, finds shelter by breaking into a school and saves 20 other lives.

On Thursday, January 6, Pope Francis will preside over the funeral of retired Pope Benedict XVI who died on Saturday.  I will write a separate blog about Pope Benedict later this week.  How will his passing influence the Church in 2023?

In Ukraine, the horrors perpetrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin seem unending, and yet, he is losing badly because of the indomitable spirit and determination of the Ukrainian people and their leader Volodymyr Zelensky.  Will 2023 bring victory to Ukraine?

Former President Donald Trump — oh, where to begin? — became the first president that Congress has recommended for criminal indictment, but it’s up to the Justice Department to act.  Meanwhile, Congress released Trump’s tax returns, so shameful — most of us pay more in taxes than he did since 2016 at least, and most of us give more to charity than he did.  Will 2023 see justice come for Trump at long last?

Jay Withey, a common man, a 27 year-old mechanic, got caught in the Buffalo blizzard that killed nearly 40 people — but he saved lives through quick thinking, breaking into a nearby school and helping others get to the shelter; police and the school superintendent hailed him as a hero.  He took a big risk to help save others — would we do the same in 2023?

We live in a time that can easily evoke despair and selfishness — who among us hasn’t just turned off the news because it’s too much to bear?  Individually, most of us have no idea what to do about Ukraine, and we know from long experience that no matter how much some of us might rail against Trump, many others will praise him and he is just as likely as ever to escape consequences for behaviors that would have landed any of the rest of us in a very secure prison long ago.

But while it is not our job, in 2023 or ever, to solve Ukraine or make Trump go away for a long time, it IS our job to be agents of peace, of justice, of hope and charity.

It IS our job as educators to teach — and to teach well and vigorously — about the necessary conditions for democracy to thrive, about the dangers of authoritarianism, about the consequences of wars not only for one country but for the entire community of nations.

It IS our job as educators to teach about ethics and truth, to expect our students to manifest honesty, to impose consequences for lies and cheating.

It IS our job to show students the exemplars of courage, selflessness, heroism so that they can study and learn how to do the same.  Such values are not merely good secular traits in polite society (remember that?), but rather, they are essential qualities for living and acting according to the principles of social justice.

We can and must teach our students the real meaning of social justice — to stand up for human life and dignity, to work in community, to live in solidarity with those who need us, especially the poor and vulnerable of this earth, to resist exploitation of workers, to care for the environment.

Can we make 2023 better?  Yes!  We can, we must.  We need to plan our lessons in education for justice each day, extending welcome and hospitality to each person we encounter, discerning the conditions that cause conflict and sorrow, helping our students to move away from danger to themselves and their families, opening every opportunity for them to find shelter, comfort and peace in our classrooms and corridors, in all that we do at Trinity.

No, we cannot change what’s going on elsewhere.  But we can be darn sure that what goes on right here at Trinity is an example to the world of how to live with charity, hope, justice and peace.

Happy new year!

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