January 6th, 2021 was intended to be a day of ceremonial ritual that underscored the strength of our democracy, and the commitment we as a nation have to a set of principles, values, and ideals that anchor our embrace of the constitution of the United States. Students in universities and colleges, in K-12 institutions, and even mature adults could treat it as a civics lesson, for there were many teachable moments in this season of election politics. The lessons learned however, were not necessarily the ones intended, for at many levels, the teachable moments were literally colored and shaped by lessons in White supremacy, racial and ethnic politics and denigration, law enforcement and military response to protestors based on political party and racial demographic, and politicians who defiled their oath to the American people in order to court favor with a misguided ideologue bent on holding unearned power and position. What a sad day for America; the incongruence and scandalous inconsistency so palpable that it can’t help but cut deep into the fabric of one’s psyche and emotional core. In the aftermath of this disgraceful display, how will higher education chronicle this day and what lessons will it offer its students who are one step away from crossing the threshold into their careers, the workforce, and opportunities to become more civically engaged.
To say that most Americans were shocked and horrified at the scenes emanating from our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, would be an understatement of significant proportion. As I compose this letter, my spirit continues to stir with a restlessness, if not outright anger, disgust, and indignation at what I witnessed transpiring Wednesday January 6, 2021 on cable television news stations. Somehow, the normal statement a president authors in times of challenge and controversy to my campus community seemed insufficient in capturing the gravity of what I had witnessed. A massive crowd of Trump supporters, in an act of outright sedition, laid siege to one of our pillars of democracy, bolstered by the false and unsubstantiated claims of the 2020 election being hijacked by fraud, theft, and illegal voting. Various courts in numerous states throughout the country found no basis for the assertions or no evidence to substantiate the allegations. We teach our students to be more critical thinkers, and learn to bolster their opinions with actual facts and data to help them form and frame more cogent and persuasive arguments. Yet, facts and data were in short supply among that mob on the Washington mall on January 6th, and gave way to pure emotion whipped into a frenzy by massive amounts of misinformation.
Interestingly, those claims stealing an election were not only authored by the President himself, but were supported by a host of Republicans like Senate Majority Leader McConnell, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Ted Cruz, other members of the senate and congress, Republican Party leadership, the Attorney General, White House communications personnel and staff members, cabinet appointees, TV news personalities, members of organizations like Q Anon, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and a host of others committed to support and embrace the President’s alternate reality of what a commander in chief should sound and act like, despite having lost the 2020 election. I’m sure our students are asking what in the world is going on with our leaders?
Those who have embraced and otherwise enabled the current president over the past four years also shoulder some of the blame for the January 6 riot and rebellion that damaged property, cause bodily harm, and cost human lives. Unfortunately for them, no amount of eleventh hour “moon walking” back from their support of the president’s agenda and actions, and their embrace of his positions over the past four years, will save them from history’s judgement about these roots of rebellion. Their track record is clear; their complicity documented; their attempts to subjugate the will of the people permanently recorded. But those may not be the only culprits here. Looking at the thousands of faces descending on the nation’s capital, I’m wondering what role higher education has played in contributing to the mindsets of those persons in the crowd. The duality of this query however, rests not just with what higher education has said, but what it hasn’t said. In this moment of intense reflection, I’m remembering Dr. King’s declaration reminding us that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Have our colleges and universities been silent conspirators in this drama that continues to unfold?
Understand however that the responsibility and fault this president and his enablers hold is not for their political beliefs they embrace, conservative or otherwise. Each of us is entitled to our own views and voters can chose candidates according to whose platform best aligns with their values and perspectives on life. The fault is not really about the disappointment they feel at coming to grips with the Republican’s defeat in the election. They have a right to feel disappointed, hurt, depressed, and even discouraged. Rather, their blame is grounded in the false narratives, distorted truths, alternate realities, and outright lies that are promulgated by them that misinform segments of the American people, tear at the heart of what our democracy is supposed to stand for, seeks to suppress the vote of substantial portions of our nation’s citizenry, and incites the activism and sedition we all witnessed. There has been ample time for many of these enablers to reverse course on this implicit and explicit assault on our democracy, and distance themselves from a president who uses his office for personal gain for he and his family, while he ignored the needs of a nation and its citizens, even in the middle of a global pandemic that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of lives lost. None of his enablers did so then, and they should not be allowed to do so now without a true accounting and reconciliation of their behavior.
In the days since these horrific events incited by the sitting president of the United States, I have also pondered the blatant inconsistency and profound incongruence in the dynamics of how this siege by principally (but not exclusively) White people was handled. When compared to other protest and demonstrations held earlier this year when the murder of Black lives at the hands of law enforcement personnel and citizens alike instigated cries for social justice and police reform, those demonstrators were met with a sizable police and national guard presence, tear gas, brutality, and arrest. Even as this January 6th activity took place on a day when a ceremonial certification of an election symbolizing how the peaceful transfer of power was supposed to take place, I found myself, as a university president, retreating back to the annals of history in search of a parallel circumstance. I found myself asking the question of what does this ritual of democracy, the voting, the election, and the certification process of the Electoral College vote really mean to me as a person of color and a male or female of African descent? Do I really have confidence in our democracy that even as I seek to engage in these civic rituals, that I will then be afforded the same rights and privileges as my White counterparts? Does my full participation in the rituals of election and inauguration frenzy insulate me or Black and Brown people, or Muslim brothers and sisters, from the harsh realities of being a culturally different racial or ethnic group in America? Will these election rituals erase racism and sexism; abolish discrimination; diminish anti-Semitism; stop violence against women and children; eliminate the inequities in healthcare, economic opportunities, or educational opportunities; address housing and food insecurity; put a sizable dent in the level of poverty this nation is experiencing; reform policing practices so that my Blackness is no longer a target of biased law enforcement; will it help me obtain more justice in the courts; or help eliminate the redlining that increases my insurance premiums because of the neighborhood I reside in? I thought long and hard about these questions, and despite the status and privileges I do enjoy as a university president and distinguished psychologist with a collective sense of consciousness, I still couldn’t get to yes. I mean- what do these election rituals and voting certifications really mean to me? And there it was; the answer and our contemporary challenge for 2021 was contained in the writings of Frederick Douglas.
In July of 1852, some one hundred and sixty-nine years ago, Frederick Douglas delivered his famous speech on what meaning the July fourth celebration held for the slave and people of African descent. In his address, beyond describing the event as “human mockery and sacrilegious irony”, he answered the query and asserted that for him, it represented “a day that reveals, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.” “To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impotence; your shouts of liberty and equality hallow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all of your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocracy; a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on all the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, then are the people of these United States.”
The address by Frederick Douglas is a sobering reminder about the profound sense of incongruence that has and continues to exist between what America preaches and what she practices when it come to African Americans and other people of color. The irony here of course is that as much celebration as African Americans have done in seeing the first woman and person of color elected Vice-President of the United States, from an HBCU no less, and seeing Joe Biden win the presidency, we all have to ask ourselves, and universities will have to interrogate, what that victory really means for the masses of Black people who registered, made phone calls, hosted fundraisers, contributed record sums of money, stood in long lines, mailed in ballots, and voted? These students and their families are our alumni, currently occupy seats in our institutions, and will be making applications for admission in the near and distant future. Ironically, the President-elect, and his 2020 election campaign was almost dead in the water until Rep. James Clyburn and Black voters from South Carolina delivered him a primary victory that he rode to the Democratic convention to receive his party’s nomination. Black women and men, the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, turned out in mass to deliver victory after victory in states critical to the Biden-Harris election. And even once that election was over, and senate races in Georgia were undecided, Staci Abrams and a coalition of Black women and other committed volunteers, along with Black voters in Georgia, delivered victories for both Democratic senate candidates. How will those efforts be rewarded?
You see, it is undeniable that we have made progress as a country over the past six decades. With the passage of civil right and voting rights legislation, war on poverty programs, desegregation of schools, Comprehensive Employment & Training Act programs (CETA), Educational Opportunity Programs, TRIO Programs, Title IX regulation, and of late, renewed PELL Grant funding, and especially the affordable care act the Trump administration and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate have spent the last four years trying to undo, change has occurred. And yet, I am hoping that the measures of progress we boast about from this 2020 election, and Jan 6th 2021 Electoral College certification and pending Inauguration, extends beyond a few cabinet appointments and executive orders that at a surface level represent the desegregation of political appointees and government policies. The standard for people who live their lives at the margins of society, has to be raised in 2021, and at least one political party has to push for true equality across every domain of American life in order to acknowledge and reward, in a reciprocal way, the investment Black people have made and the trust they have placed into this American democracy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 text asking “Where Do We Go From Here” is reverberating in my mind as I process the legislative successes and political appointments of the past, that have yet to yield true equality for too many of this nation’s citizens. Similar to that space in time, a nation’s sensitivity was raised, and policies enacted, but real and substantial change and authentic equality has been an illusive prize too many are unable to grasp.
Consequently, the address by Mr. Douglas over a century and a half ago also serves as a challenge or gauntlet thrown down at the feet of the new Biden-Harris administration, and for higher education as well. President Biden and Vice-President Harris, with control of the congress and senate, will need to help this nation realize a greater measure of its promise and possibility. They will need to help a deeply divided nation heal. And while there are a host of policy initiatives, undoing past executive orders, along with a health pandemic, and restoring the economy that will demand their immediate attention, one of those domains of intervention has to be the differential treatment of Black and Brown citizens by police and law enforcement that we saw on display this past spring and summer, versus what we witnessed on Jan 6, 2021 in how police treated marauders and rioters bent on assaulting our democracy.
What to the people of African descent in this country do these election rituals represent at the deep structure level? Only time will tell if we as a nation, this new administration, and our colleges and universities have the temerity to push past this moment where sensibilities have been disrupted, and find new and enhanced measures of equality that more authentically represent a thrust towards becoming a more perfect union. Higher education will need to stand up and ante up as well in this high stakes game of political posturing. For a nation divided needs its institutions of higher learning to reframe the discourse on how best to affirm the dignity and humanity of all of this nation’s citizens.