Forgiving, forgetting, and fixing racial climates

From the 21-point plan developed by Colgate University to Vanderbilt University’s own burgeoning efforts to increase diversity, there are a lot of responses that universities have been developing to address student dissatisfaction with negative racial climates.

To a certain extent, I guess I should be glad. The kinds of efforts that these universities are undertaking are exactly the kinds of things that advocates, both student and otherwise, have been asking for from the start. These things make it sound, on the surface, like universities are genuinely making progress. I don’t think that’s particularly a wrong takeaway, since I think there’s something important about keeping an open mind as we move forward. That said, I can’t make myself feel particularly good about these efforts. And from what I can tell, having talked to other people who have been engaged with these movements from the start, I’m not alone.

I took some time to really think through why my reaction to these things is overwhelmingly negative, and when it comes down to it, it’s fairly simple: I don’t quite trust those driving these reforms. There are two halves to this feeling, which I share with some of my colleagues, that I think are both critical for understanding this reaction and also determining how we can move forward.

The first half of my negative feelings, in this context, is that these efforts are often coming from those same powers that produced the dissatisfaction that drove students to mobilization in the first place. Despite the perhaps cynical supposition that these powers developed these plans not out of actual empathy but rather to save face, I think it’s reasonable that students might not believe in their institutions, which were only recently the cause of their pain, to faithfully and effectively implement justice.

The second half concerns a certain lack of restorative justice in these efforts. Throughout the tenure of the students involved in this activism (as well as other students of color more generally), there has been a significant amount of harm done. First, before mobilization, many of these students consistently faced a racist environment that made their campus experiences painful. Second, during mobilization, many of the movement organizations faced significant opposition from their administrations, their faculty, and even their peers. This work is exhausting, as I’ve mentioned in the past, but it can also be damaging.

In the end, what this means is that the powers that be in institutions of higher education have effectively lost the trust of many students of color, especially those in positions of leadership. In my opinion, this dooms these new efforts to fail. What, then, would make students (like me) happy?

It’s going to take more than asking students to just forgive and forget what has happened in order for us to move forward as a nation. Significant damage has been done, and unless universities take sensitive, humble, and rigorous care in fixing the wrongs they have committed against students, they’re not going to have the support they need from communities that matter the most in these contexts. How can people do this? I don’t have all of the answers, but this is my opinion: Own it. Identify with the aggrieved students what harms have been done. Develop substantial and genuine apologies. As institutional leaders, commit to change not only in terms of what policies are made, but also in terms of how you as individuals will change yourselves. Acknowledge the pain you have caused, and continue to mend those relationships as you go through your work. And most importantly, in my opinion, approach this reparation in the spirit not of political reconciliation, but rather of a true and meaningful desire to make things right by these students.

I’m not saying this will always work, but these concrete actions, in my estimation, contain some of the elements of true humility that institutions will need in order to make these reforms work. I have yet to see an institution say “I’m sorry.” But I think that until that happens, students will continue to distrust the institutions that are trying to change.

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