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"A devastating and ruinous history"

The act of maintaining oppression has a cost even for those who benefit systematically from it.

Larry Gladney, a professor of physics at Yale, is the Phyllis A. Wallace Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Illustration by Patrick Welsh

Illustration by Patrick Welsh

Larry Gladney. View full image

Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, George Floyd . . . So many emails begin with these names. We all have the message: we must repeat their names. But there are so many more names that go unspoken: Tyree Crawford, Wendell Celestine, Janet Wilson, Alteria Woods, Bettie Jones, Alonzo Smith, Miguel Espinal . . . And more that go beyond the recording and the telling, stretching back far earlier than 1838 (the date of the founding of the Boston Police Department, cited as the oldest in the nation) to whatever form of law enforcement it seems has ever existed in America. What can anyone say in the face of a devastating and ruinous history that stretches continually from slave patrols to systemic police brutality on black people? Many of my faculty colleagues, who are all accustomed to talking through difficult topics, are at a loss for words to express not merely anger but screaming outrage that these pounding blows to our collective psyche never end. Witnesses, video footage, scholarly research all fail to change the national pattern of no justice for excessive police violence, because of multiple mechanisms of qualified immunity.

So, what can I say? The overwhelming sense of longing is that everyone just wants the murders and violence to stop. To know that finally it will be different—somehow, miraculously, truly different. For a nation created literally on optimism it is an instinctual pull. Pragmatically, what could convince anyone that change will come? As a physicist, I do not have answers that would matter. As a black man in America, profiled in Philadelphia for “walking while black,” my own experience would say only this: I had no one to talk to about how I felt. As a postdoctoral scholar at an overwhelmingly white institution and with no immediate family around, I had plenty of colleagues, friends, and powerful people to tell, but no one I thought could understand the depth of my fear, anger, humiliation.

Nor did I think they could believe that everything I felt was all by design of an encounter shaped by cultural evolution to be “the normal.” I “looked like” a suspect. From there, everything else that happened was designed to assert police authority and subsequent diminishment of the suspect: from emptying my bag of groceries on the sidewalk to the long stand against the police car while my ID was checked for outstanding warrants. All my education, sacrifices, academic and research achievements—none of that mattered in those moments. It’s just an unfortunate personal story until you realize that I have yet to find a black physicist in this country who has not had this same experience—many of them multiple times. This is the definition of systemic racism. Black men profiled by police are handled the same way today some 30 years later. And if you have never been through it, you probably cannot believe that it was designed not for justice but to kill—kill the spirit if not the life. Yet the officers who carried it out have probably never thought once about the effect that my “stop” or so many other “stops” they have done must have had. It was—it is—all normal.

Systemic racism is a “cost” that devalues us all, not just black people. Share the outrage now, but understand that if you are not having conversations about this with your family, your friends, and strangers you meet in the airport six months from now, then there is no reason for you to expect that anything will have changed with this moment. Silence is too easy.

Hearing pain, including your own, over and over again is indeed hard. But without the pain, there is no steady insistence that change must occur more quickly than it has. Some deny the existence of systemic racism. Too many still think that silence about it, other than to say that they personally oppose it, is sufficient and that expressing solidarity or calls for “unity” is the only message that should be delivered. I do not want calls for unity. Until you fear the same fate as I do on the few times I have been stopped in a car by the police, you cannot be in unity with me.

Others think we should go further in acknowledging the toll on black folk. Yet, even in protests, the cost is higher than we admit because the act of maintaining oppression has a cost even for those who benefit systemically from it. Until we are all as disturbed by the loss of humanity as much as we are by the loss of human life, history shows we can bury the spiritual cost—until the next outrageous act hits the national spotlight. The reason is simple: you cannot admit to the cost without also admitting to the privileges generated. Do not apologize for them; talk about them and resolve in those conversations to find a way to not forget that all of us have been conditioned from birth to ignore the existence of protection and privileges based on race until circumstances demand you cannot.

The path to substantive change cannot avoid the many discomforting conversations as to how we contribute, whether through silence or inaction, to perpetuating what must end. Some of those conversations will expose appalling thought from those we respect and trust. But we need personally, as well as nationally, to share and learn. Only then can we be unified in our effort to call out and overcome prejudice and eliminate the cost of privileges paid for with blood and despair. 

1 comment

  • Joan Alflen OP catholic sister Gr Raids MI
    Joan Alflen OP catholic sister Gr Raids MI, 5:48pm July 20 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Our church has not been kind to people of color.
    Thank God for who are and for proclaiming it.

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