Statement from Dr John Silvanus Wilson, Jr.
Dealing with the stress and angst of the Covid-19 pandemic was hard enough, especially given its disparate impact on minority populations and the increased hate against Asian-Americans. Yet, those difficulties were worsened by the shocking circumstances surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Nina Pop (a victim of the increasing violence against transgender black women). And then we all spent the past week being literally stunned with sadness, pain and anger stemming from the graphic and widely-viewed murder of George Floyd. Now, it seems appropriate to regard the matter of America’s racial injustice and inequity, not merely as a crisis warranting urgency, but it should be seen as a national emergency.
Like so many people around the nation and the world, I watched the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder in horror. George Floyd cooperated. He was unarmed. He never resisted. He was cuffed. He was prostrate and fearfully subject to the power and intentions of four police officers. As one officer obstructed his breathing with his knee, George Floyd begged for his life. He called for his mother. He repeated, “I can’t breathe.” And at least once, George Floyd called the officer from whom he sought mercy, “sir.” He died while respectfully appealing to the uniformed men sworn to protect us all. And we all saw it.
I shall never forget that. Nor should any of us. Clearly, our country is far from becoming the more perfect union described long ago as our aspiration. We have important work to do and we have critical choices to make.
Since the ensuing unrest has resembled that which followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it makes sense to consider Dr. King’s outlook in the final year of his life. He secluded himself for weeks to write his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? He made it clear that the most important choices are ours to make.
Harvard University recently made a choice to steadily and deliberately evolve our campus culture toward one that will help to ensure that everyone in our community thrives. We are pursuing what we call, “sustainable inclusive excellence.” I am proud to have led the team to launch our efforts in this direction of becoming a much better community.
Overcoming the viral systems of both white supremacy and racial inequity will require hard work that is not the responsibility of communities of color alone, but of all of us. We all have a role to play to ensure that this Nation realizes an inclusive greatness that she has yet to exhibit.
When the pandemic shifted nearly all college and university commencement ceremonies from traditional to virtual, many people thought the special moments would be completely lost. That is not entirely true. One special moment from Harvard’s virtual commencement deserves focus. The undergraduate student speaker, Michael J. Phillips, pointed to a choice facing all of us. Referencing his experiences at Harvard, he wondered how he and his fellow graduates might use their education to make themselves forces for good in the world. He ended by echoing a phrase made famous by Dr. King, who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Mr. Phillips called his classmates to a higher place, saying, “we were fortunate to fly high enough that we might grab the moral arc of the universe itself. May we bend it in the right direction.”
Now, more than ever, we all must choose community over chaos as the right direction.