In her address to the Class of 2020, Maria Ressa ‘86 told Princeton’s newest graduates to make their life decisions on the basis of which opportunities will give them the best chance to learn new things. We have to keep learning, even in the face of intransigent ignorance and evil, like that displayed by those who clearly don’t think that black lives matter.
We stand with President Eisgruber, the Class of 2020, the USG, GSG, the Carl A. Fields, Women*s and LGBT Centers, the residential college heads and staff, and the many others at our University who’ve written to affirm their solidarity against these recent and continuing acts of intractable, systemic racism.
We’re encouraged by the number of student organizations, teams, and departments that have also issued statements of solidarity and support. And we’re grateful for the many faculty and staff who have spoken and written about racism, white supremacy, and police violence.
For example, Profs. Ruha Benjamin and Tracy K. Smith participated in the Family Day of Action, Kneeling for Justice, that brought thousands of community members to FitzRandolph Gate at Nassau and Witherspoon Streets. We thank the students and community members who took the initiative to gather us all together in such a visibly powerful way.
Faculty like Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor have raised critical questions and reflections in opinion pieces that help us all better understand the dynamics of what we are seeing, feeling, and experiencing right now.
The senseless, cruel murder of George Floyd repeats so many other too recent and too similar acts of violence and disrespect for the lives of African Americans—that is, our fellow Americans, citizens like all of us with their own rights to life, to liberty, to trial-by-jury, and to the pursuit of happiness, all of which were tragically abrogated in these cases.
As a campus community, we must keep learning, just as Ressa challenged us to do. We must learn from one another and from the many scholars on our campus who study systemic racism and white supremacy in all its historic and contemporary forms. We must learn why this social scourge persists and how we can respond as individuals and as a community. We must pose difficult questions and respond with complex answers as we search the base of our knowledge and the depth of our hearts to decide our own necessary responses. Because respond, we must.
This historic moment of protest wells up after months in which Americans and people around the world have struggled to survive a pandemic. As we strive to keep ourselves safe, George Floyd’s death uncovers the vulnerability of too many American citizens who, by virtue of their race, can’t presume safety, or access to basic rights like health care, or even to their own freedom.
While we think of ourselves and those we love, the Covid-19 virus requires us to think in community, to make our choices in the context of how our actions will affect others. Often these are small, but ultimately powerful, choices. Wearing a mask, for example, protects the lives of others, as well as our own.
We fervently believe it shouldn’t take a deadly virus to think of ourselves as part of a community that requires care. But George Floyd’s murder is a tragic reminder that we’re all affected and implicated, not just by pathogens that float on the air, but by ideologies of supremacy and subjugation.
The Class of 2020 has graduated. We applaud their accomplishments and look forward to how they will bring their hard-earned Princeton educations to bear on these American and global challenges. We need their knowledge, their commitments, their insights to prevent more deaths like George Floyd’s. And we need yours—the Class of 2021, 2022, 2023, and our newly welcomed Class of 2024.
As President Eisgruber noted last weekend, “We all have a responsibility to stand up against racism, wherever and whenever we encounter it.” We need to join hands, hearts, and minds to act to eradicate the cold hatred and disregard that poisons us all.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, said, “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man—the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” He also said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Toni Morrison, after whom our Morrison Hall is named, said, “I tell my students, When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” We owe it to our community to empower one another. We’re all responsible.
In the midst of despair, we insist on hope. We hope that you’ll help repair a world that needs it desperately. We hope that you’ll join us in imagined, virtual, and real community. We hope that you’ll commit yourself to learning so that you can be effective when you act.
We’re grateful to students who have shared their classroom research and brought their work to larger public conversations. Examples like the Anti-Racist Reading List curated by two members of the class of 2021 show us the powerful ways in which we can live Princeton’s unofficial motto: “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” These words have never been more necessary.
In these emotionally trying times, please remember the campus support systems available to you. Reach out and connect with your college deans and directors of studies and student life. The staff at the Carl A. Fields, Women*s and LGBT Centers, the Office of Religious Life, the Office of the Dean of the College, the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Students, the Pace Center, and all of Campus Life are ready to support you. And, importantly, Counseling and Psychological Services is always ready to help.
While programs and support are important, we acknowledge that only systemic and far- reaching structural change will finally eradicate racism and all of its tragic manifestations in our country. Princeton has an important role to play in this work. We must find ways that the University, through its teaching and research missions, can actively engage this moment of anguish and anger.
At President Eisgruber’s request, we’re working now with faculty and staff to pull together intellectual, academic, and other resources to plan for Princeton-specific action. We’d be pleased to hear your ideas at ideasforchange@Princeton.edu.
As we continue to move from thought to action, we look forward to ever more dynamic engagement with and from the University community. Many events at which we can at least virtually gather are being shared on listservs and calendars, such as the virtual offerings listed on the Office of Wintersession and Campus Events.
Wherever you find yourself during these difficult times, please take care of yourself and one another. We’re here to support you; we care. We can’t wait until we can see you once again and feel the powerful presence of our community.
Dean Jill Dolan & Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun