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President Lash's Convocation Speech

Posted: September 04, 2013

Jonathan LashJonathan Lash
Address to Hampshire College
Convocation, Fall 2013

Thank you, Diego. We are so proud of what you have done, and are doing, and of Hampshire’s long association with Nuestras Raíces. As we at Hampshire become more intentional about how and what we eat, I hope that you, your organization, and your community will become even closer partners with us.

Students, staff, faculty … friends, welcome to Hampshire’s 44th Convocation. The summer is a restfully slow time here, but you all bring life back to the campus. It is good to have our community together again.

A few days ago we lost one of our cherished founding faculty. David Smith, who in 1970 took a huge risk to leave the Chair of a leading American Studies Department to move to a new college with a half-built campus and no guarantee of a future, died last Friday. David helped invent Hampshire, and shared his passion for the humanities with generations of Hampshire students.

He was a beloved mentor to students and younger faculty. He and Priscilla had been at Hampshire last spring to hear and take pleasure in Div III presentations by students supported by the endowment fund established in his name by alumni. He told me he was so happy to see Hampshire thriving.

I still feel somewhat amazed … and deeply privileged to be here with you as I start my third year as President of Hampshire. As I look at what is happening in the world – the pace and unpredictability of change, the level of conflict and injustice that surrounds us – it strikes me all over again how apt, and how important, this enterprise of ours is. Learner-centered, inquiry-driven education that values questions above answers, celebrates exploration, and demands that students find means to put ideas into action seems the best possible preparation for an unpredictable world in need of the engagement of caring citizens.

One characteristic of our Hampshire community that is intrinsic to who we are and how we share the experience of learning is that we are a community of purpose and activism as well as a community of inquiry. We seek moral as well as analytical understanding.

Convocation is a celebration of the renewal of our community, and our commitment to our mission. Today I would like to use the occasion to open a conversation about one form of injustice that is of immediate concern to American society as a whole, and to this community in particular: the presence and consequences of racism.

This is neither an easy, nor a comfortable subject. As a 68-year-old white male who grew up with all the benefits of white privilege racism is not something I can claim to understand at anything but an intellectual level … or even to be free of myself. But for exactly those reasons racism is an issue I feel compelled to address.

I hope by doing so to open a discussion that moves us from passive to active anti-racism, and helps us to fulfill our commitments as a learning community.

When I was born at the end of World War II, the US Armed Forces - 12 million men and women who had just fought a long and bloody war against tyranny – were racially segregated. Indeed, while unsung heroes – people whose names most of us have never heard – had struggled, suffered, and sometimes died trying to get access to education, services, and the ballot box in the 1920s and 1930s, America as a whole remained segregated.

Throughout the South, schools and public facilities were segregated by law, as they were by practice in many parts of the North. Theaters, swimming pools, restaurants, and sports were segregated. People’s minds were segregated.

By the end of the decade after WW II, President Truman integrated the Armed Forces by Executive Order (he had to fire the Secretary of the Army who refused to implement the order of his Commander-in-Chief). Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey integrated baseball. And in 1954 the United States Supreme Court – unanimously – held segregation unconstitutional.

The United States finally, ninety years after the Emancipation Proclamation, began, slowly, to dismantle the explicit, socially accepted, legally enforced structures of institutional racism. The Court’s ruling that segregation was unconstitutional, of course, did not settle the issue – rather, it marked the beginning of the next stage of the struggle.

In the spring of 1963, school children in Birmingham, Alabama, were standing up to the police dogs and fire hoses turned on them by Sheriff Bull Connors who proclaimed “segregation at any price” when they demonstrated for equal rights. A senior in high school, I somehow persuaded my parents to let me take time off from school and drive to Birmingham as a witness and supporter of justice. I had never seen raw malignancy or hateful violence before. That stunned me. But neither had I seen such courage before. The children who sang and held hands in the face of attack dogs and truncheons changed my understanding of what was possible.

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to assure the most fundamental of rights against flagrant efforts to prevent blacks from voting (the same Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court has just partially struck down – more on that in a moment). In 1974, twenty years after the Supreme Court had commanded that segregation must be dismantled with “all deliberate speed,” the Federal Judge whom I was a law clerk for heard the appeal of Boston parents fighting against bussing to integrate the Boston schools. That was long before the “War on Terror,” but the court was enveloped in security and surrounded by angry white parents screaming epithets at the judges.

I was incredibly proud to have been part of the court’s strong endorsement of the need for swift and firm action to implement the mandate for equality. When the plan was implemented, it was again children of color who were on the front lines of the struggle.

Change came slowly, grudgingly, and incompletely, and at great cost, but it came. Yet the system of segregation, of legally enforced racism, left a stubborn legacy. Most obviously in lasting patterns prejudice and social, economic, and educational disadvantage for people of color, but also in the hearts and minds of white people.

For myself, and the rest of us here who are white, how can our perceptions, assumptions, expectations not have been shaped by the prevalent racism and disparities of opportunity and experience between whites and people of color? How can we not be cursed with unconscious racism? Not malevolent, not hateful, not intentional, but destructive nevertheless. Habits of the heart that generate suspicion, fear, and anger that we respond to unawares.

Study after study of the effects of “unconscious bias” has shown that it leads to differential and disadvantageous treatment of people of color across American Society — in health care, hiring, housing, pay, banking, law enforcement, and, of course, education.

In this year of Trayvon Martin we need to look into our own hearts for the silently lurking stereotypes and unacknowledged fears that shape our perceptions. The court that halted New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy documented massive evidence that in its operation and effect it was a racial profiling policy – in 2012 alone half a million people were stopped and frisked, 90 percent of them black or Latino (89 percent were totally innocent). Yet this was a policy that New York officials had long supported, insisting it was not racist but based on objective criteria.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and a black man, wrote in a New York Times op-ed titled “The Good, Racist People,” that

“In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons, and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.”

Coates went on to say that “the idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals…” creates a culture that “haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be ...” famous.

From here in the Pioneer Valley, it is easy to condemn the Zimmerman verdict, and to express indignation that activist conservatives on the Supreme Court have voided a key section of the Voting Rights Act, deeming it no longer necessary. We are right to protest. There is no guarantee but the vigilance of citizens that our society will not slip backwards.

However, I hope our community will also confront a question closer to home: how are we to overcome racism that is neither conscious, nor intended, nor far away, but in ourselves? It will be much harder to open a conversation about the effects of unconscious racism in our own classrooms, dorms … or offices.

Here is what I ask …of the entire Hampshire community: that we commit to honesty, openness, and respect toward one another; that we each take responsibility to challenge race-based assumptions, stereotypes, and actions when we see them … and to acknowledge them when we find them in ourselves. That will take courage, and a conscious rejection of the natural defensiveness we all feel when challenged – especially on issues of race. It will take generosity of spirit such that when we challenge each other we do it in good faith, not to punish, but to engage, teach, and learn.

Have you watched the video of Jay Smooth’s TEDx talk at Hampshire? I recommend it. He spoke with wisdom and humor about the incredible difficulty of this conversation, and how rare, but important it is for both the giver of feedback and the receiver to keep focused on what happened or what was said, not on whether the speaker or doer is a racist. He urged that we keep in mind that

“We are not good despite our imperfections … it is the connection we maintain with our personal and common imperfections that allows us to be good to ourselves and to others.”

Hampshire alum Ken Burns, when I asked for his thoughts about what I should say this afternoon, responded:

“Most of us make the mistake of seeing race and African American history as some politically correct addendum to American history, like the outer orbit of Pluto … and not the burning sun, the heart of our history, and our potential future redemption. Race is at the center of our lives, our original sin; we were born under the sign that all men are created equal, yet the man who wrote those words OWNED more than a hundred human beings, setting in motion an American narrative constantly forced to confront race. Always has been, ALWAYS WILL.”

I think that understanding is crucial if we aspire to be “actively anti-racist.” It is frightening, but it offers a profound opportunity for learning and growth.

What shall we do?

We will organize discussions, seminars, and training events around issues of race, we will support the work of interns who will organize conversations on these topics.

Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, a founder and leader of the Critical Race Theory Intellectual movement will deliver the Eqbal Ahmad Lecture followed by a panel organized by Professor Margaret Cerullo on the Trayvon Martin case.

Hampshire students are organizing the “ASK for Social Justice Conference” here in November.

This spring we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Cultural Center.

I’ve charged Chief Diversity Officer Diana Fernandez with crafting a statement about the core role of diversity in Hampshire’s vision of education, and with working with every division of the school on an agenda for addressing racism.

This spring I will take a delegation from Hampshire to the NCORE conference in Indianapolis.

That’s a start, but I am counting on the activism and commitment of the Hampshire community to put forward much more that we can do. I am neither wise enough, nor experienced enough, to know exactly how to proceed. I will be asking you, students, staff, and faculty, to think and propose, and create.

The most important work we can do will be to react to what we see around us in real time. This is not a side issue. It is at the core of the exploration of understanding at Hampshire.

Last week, President Obama, speaking on the Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, said:

“To dismiss the magnitude of [our] progress, to suggest as some sometimes do, that little has changed – that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years: Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King, Jr. They did not die in vain. Their victory was great.

But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”


Anyone who has been part of the Hampshire community over the last few years knows I am passionate about building a culture of sustainability. But I know in the depths of my heart that sustainability cannot be built on injustice. Justice and sustainability are a symbiotic pair. I think this community can lead on both. I ask you to join me in trying.

Thank you.

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