Black lives matter. This phrase isn’t simply a political platitude or social media trend. It is the recognition and affirmation of Black people’s humanity. Whether straight or queer; male, female or non-conforming; rich or poor—all Black lives matter. They have always mattered, but at times like these—when police violence plagues the streets of cities across the country and when the President of the United States’ words add fuel to the fire—we must advocate harder for systemic change.
The deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others have reminded us of longstanding inequalities in the society we live in. Each paid the ultimate price for one of America’s highest crimes: being Black. If you are Black in America, you can be killed for playing with a toy gun, being transgender, passing out food, or sitting in your own home. Everyone in these stories—as well as countless Black people we will never know—had their lives taken by the police.
While some activists have demanded action against police brutality on the streets, others have taken to social media platforms to speak out against injustices faced by the Black community. What began with reposting an aesthetic drawing of Floyd has transformed into a social media storm consisting of calls for donations, links to anti-racism resources and guides for engaging conservative peers and parents with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Both of these forms of participation are valid. Not everyone can protest in person, but everyone can do something in the fight for racial justice nationwide.
The fight locally has played out differently. Campus activists have demanded greater protections for minorities for ages, from the Allen Building Takeover to the People’s State of the University protests. Clearly, activism and anti-racism are steeped in Duke’s history. Despite all of the incidents in recent years aimed at ostracizing the Black community, activists have been able to demand change from the University year after year.
The University’s recent response was business-as-usual at best and another display of Duke’s race problem at worst. In only 237 words, President Vincent Price told the Duke community that “Duke University will continue the work of addressing generations of racism and injustice.” A man died, the nation has erupted into protests and the president of the United States has threatened the safety of protesters across the country, yet the best Duke students—Black Duke students—got from our president was a different version of the same deeply inadequate message many of us have heard since Price took office. Two days later, Vice Provost Gary Bennett and Mary Pat McMahon released their statement. They promised to listen to the needs of students from marginalized communities and implement concrete revisions to the Duke Community Standard. If this is a sincere promise and change is coming, we want to remind them that every day that Black students do not have the protection they need is another in which their safeties and very lives are at stake.
When the University’s administration fails, our community at large must offer support to our Black peers. To non-Black allies: listen to the Black community. Listen when they tell you that the racism in your communities is your problem. All of us have an obligation to educate our family members and peers on the injustices faced by the Black community, and more importantly, to hold them accountable.
For those of you asking what actions you can take to effectively challenge entrenched biases and systemic racism, here are a few:
- Take part in a protest. Showing up, physically if you are able, is one of the best ways to understand the issue of police violence and support the movement against it. Many of these protests began as peaceful demonstrations before police escalated them to dangerous situations. When things turn violent, white allies should use their privilege and greater levels of immunity to de-escalate situations between black protesters and police. If you protest, it is important to know your rights and have the contact information of a lawyer available.
- Donate to organizations committed to criminal justice reform, public policy reform and community empowerment. Bail fund organizations help end a discriminatory system that relies on stereotyping Black men and women as criminals to keep them locked up in jail, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. National organizations aim to reform public policy for Black people in Washington, D.C., where it can be the hardest, but the most necessary, to change the system. Community-centered organizations help Black people out with everyday needs and necessities. Donating ensures that these organizations and more can continue to fight for equality.
- Educate yourself about issues plaguing the Black community. Having discussions with your Black friends about their experience is important. But at a time like this, many of them are overexerting themselves trying to keep themselves mentally and emotionally secure. Start by reading books about Black Americans' experience with policymakers, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Watch films that depict the harsh reality of living while Black. Commit to the long journey of unlearning racist attitudes.
- Consider the space you take away from Black people. Unlearning racism requires a dialogue between Black and non-Black voices. However, learning when to step back from the conversation and let the Black community decide the content of the conversation is infinitely more helpful than assuming the best path to equal rights and speaking from that assumption. Speaking up for the Black community often turns into speaking over Black voices and ultimately silences their message.
- Introduce implicit bias training to your organizations and clubs. Many of us are a lot more prejudiced than we think we are. Standing against racism doesn’t just mean condemning the actions of violent police and moving on. It means confronting the stereotypes and prejudices that have been taught to us by a racist society over time. If your organization condemns the hate that led to the killing of George Floyd, implement continual bias training that helps your members identify and unlearn racist patterns. These training sessions are most helpful before recruitment or tryout seasons as those environments are where implicit biases are on full display.
- Rethink your job. Standing with Black people does not stop at standing against police—it carries over into the workplace. Do your research when applying for a job. If your place of employment sells user data to police or contracts with law enforcement agents to put people in cages, reconsider working for that company. If you do work for one of these companies, critically think about your team’s leadership and stand with Black co-workers when they point out discrimination in hiring and promotion practices. Additionally, look into your company’s corporate responsibility policies as many Fortune 500 companies have a donation matching program.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Taking one form of action does not eradicate Duke’s or America’s racism. However, participating in all of them all will not solve our problems immediately either. Once you have protested or donated or become more educated, you must commit to living an anti-racist life. That includes checking your own implicit biases, calling out friends and family, going out of your way to learn about the struggles the Black community faces and voting for pro-Black politicians. Committing to anti-racism is a lifelong journey, but it starts with embracing the simple fact that Black lives matter.
This column was written by Community Editorial Board co-chairs Ben Wallace, a sophomore, and Ryan Williams, a senior. The full board is not in session during the summer.
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