A Letter From Marxe Dean Birdsell to Marxe Faculty and Staff – June 2020
Dear Marxe Community,
Equality before the law is a bedrock principle of American society; it undergirds the construction of our individual and collective liberties and resonates through our celebrations of national pride. It is a noble, inspiring commitment. And as we are painfully reminded with the murder of George Floyd last week, it is a principle contradicted in practice each and every day. It would be a mistake to attribute what we saw in Minneapolis on May 25th solely to flaws in police procedure, even though those flaws were abundant; George Floyd died because of pervasive racism, social and institutional, that makes possible the casual murder of an African American man under the ostensible cover of enforcing the law.
We are all horrified by Mr. Floyd’s death, but I want to acknowledge the special pain this event focuses for our communities of color, African Americans in particular. When I saw the video of his murder I was furious about the wanton disregard for life. I grieved for him, and his family. I feared for people of color, and for our nation. But as a white man, I was not reminded of my own vulnerability, because I am not in fact vulnerable to the racist violence that killed Mr. Floyd and that threatens people of color in our nation every day.
That hundreds of thousands of people of all colors across the nation have taken to the streets – in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has itself been an object lesson in inequality – has been bracing. Starting at the beginning of March and ticking up sharply since last week, I have had more conversations with a wider array of people about issues of white privilege, institutional racism and how we finally craft a country that lives up to its values than at any prior point in my life. I am more encouraged than I have ever been that we may be at an inflection point where enough people are aghast at the status quo and committed to real change that it might actually happen.
For all these reasons I am pleased to announce a new program devised and hosted by the incoming leadership of the MPA Club, Jael Henry, Kelly Brosnan, Kelsey Wheeler, and Michael Cruz. “I Can’t Breathe: A Conversation on Race, Police Brutality, and Systemic Racism in America,” will be a multi-part series in which students, together with faculty members and guests from outside the Marxe School, can hold informative, supportive conversations on a range of topics relating specifically to the cascade of events that began with Mr. Floyd’s murder, but also speak more broadly to the stated themes, all of which long pre-date that atrocity. The first program will be on the mental health dimensions of this crisis and is scheduled for Tuesday, June 16 at 6:00 pm. Please save the date; a Zoom invitation will be circulated next week. I know that I will be there, microphone off and listening.
Let me close with three suggestions about things we can do as a school of policy and administration, not only at times such as these, but always. First, while we can and should, all of us, continue to speak and write about the things that matter most to us, we also need to make sure that we take time to listen and to do so in ways that truly deepen our understanding of others’ experiences and perspectives. True for everyone, it goes at least double for those like me who inhabit privileged positions and identities. Second, if we ever have, we can no longer accept the notion that a program works if it only works for some. If the results vary by race, class, gender, or other factors, we need to know why and redress the imbalances. This effort is one of the National Academy of Public Administration’s “Grand Challenges” for the coming decade and it is one we should embrace in all of our research, teaching and service as well as the careers we support; I know many of you already do distinguished work in this arena. Finally, I would like to suggest that we cease to work toward “restoring” or “rebuilding” the structures of government and civil society that have been so obviously and badly broken over the last several years, arguably decades. They have never worked for everyone, and we should not be going “back” to anything. We need to move forward toward a future as fully inclusive and equitable as we can make it.
I am enormously proud of you. We’re not perfect, but I know we’re up to the challenge. You’ve seen statements from Provost McCarthy, President-Designate Wu, and soon, if you haven’t seen it already, our Marxe Diversity Committee. All are strong and clear. Let’s embrace this moment to take stock, but let’s also move forward, rapidly, and with purpose. I know we will.
David S. Birdsell