To members of the Washington University community,
As 2014 draws to a close and we look ahead to a new year, I have been reflecting on the events of the past several months. The killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner – and, more generally, the unequal treatment of African Americans by law enforcement – should deeply concern and affect every one of us. Many of us have become even more conscious of the extent to which racism still burdens our community and our country.
Members of our own Washington University community have shared their experiences of racist acts against them, including unacceptable acts of racism by other members of our community. This reality leaves me deeply troubled, disappointed, and frustrated that we have not made more progress. We need to acknowledge that racism exists in the University community, in St. Louis and in our nation, and we must work to eliminate it.
I have heard the voices of students and colleagues saying that African Americans – and African-American males especially – are sometimes stopped and harassed by police for no other reason than that they are black in a largely white community. No person should ever be targeted by a law enforcement official or anyone else solely because of his or her racial identity. That is true anywhere, including on our own campuses. Such treatment goes against all we believe and work for at a great university.
I have also seen how racism plays out on our own campus when individuals take to anonymous social media sites like “Wash U Confessions” and “Yik Yak” to spew bigoted sentiments that have no place in our community. I am disappointed in and angered by those who perpetuate hateful speech behind the veil of anonymity, and I abhor the lack of respect and reasoned intelligence that this kind of communication signifies. Although we cannot stop this communication, we can condemn it, and I do.
Finally, we must acknowledge that Washington University and the people who make it great – its students, faculty, staff and alumni – have the ability to begin to bring about positive, meaningful change in our greater community. I am proud of all of our students and of the work they are doing in classrooms, in laboratories and in studios and, yes, on the streets and sidewalks of St. Louis, to help raise the awareness of what is wrong and what, together, we can do to begin to set it right.
As we move to a new year, let us look within ourselves and within our community to find answers to deep-seated issues that have divided us for so long. I know that we have the capability at Washington University to do this. Just as we have set our sights on improving health and curing diseases, feeding a starving world, providing sustainable forms of energy that do not endanger the world’s environment, and caring for the world’s rapidly aging population, the work of addressing the structural inequalities of the world, including racial inequality, is work we must do together, across disciplinary and cultural lines and in partnership with others.
I thank all of you for what you are doing to make Washington University great, and there is much to celebrate in that regard. But we have fallen short in creating an environment where everyone feels respected, honored and safe. We must acknowledge these shortcomings and work together toward a future where “Black lives matter” is more than a slogan and where racial inequality is something to be studied in a history course. Our community can be a force for positive change. Together, we can do better and be better.
Mark S. Wrighton