July 8, 2016
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,
Yesterday I sat down to write a letter about the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. I knew from conversations and email that those killings and their implications led many of us to seek the comfort of friendship and a caring community. Many students, faculty, and staff of color have understandably felt particularly distressed in the wake of the killings of Sterling and Castile. And some feel alone in the pain of this moment. I wanted—and still want—to assure you that you are not alone in your distress, pain, or determination to end racial injustice. Together, we can acknowledge the horror of the killings, the pattern they fit, and the despair that pattern has caused. Together, we can also eliminate it. This message was the heart of my intention yesterday. It remains so today.
Before I had finished writing yesterday’s letter, I learned of the sniper attack in Dallas that killed five police officers and wounded a number of other officers and citizens last night. Nothing I can say will be appropriate to the gravity and implications of any one of this week’s tragedies, much less all of them. Nonetheless, I can add my voice to yours and the millions of others raised in outrage and sadness.
To the outrage and alarm raised by police killings of two more black men, we now try to absorb the added shock of a planned attack on law enforcement officers in Dallas. With his characteristically understated pain and equally characteristic hopefulness, President Obama yesterday afternoon insisted, in a somewhat uncharacteristically weary voice, that “we can do better.” But many are no doubt asking how, how we begin again to turn alarm and a seemingly endless set of reasons for despair into forward movement for change.
I believe it is vital for political leaders and citizens throughout America to start with a simple, but blunt, unequivocal acknowledgement of the racial bias and inequality in our criminal justice system and in other institutions. No less critical is the need to recognize the devastating effects of those evils on black and Latino communities and on society as a whole. At the same time, we must appreciate the extraordinarily difficult and dangerous work police do day in and day out—and fully honor the horrific sacrifices they make, as we were tragically reminded in Dallas last night. And let us remember that these two imperatives are compatible—a fundamental but usually ignored truth that the President also underscored yesterday.
As a community, we should bear in mind, too, that the liberal arts have as their purpose the rejection of prejudice, hatred, and violence in favor of knowledge, understanding, and democratic process. To be faithful to that mission, we strive to ensure that ALL students at Amherst can take full advantage of their education without the obstacles that inequality and bias can put in their way. That work is incomplete but ongoing. We can and will do better.
Today, members of the Amherst community, regardless of race, ethnicity, or political point of view, are reading and watching the news of this week’s violence with relentless questioning to themselves about what each of us can do in our individual and collective orbits to ensure that reason, determination, and compassion not only prevail, but guide our efforts to create change. I look forward to the discussions we will have when all students are back on campus. For those who are here this summer, our new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Norm Jones, and I will create opportunities for conversation about the deeply troubling issues this week’s events raise.
At a national and international level, we need leaders who have the intellectual scope, analytical skill, generosity of spirit, and integrity to solve seemingly intractable problems in collaboration with others. The work of fostering those qualities starts at home, here at Amherst, and in all our other homes.
My thoughts are with all of you.