The email announcing Case Western Reserve University’s planned Day of Dialogue on June 10, began by referencing the “Black Lives Matter” mural painted adjacent to the White House on 16th Street in Washington, D.C. As the national uprising against systemic racism and police brutality—in wake of the police’s murder of George Floyd and countless of other Black Americans—gained momentum, the Mayor of D.C., Muriel Bowser, had city workers paint the slogan for everyone, especially the president of the United States, to see.
However, the same Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, called for the district’s police budget to, once again, increase by $45 million and has all but mocked Black activists’ calls to defund the police.
Members of Black Lives Matter D.C. quickly condemned the move as “performative” and called it a “distraction.” Clearly this was a spectacular act of showmanship, focused on “owning” our obviously racist president who has gleefully stoked racial tensions. (The president, however, should by no means be the main focus of a country that built its wealth off the backs of slaves on stolen indigenous land.)
Similarly, CWRU’s Day of Dialogue, which was billed as a challenge to spur conversations on how the university could address systemic racism, was clearly nothing more than a public relations stunt.
It would have been hard to script a more tone deaf way to open the Day of Dialogue than by giving the Campus Police and the Office of Public Safety the microphone for an hour. In that time, they promoted vague musings of “reform” that will almost certainly never occur and touted their rigorous vetting process that still results in many Black and other marginalized communities routinely feeling unsafe, as expressed in later sessions.
Many of these concerns came out in the session, “We Speak, They Listen,” which fulfilled its promise of giving students and alumni the opportunity to voice their concerns. One topic of note was the diversity of university staff and faculty. Many speakers shared that they rarely, if ever, had a professor of color, noting this absence as harmful to their CWRU experience. Meanwhile, Black employees on campus are mainly relegated to custodial and food service staff.
However, while students were given the opportunity to talk, few were there to listen, as the administration did not hold up their end of the bargain. After putting the pressure on the African American Society (AfroAm), African Student Association (ASA), the Brotherhood, Black Student Union (BSU), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Sisterhood, Undergraduate Diversity Collective (UDC) and Undergraduate Student Government (USG) to organize the event, only Vice President of Student Affairs Lou Stark bothered to show up to this session as speaker after speaker voiced their concerns, fears and ideas of how to achieve a more racially just campus and community.
The closing panel, “What We Learned—and What’s Next,” was anything but that. President Barbara Snyder, Provost Ben Vinson and Vice President for the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity Robert Solomon made vague commitments to improve diversity, especially among faculty. However, they failed to sincerely address concerns about campus police and the rampant racism in Little Italy.
It was most astonishing to hear President Snyder, whose total pay tops $1 million, contemptuously reject a proposed scholarship fund intended to help enroll more youth from the city of Cleveland at CWRU, over affordability concerns. One can only wonder why a video of this session is not available on the university’s website, along with recordings of the other public sessions. I, too, would be ashamed.
Yet none of this was particularly surprising to me. Back in March, I wrote about President Snyder and the board of trustees cowardice and moral bankruptcy regarding fossil fuel divestment. Systemic racism reaches far beyond policing; George Floyd, Eric Garner and other victims of the police’s state-sponsored violence have had their lives end, gasping “I can’t breathe” as they were choked to death. Many other Black Americans have suffered and died due to a lack of clean air to breathe. Pollution, and the climate crisis as a whole, disproportionately impact Black and other marginalized communities. This is why divesting from “industrial multinational use of fossil fuels and instead [investing] in community based renewable options” is one of the six subpoints included in the “Invest-Divest” portion of the Movement for Black Lives national policy platform.
Just like Mayor Bowser, CWRU administrators don’t seem to be truly interested in what their community members have to say. A “Day of Dialogue” here, a nicely worded email there, maybe even showing off a picture of a nice new mural, or making a vague commitment to improving diversity are apparently sufficient for their conscience.
It shouldn’t be.
It’s time for leaders at CWRU to look in the mirror and ask a couple of simple questions. Which side are you on? Are there steps you can take to combat systems of racism and oppression perpetuated by our university?
This is a movement, not a moment, and it demands answers not in the forms of murals, nor an unending loop of one-sided dialogue, but in long overdue action.