Reflections on the Enduring History of Racism in America

June 19, 2020

Dear Members of the University Community,

It has been a tumultuous and painful few weeks in Richmond and in the United States. As the most significant public health crisis in our lifetimes rages on, we have been reminded over and over again of America’s enduring pandemic of racism and injustice. As a nation, we have never psychologically dealt with the aftermath of slavery, segregation, lynching, and more recent systemic disparities. Today on Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the end of slavery, I would like to pause to offer a personal reflection about racism in America, and to lift up stories of your fellow Spiders who are helping show the way forward.

Like everyone in our community, I was horrified by the senseless and barbaric death of George Floyd, captured on video and broadcast to the world. When I first saw the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder, I wept. The inhumanity written on the faces of those officers — hearing him call for his mother — it nearly broke me. His death is a horrific reminder of the dehumanization and fear that black people, people of color, and other underrepresented groups experience in our society on a daily basis.

I have been a black man in America for 73 years and have been blessed to experience many more ups than downs. But in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s violent death, I have found myself reliving several traumatic moments from my childhood.

I vividly remember having “the talk” all my black male friends had with their parents about how to survive and thrive as a black man in America. For my brother and me, that involved my mother insisting that we speak only the King’s English and comport ourselves with impeccable manners, no matter our feelings. She even dressed us like mini-adults, often putting us in suits and bow ties when others our age were wearing jeans and sneakers. I felt like I was in a straightjacket at times, and later in life I rebelled by growing an afro, much to the chagrin of many of my family members.

My parents had very real reasons to be concerned about our safety. When I was a boy, my uncle was beaten and killed in cold blood by white police officers while in custody in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a crime he did not commit. The perpetrator of the crime for which he was arrested later confessed. My aunt was left with four young children under the age of 10 and no recompense for his murder.

When I was a bit older, two boys in my church community — the Jennings brothers, just 14 and 16 — were seeking shelter from the rain in the doorway of a jewelry store. The police assumed they were breaking in and shot them dead.

To this day, my heart still races when I spot a police car in my rearview mirror.

The deaths of Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others who have preceded and followed them in death underscore the pernicious and pervasive nature of racism in America. I know that many of our students of color have had the same “talk” with their parents that I had with mine over 50 years ago. I also know that our black and brown students, faculty, staff, and alumni are hurting, feel betrayed, and are just plain exhausted.

Yet, as upsetting and painful as this moment has been, I am hopeful that we have reached an inflection point in our history. I am inspired by the activism of hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors across the nation and globe who have taken up the mantle of Black Lives Matter, from Germany to Brazil to right here in Richmond. That includes many of our students who have been galvanized by this moment — and by the important conversations we had about race and racism on our campus this past January — to dismantle systemic inequities in our society. It also includes many members of our alumni community who are bravely speaking up and sharing their stories, living our shared values beyond the boundaries of our campus. Allow me to share with you the powerful reflections of just three alumni who are inspiring me for the work that lies ahead of us.

Liz Montague, ’18, is the creator of the Liz at Large cartoon series, which seeks to create a “better world one cartoon at a time.” A couple years ago Liz wrote the cartoon editor of the New Yorker to express concern about the magazine’s lack of diverse cartoons and cartoonists. Not long afterward, thanks to her talent and wit, Liz became the first African American female cartoonist to be published in the New Yorker. Her work has consistently offered powerful cultural commentary, addressing everything from climate change and sustainability to the question of why women and women of color are often ignored in our society. Today, Liz continues to use her art to challenge readers’ thinking, recently publishing another cartoon in the New Yorker that reminds us that systemic racism has been a reality in our country for centuries.

Leland Melvin, R’86, is a retired NASA astronaut and a trustee emeritus. In a recent conversation with Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, Leland speaks powerfully about the challenges he faced on his journey to become the distinguished astronaut and STEAM educator and author he is today. As a boy, Leland says, “I didn’t think about becoming an astronaut because I didn’t see someone that looked like me.” As a teenager, he shares, a police officer accused him of a crime he did not commit, almost shattering his future. But Leland persevered and is optimistic about building a more just and inclusive world. Speaking movingly about working and living together and experiencing unity among diverse crewmates in space, Leland concludes “I want that life off-planet to be a model that we adopt and bring back down here. Because we get over our differences in space so that we don’t all die. That’s the power of working on a team in a critical environment. Our Earth is a critical environment too.”

Wendell Taylor, L’98, is a distinguished lawyer and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. In a recent SoundCloud reflection that is at once heartbreaking and inspiring, Wendell reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. Wendell shares three stories of injustice from his own life, including being wrongfully accused of stealing from a convenience store when he was an 11-year-old boy; wrongfully arrested for a bar fight at a locale he had never entered when he was in college; and blatantly discriminated against and subjected to police abuse when he was a law student at Richmond. Wendell challenges us “not [to] accept these stories as just my stories or my reality but our reality, our nation’s reality.” I couldn’t agree more, and I encourage you to heed his moving call to action, to allow yourself to feel the pain of this moment and keep up the fight for justice.

In his often-quoted remark, Dr. King said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We must remember, however, that it does not simply bend on its own, but only when each of us embraces the cause of justice and equality as a shared responsibility. At the University of Richmond, we will continue to do our part, building on years of concrete action to foster a more inclusive intercultural community. Last summer, we released Making Excellence Inclusive: Report and Recommendations to propel our work forward. We appointed an interim senior administrative officer and an Institutional Coordinating Council to distribute leadership of this work across the institution — and to accelerate cultural change at the University. In the year ahead, we will further our efforts to become an anti-racist community. While we know we have more work to do as an institution, we are proud of the significant progress we have made to date. We are also so proud of those in our community who are speaking out to illuminate and inspire this moment. As Liz, Leland, and Wendell remind us, what happens here can have an incredible impact everywhere.


Ronald A. Crutcher