This piece was originally published on July 13, 2020, by the UMass Amherst Rebirth Project. The Rebirth Project is a University of Massachusetts based student-run online publication that focuses on issues that marginalized students may face. You can check out this piece and other pieces on their website: https://rebirthproject.org
Recently, Victor Woolridge, a member and former Chair of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees, wrote an article calling upon America to acknowledge its history of anti-black racism and take concrete steps to achieve racial justice. We, a group of UMass students advocating for racial justice, wish to comment on Woolridge’s message. One of the few Black members of the Board of Trustees, Woolridge is, to our knowledge, the only member of the Board to publicly write about the need for systemic change following the death of George Floyd. Overall, we commend Trustee Woolridge for acknowledging the need for systemic change for racial justice–yet, that he is the only member of UMass’ Board of Trustees to publicly do so indicates that the UMass system itself has much work to do.
In Trustee Woolridge’s call to action surrounding the state of racial justice in the US, he makes some strong points about the systemic changes we must embrace moving forward. Given that we are mere months away from the Presidential Election in November, his point about “eliminating voter suppression efforts” has to be taken very seriously. All over the country, 1 in 13 Black Americans cannot vote because of disenfranchisement laws. Voter registration restrictions, gerrymandering, biased voter ID laws, and felony disenfranchisement are just a few out of the many tactics that the state uses to perpetuate voter suppression. If we want leaders that can represent our communities effectively, there has to be a concerted effort to combat this phenomenon. Another very important point he makes is with respect to the doctrine of “qualified immunity”. Whilst the Black community has been subjected to decades of criminalization and mass incarceration, “qualified immunity” is one of the leading reasons that police officers have repeatedly been exonerated from cases of severe misconduct. Under this law, public officials are held to a much lower degree of scrutiny because their violations must be “clearly established” in existing case law for them to be held truly accountable. A bloody history of racial violence at the hands of public authorities must be acknowledged and mended by reversing the doctrine of “qualified immunity” for us to heal the harm that has been inflicted on Black Americans and ensures a just future.
Trustee Woolridge advocates for many other courses of racially just action such as “an unreserved commitment to broad-based diversity at the highest levels”, “eliminating health disparities (including food insecurity) affecting people of color”, and that “American history must include a comprehensive history of African-Americans and other ethnic groups that built this country”. Whilst we fully agree with these directives and recognize their potential in serving the vision of a racially just future, we cannot help but unfortunately point out that the UMass system fails to live up to these ideals and has yet to prove their commitment to inclusion and diversity. Woolridge’s call for “broad-based diversity” is not a reality at the UMass Amherst campus where Black students make up only 4% of the student population. The “health disparities” that Woolridge is advocating to eliminate exist at very high rates for black students at UMass; they graduate with disproportionate debt because of insufficient financial safeguards and assistance. The UMass Amherst Police department takes a larger cut of the budget than the Cultural Centers and the Center for Counselling and Psychological Health. With such a low level of commitment to the well-being of its students of color, and particularly black students, the UMass system is absolutely not actively anti-racist. As for the point about how our history curriculum must include the history of African Americans, UMass is once again complicit in upholding racist academic standards, not unlike too many of our other higher education institutions. UMass makes no concerted effort to combat the racist syllabi, nor does it actively promote a racially just and more importantly truthful representation of this country’s history.
We take serious disagreement with Woolridge on one point: His assumption that “We want and need a well-trained and effective police force. Not all black or white people are bad, and not all police are bad.” As a system, policing is inherently violent and anti-black. The first police departments were strikebreakers and slave catchers. The modern prison-industrial complex disproportionately incarcerates Black and brown Americans in order to recreate slavery. And there is no connection between incarceration, policing, and crime. Police and prisons do not protect us–they enforce a violent, white supremacist status quo. Within this system, no police officer can be good. We call for the defunding and eventual abolition of all police forces–including UMass police–to be replaced with new systems of community investment, care, and transformative justice.
While we appreciate the words and actions Trustee Woolridge brings to the table, it is disappointing that he is the only member of the Board to do so. We take issue with this notion, that only one trustee and not the entire Board is choosing this moment to speak out against systematic racism. We call on the Board of Trustees to make an official statement, and to have funding back it up. If UMass truly cares about diversity and inclusion, and if “Hate Has No Home” means anything, then this Board will do everything in its power to ensure justice.
The Racial Justice Coalition works to take many of the action items listed in Trustee Woolridge’s piece and make them a reality. We strive to make UMass Amherst truly reflective of the values it promotes. Hate has a home at our university, despite claims to the contrary. We challenge UMass to listen to what the Coalition has to say and to implement our demands. One of these is increased funding for existing resources on campus that are better suited to handle situations rather than the campus police, who show up to every call armed, even wellness checks. Another is the creation of an online diversity training, similar to the AlcoholEdu and YIS: Your Intervention Strategies training that is required for all incoming students to be considered a UMass student. This training would also be required, and students would need a passing grade in order to enter the university. The Coalition is open to working with administrators to ensure these demands are met. However, UMass Amherst has a history of giving lip service to students to pacify them and what they need. We expect this time to be different.
UMass Amherst Racial Justice Coalition