I write to you from an apartment just outside of Washington, D.C. The threat of coronavirus has diminished in my area, so my local government has started a phased reopening. They say that as long as we follow strict public health guidelines, it will be “safe” to go outside. But that isn’t true for me, and COVID-19 has nothing to do with it.
It wasn’t safe for Ahmaud Arbery to go for a midday jog around his neighborhood. He was completely healthy when he left his home, but he never came back. It wasn’t safe for George Floyd, father of five, to go to a grocery store. He had two autopsies, and neither said his death was due to the virus. It wasn’t even safe for Breonna Taylor to be in her own bed in her own apartment. Isn’t that where she was supposed to be safest?
For Black people in America, racial violence can take our lives anywhere and at any time. It doesn’t matter if we think we are safe. It doesn’t matter if we are “good people.” It doesn’t even matter how “educated” we are.
Black is still Black, even in Yale Blue.
In past years, I’ve seen how violence against my community has invaded the gated castles of Yale’s campus. In 2018, Lolade Siyonbola ’19 was napping in the Hall of Graduate Studies, when her white peer called the police. A Yale police officer aggressively interrogated her to “make sure that [she] belong[ed] here.”
For Tahj Blow ’16 in 2015, this same bias and profiling resulted in the Yale Police Department pulling out a firearm on him as he was simply leaving Sterling Library. Perhaps the most severe recent case was that of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, who were in a jurisdiction triple-policed by the Hamden, New Haven and Yale Police Departments. Washington was struck by bullets after being shot at by both Yale and Hamden officers. The Yale officer was doing nothing to protect us. The two victims were unarmed, innocent New Haven residents, simply victim to the intersection of classism and anti-Black racism.
But this is nothing new for an institution like Yale, which was named after a slave trader and colonist. Our school, like most institutions in the United States, was founded upon brutality and racial violence. It exists on land taken from Quinnipiac and other Algonquian-speaking Indigenous peoples. It was funded by slave labor.
Too often, we forget this history. We celebrate the progressive achievements of the University, separating them from their problematic context. The recent 50th anniversary of the Afro-American Cultural House is significant because of Yale’s history of discriminating against Black people. My election as the first Black student body president was widely celebrated, but this was only indicative of how Black students have not been empowered to serve in leadership roles on campus.
Yale College was founded 319 years ago. Achievements that take this long are jarring and reflective of a deeply troubled society. They are not, nor will they ever be, full solutions to the problems that ground them. Answers need to be as complex and intentional as the issues they are meant to address. Racism in the United States is one of the most complex and intentional projects in human history.
As Yalies, we are taught to be leaders and are taught to solve the world’s problems. But in this case, we must relinquish that pride. The solutions aren’t going to be ideated and carried out by us. Instead, as we see on the news, grassroots organizers, activist organizations and relief and aid distributors are doing the most important work to push our society forward.
While we shouldn’t center ourselves in this movement at the expense of others, there are ways we should support people on the front lines. This is why over 80+ Yale student organizations have come together to make financial contributions to initiatives tackling the effects of racism in the Black Community and give a portion to support the health crisis in the Navajo Nation, which surpassed New York State in COVID-19 infection rates.
Just days after our official launch, we have already raised over $30,000.
If you decide to donate, I hope that your contribution to this movement is just a first step in a much longer journey to combat the issues that have plagued the United States far longer than COVID-19. Recent events force people globally to come to terms with how the brutal foundations of our country and our college persist through racism, oppression and violence.
The least we can do is come together and give to these communities in their times of crisis.
KAHLIL GREENE is a rising senior in Timothy Dwight College and the first Black president of the Yale College Council. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.