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Actions Speak Louder Than Words

You could tell he was nervous. They were supposed to be reading from the teleprompter, but he was going to ad lib. His breathing was audible and his words were unsteady, but this was important.

Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the US Gulf States. The hardest affected areas were Black communities where both residential and municipal infrastructures had failed them. The government had been slow to act and the narratives of those struggling to survive on their own were markedly different when discussing Black families as opposed to white families. The Red Cross enlisted celebrities to use their star power to solicit donations during a live telethon. Comedian Mike Meyers and musician Kanye West were among them. As the two delivered their lines on camera, it was apparent that one of them had gone off script. Mike delivered his lines as planned. But Kanye spoke extemporaneously about the double standards of both the media and the complacency of the government. Mike picked up his cue to deliver the rest of his lines. And when it was thrown back to Kanye, he boldly shared the most impactful part of his message: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” You could hear an audible gasp, discern a faint “Oh my God!” exclaimed by someone off camera, and see the visible shock on Mike’s face as he realized what had been said. The camera quickly cut to Comedian Chris Tucker and Mike managed to get out two last words, “Please call!”

Say what you want about Kanye. Many are critical of several aspects of his life. And, to be sure, he has had many public moments that have been deserving of criticism. Nevertheless, in this moment, he summoned the bravery to speak truth to power about the inequities and disparate treatment he saw in the midst of this tragedy. Actions speak louder than words. And the ineffectual response from the government (which left affected areas in disarray for years afterwards) spoke volumes.

As states and institutions within the United States have been driven by anti-diversity legislation, many people have denied the racist intent of these movements. Yet the effect has been the dismantling of thousands of programs that have assisted marginalized groups and that have attempted to correct the inequities resulting from centuries of blatant discrimination. Despite presidential hopeful Nikki Haley’s protestations to the contrary, America definitely has been a racist country—beginning with its very founding. From Day One, Indigenous people were pushed off their ancestral homelands. Black people were “owned,” as chattel slavery was practiced throughout the nation, including by the authors of that same Declaration which proclaimed “all men are created equal.”

The impact of those beginnings—in addition to a myriad of other systemically discriminatory policies and blatantly violent practices such as: Jim Crow Laws, redlining, government enforced segregation, the Lily-White political movement, the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, the bombing of MOVE Philadelphia, the assassination of Civil Rights leaders, and the criminalization of peaceful activism—has resulted in effects that can be felt even to this day. Ruby Bridges, the first child to integrate schools in New Orleans, is only in her 60’s. This wasn’t 1000 years ago! Any economist can tell you about compound growth. Generational wealth and opportunities have resulted in compound growth for some, while generational impoverishment and inequality has resulted in stagnation or destitution for others. But programs designed to correct for these wrongs had been making measurable strides.

Encouraging education among those who had been historically blocked from pursuing college is one area where demonstrable progress could be seen. By welcoming students from minoritized groups, providing scaffolding for those who may have been the first or one of the few in their family to matriculate through higher education, and by celebrating their achievements, colleges and universities helped add and retain students from a multitude of backgrounds. We’ve recently seen an uptick in Black doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals entering the career pipeline. But the levels are still not representative of the population. Destroying diversity programs has been shown to undo progress that’s been made. But who are these actions benefitting? Other than hurting groups that are succeeding under these programs, what are these rollbacks achieving? It’s been denied that the purpose of these efforts is to harm minoritized groups. It’s been said the motivations aren’t steeped in bigotry. But actions speak louder than words.

Schools in states like Texas and Utah have been forced to shutter their diversity programs. Initiatives like University of Texas’s cultural welcome events and diverse graduation ceremonies like GraduAsian, Black Graduation, and Latinx Graduation have been halted. Administrators have no choice but to implement these mandates. However, our Adventist schools are under no such pressures to conform. Which makes it curious as to why our flagship institution, Andrews University, has engaged in actions that are threatening equity and inclusion on campus.

Exactly 7 years ago, Pastor Jaime Kowlessar was invited to speak for the University’s Black History Month Chapel. His sermon called out some of the discriminatory issues that were present on campus. It ignited a firestorm of controversy. It also lit a spark of hope. The subsequent “It Is Time” movement built off the work the Diversity Committee had been doing for years and thrust many of their aims into the consciousness of a wider audience. The concerns were received by then-President Luxton who responded with a commitment to change. And because actions speak louder than words, her verbal promises were backed by tangible results, including the hiring of Michael Nixon, who would become VP for Diversity and Inclusion.

Yet now the University is getting rid of this position. Why? There is certainly no state mandate that compels the current president to do so. So how does destroying diversity efforts jibe with our professed Biblical mandate to reach “every nation, kindred, tongue and people?” Those who didn’t need the services this office provided may not recognize the necessity. It didn’t matter to them when it was there and it won’t matter now that it’s gone. But for those who did avail themselves of what this office provided, the absence will be felt. And the impacted population will overwhelmingly consist of those who’ve already been subjected to historical marginalization. Does President Wesley care about them? Obviously, no one pushing for the University’s destruction of DEI efforts will ever say these changes were motivated by discrimination. But as the title of this article says …

Image Credit: Amy Elting on Unsplash

About the author

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.  More from Courtney Ray.
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