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College of Humanities & Sciences

Department of African American Studies

Statement on Recent Events

June 3, 2020

We Demand Justice and Accountability Now!

The Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University condemns the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers; the murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers; the ambush and execution of Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia; the attempted assault of Christian Cooper in Central Park; and the countless other Black people that have been rendered victims of the unrelenting terror that is white supremacy. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and pray that you find solace in your hour of grief--and know that we share in your sorrow.

The Department stands in solidarity with those who have taken to the streets to demand justice for the victims of state violence and an end to systemic racism and white supremacy. We make no judgments about the means of protest and direct action taken to secure the liberation of oppressed peoples by those who are risking their lives to protest the unjust treatment of Black people. When Black citizens are victimized by violence at the hands of police and white vigilantes, we are asked to participate in rituals of denial. We are told that the crimes are shocking, against our collective values, that this is not America, the work of bad actors, the fault of racist individuals. Public officials make appeals for “justice” and reform. We are told to grieve and mourn and express anger in ways that are acceptable to others to maintain order. These rituals ask us to ignore the obvious: that the murder of Black citizens is an act of collective will that has sustained over 400 years; this is America. It is the inevitable consequence of a society that does not value and protect Black life. It is the inevitable consequence of a society that is organized to defend and maintain white supremacy.

White supremacy is sustained by violence. “Law and order” was maintained during the era of slavery by state militias, by local patrols, by torture and mutilation, and by the destruction of families. “Law and order” was maintained during the era of segregation by the lynch mob, the race riot, and the all-white police forces that inflicted terror on Black communities. Today militarized police forces are charged with maintaining an order that demands that Black citizens have less access to wealth, less representation, less rights, less education, less employment, less pay, less health, less safety, and less freedom of mobility and expression. They are charged with maintaining an order that demands that Black citizens are subject to surveillance, incarceration, and disenfranchisement. Black citizens have for centuries fought to change these circumstances, to build a social order that is based on anti-racism, equality, and peace. But overcoming oppression requires overcoming the violence that is deployed to sustain it. White supremacy persists because the white majority chooses this perpetual state of violence as the acceptable cost for white privilege.

We must not be distracted by debates about whether protestors are engaging in acts of property damage and violence or whether they are behaving peacefully and nonviolently. This shifts the focus to the virtue (or lack, thereof) of the protestors and implies indirectly that resistance isn’t a legitimate response to state violence. We must acknowledge the legitimacy of the anger, and the legitimacy of the principle of self-defense. This rebellious action was legitimate when Harlem residents responded to the police shooting of a Black soldier by taking to the streets in 1943. It was legitimate when Black communities exploded in rebellion following acts of police brutality in Watts 1965, Newark 1967, Detroit 1967, Miami 1980, Los Angeles 1992, Baltimore 2015, and dozens of other times. More than fifty years ago, President Johnson’s Kerner Commission located the root of these rebellions in white racism and pleaded for action. The white majority has refused to do so.

Where do we go from here? How do we convert our anger, outrage, and resistance into sustained action that serves to dismantle white supremacy? Franz Fanon challenged us to “discover our mission, fulfill it or betray it.” We must not allow our mission to be betrayed, but must work to fulfill it.

The Department of African American Studies at VCU recognizes the need for a sustained movement aimed at sovereign self-determination within the Black community. In response to the current uprising and rebellion against white supremacy, we are working to develop a strategic plan to address some immediate needs in the local community. In collaboration with the Elegba Folklore Society, we will establish a food pantry to assist community members who have been furloughed, laid off and/or find themselves newly unemployed due to COVID-19. We will provide free community classes and workshops centered on the social determinants of health of the Black community in effort to arm members with information and the tools necessary to battle the disproportionate burden of disease resulting from generations of historical trauma. We will provide free classes in African and African American history to the community that aim to deconstruct the dominant narratives about Blackness and empower the youth with knowledge about the contributions of Black people to America and the world. The Department will adopt a local elementary and high school where we will maintain a presence, assist teachers with developing appropriate curriculum, and establish a mentoring program with students. If you are interested in joining us in our mission, please reach out to volunteer your time or donate resources.

We as the Department of African American Studies at VCU are committed to continuing the challenging work of dismantling anti-Blackness, recognizing while uplifting the voices of outrage, protest, and passion, and to inspiring the future. In the words of civil rights activist Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

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