When Addressing History, Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month were a reminder of a truth many would rather ignore: Race relations in this country, and on college campuses like Emory’s, need work.

This year’s Creating Emory curriculum contained an incomplete, slapdash attempt to address the University’s history of slavery and racism. As a response to the current political climate, this brief history lesson during freshmen orientation was insufficient. Perhaps the attempt in itself is commendable, but the execution lacked the depth necessary for a nuanced discussion of race.

The script for Orientation Leaders abruptly introduces a 30-second section of historical facts such as Emory namesake John Emory’s prominent slave-owning family and the University’s strong opposition to abolition. The script says that “in its early years most of the faculty, college trustees, its most generous donors and every antebellum president owned slaves.” It then awkwardly asks students to silently reflect on how they feel about Emory in that immediate moment without any room for a comprehensive, informed dialogue.  

Moreover, simply acknowledging the wrongs of the past is not enough to ensure equality in the present; the Charlottesville protests are evidence enough that escalating racial tension is an ongoing and ever changing issue in this country.

Although Emory has become increasingly diverse since its official 1962 desegregation, it is easy, and all too common, to spend your years here in a social and, often, racial bubble. Students frequently fail to communicate with those outside of their communities as a result of instinctual social segregation. While our social lives need not be totally dominated by concerns about diversity, a complete education includes understanding diverse groups of people and values contradictory to our own.

The administration also has a concrete responsibility to facilitate dialogue and foster understanding between different groups on campus. University President Claire E. Sterk’s condemnation of intolerant hate groups — the first time Sterk has taken such a forceful stance on a contentious issue — marked a principled step in the right direction, but it was just one email, words which most students have quickly forgotten. Emory must work to mirror the sentiment of Sterk’s response to Charlottesville in its daily decisions.

While Emory’s attempt to acknowledge its past is appropriate, a few paragraphs in an orientation session won’t create lasting change at Emory. Institutional change is possible, but the administration, students and faculty must work to make continuous, comprehensive efforts  to build the “foundation of civil discourse” Sterk’s letter so enthusiastically champions.   

The Editorial Board is comprised of Annie Cohen, Jennifer Katz, Madeline Lutwyche and Boris Niyonzima. 

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