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University of California, Irvine

After the Fierce Urgency of Now Passes: A Call for Moral Leadership

Douglas M. Haynes, Ph.D. Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer, University of California, Irvine.

Available to talk on issues of diversity and inclusion in higher ed, and in general, including the current protests surrounding the death of George Floyd.

 After the Fierce Urgency of Now Passes: A Call for Moral Leadership

 This weekend laid bare the grim reality of anti-Black racism in the United States, if you needed reminding. From coast to coast, millions of people have demonstrated in support of Black Lives while protesting the deaths of Black men and women as well as transgender and queer people in police custody or at the hands of vigilantes. As the smoke clears, a question looms before all Americans: How will you confront anti-Blackness once the fierce urgency of now passes?

 We know from previous national crisis—Watts in 1965 and Los Angeles in 1992 among others--that once “normalcy” is sufficiently restored, attention will shift to other pressing priorities--some personal, others professional and still others political. In the meantime, the pressure of large and small acts of anti-Black racism will build. One incident will incite a cascade of rage and anger, born of a long-standing grievance with a tradition of policing and a justice system that criminalizes Black people. Unequal access to educational opportunity, uneven participation in the economy and health care disparities will provide the smoldering kindling. Demonstrations and protests in the streets will return for a new generation to rediscover anti-Black racism in our society. 

 A principal reason for the cycle of protest and indifference is the lack of moral leadership to confront anti-Blackness in its many manifestations while becoming an authentic ally to the Black community. Moral leadership refers to modeling the values that you articulate, setting priorities to act on them, and utilizing one's privilege to realize a better world for Black people. Without moral leadership, it is relatively easy for the fierce urgency of now to become a distant memory or a passing regret. The human mind is quite inventive when it comes to forgetting or making up excuses or shifting responsibility or blaming others for uncomfortable truths. 

 In calling for moral leadership to confront anti-Black racism, I am not suggesting that Black people lack the capacity in this regard. Quite the contrary, in a world literarily organized around our subordination, we have achieved a great deal--but at equally great costs. As we know all too well, these costs, including bias, prejudice, and bigotry, still exist and rob us of our full capacity through no fault of our own. Moral leadership means that white and other non-Black people commit to understanding the structures and mechanism of de-valuing Black people and acting to confront, interrupt and dismantle them. 

 I will be the first to admit that this is asking a-lot. Moral leadership is not often rewarded. If anything, it can be a source of tension and conflict because moral leadership is fundamentally about creating change through disrupting seemingly settled ways of knowing the world and the people who inhabit it. Moral leadership is grounded in humility, not presuming to be a self-appointed race messiah or, for that matter, waiting for the right moment to take responsibility.

 It requires confronting one’s assumptions about Black people while learning about who the Black community is and asking whether they are thriving.  The answers to these questions and others are not intuitive, but require seeking out educational and training opportunities, holding your colleagues or co-workers accountable, and even making new friends. It requires white and non-Black individuals to reconsider the convenience of a system that tilts in their favor while summoning the courage to interrogate blind spots to move pass groupthink and social acceptance. 

Whether faculty or staff or undergraduate or graduate students or alumni or trustee, anyone can practice moral leadership in confronting anti-Black racism. One thing is clear: without moral leadership Black people will continue to pay the costs of de-valuation--spanning from spectacular forms of racist terror to insidious micro-aggressions--alone. And the cycle of protest and indifference will continue. 

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