DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of WUVA’s staff and management.
Why President Jim Ryan’s recent statement was a complete slap in the face to UVA’s Black community.
It is impossible to ignore the recent uproar that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. It served only as a reminder of the relentless history of oppression and racism against African Americans in the US. In a country that claims “liberty and justice for all”. Black people are exhausted from having to take to the streets and fight for their right to live in the midst of already dying at the highest rates during a global pandemic.
Many big cities across the country including Los Angeles, Washington DC, Atlanta, and New York City continue to experience violent riots that include looting and setting fire to local businesses and monuments. In Charlottesville, UVa students and community members have marched peacefully near the Downtown Mall sending messages to uplift the black community and stand against racial inequalities.
At an institution with a history of slavery and explicit racism, the 6.6% of Black students that currently attend Uva are still reminded of injustices every day on grounds and in the classroom. This begins with a lack of representation. Over 70% of UVa faculty are White Americans. Without enough Black people on grounds that look, think, and talk like them, they cannot help but constantly think about the fact that they pass through spaces that were not built for them.
Amidst one of the most emotionally draining weeks Black students have had in years, many realize that real change in their mistreatment lies in the hands of the white majority and those with large platforms. President Ryan’s attempt to address the issue, however, fell short of providing the hope Black students need right now. His use of empty words and quoting of Langston Hughes left black students with feelings of betrayal. They felt his message was insufficient coming from a platform like his own.
One of the main problems with his message was that he had no right to disapprove of violent protesting right after saying he “cannot walk completely in the shoes of others”. Most can agree that violence is morally wrong, but to condemn a reaction to injustice is proof that you do not understand the gravity of the situation. Additionally, this comment only oppresses black voices further. By telling them to be peaceful, it feels like you are telling us to be quiet. Many were offended by his inability to even say the word “Black”. His worry about not having “wisdom or comfort” to offer became irrelevant when he did not even acknowledge the group of people that are hurting right now.
As a white male leading a university that prides itself on “diversity and inclusion”, with a multimillion-dollar endowment and endless resources at his disposal, the fact that his acknowledgment of the racial injustice had no plan for action or intention to donate his time or money to the cause struck many as lackluster and incomplete. In a petition responding to President Ryan’s statement, students shared their disappointment with his message and attached a list of demands for anti-racist actions he should take. Some of these achievable demands include the hiring of more black professors, requiring anti-racist coursework, and memorializing the former slaves that built the university.
As a Black woman speaking on behalf of myself as a student and member of the community at UVa, my Black peers and I hope that President Ryan will hear our voices when nobody else will and provide experiences at UVA that can elicit real, achievable change. His faith in humanity is not enough. It’s time to debunk our racist past and rebuild. It’s time to find a way to lift Black students from oppression and celebrate them. And most importantly, it’s time to teach our white-majority how to use their amplified voices to bring attention to the needs of the silenced.