Statement from Vice Provost for Academic Advancement William H. Robinson regarding the violence against Black people

The untimely and violent death of George Floyd has weighed heavily on my mind, as it has for many members of our community. It has brought up a confluence of feelings, memories and responses—from friends, scholars, colleagues and certainly within myself.

Mr. Floyd’s death has also served as a “clarion call”—an unmissable sign that indicates an urgent need for action. Today, at Vanderbilt and beyond, we often talk about the importance of calls to action, and our responsibility as an academic community to harness our knowledge and experiences to further equality and justice. This sense of compassionate action is central to what we study at Vanderbilt, and to the very mission of higher education at large.

It is also at the heart of two eloquent and powerful messages that have continued to resonate with me over the last few days—one from Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion André L. Churchwell and another from the University of Michigan’s Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion Robert Sellers.

In themselves, these two messages reveal the enormous scope of feelings, responses and reactions that can manifest in times of pain and fear. Churchwell, a physician by training, found himself examining both the medical and moral implications of Floyd’s death, and he reached out to experts in behavioral psychology to try to get to the bottom of how such a cruel and unfair action could take place among human beings. Meanwhile, Sellers expressed the tension between his optimism in the American dream and his perpetual exhaustion from the sense of loss, anger, frustration and sadness that many of us are feeling about what he described as “our long history of dehumanization and degradation in this country.”

I can relate to each of these perspectives—the desire for evidence and answers, the feelings of hopelessness, the hints of optimism that come and go.

The past few days, I have spent time thinking about the iconic “I AM A MAN” photos from the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tenn. Held in response to the death of two Black sanitation workers who lost their lives due to dangerous and highly preventable workplace conditions, the strike was also a larger reaction against the overall conditions for Black workers, who received a fraction of the protections and the pay. In the photo, much like Sojourner Truth did in her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech 117 years earlier, and like so many others have done before and since, these men had to plead with society to recognize their humanity. Their words continue to be echoed today as we remind society that Black Lives Matter.

Much like the events of the last few weeks—including the protests and destruction in our own city of Nashville—the sanitation strike was a clarion call for safety, for equality, for justice.

A personal clarion call rung out for me 28 years ago during a hot summer night in Largo, Florida, a predominantly white community where I was living while I interned for a nearby aerospace company. That summer, I spent most of my time with two other interns working at the same aerospace company—one of whom was also my roommate. Our common bonds? We were all Black men who studied engineering at historically Black institutions.

One night, as my roommate and I took the long walk to our unit from the condo’s parking lot where our friend—the third intern—had dropped us off, we were startled to notice flashing blue lights.

When we turned around, we saw that a police car had pulled into the parking lot next to our friend. As we walked back to check on him, even more police cars showed up, including a K-9 unit. Then, the questioning began…

“What are you doing here?”

“Do you really live here?”

“Are you lying?”

Illuminated by flashing lights, the three of us stood in that parking lot for most of the night—fielding countless questions. They would question us together. They would question us individually. Different officers would take turns with each of us. They would try to “catch us in a lie.” How could we all be engineering students on a summer internship? We even took the officers to our condo, unlocked the door with the key, and gave them a tour, all to prove that we lived there. It felt as though any misstep from us would have justified an escalation by them. I can share this story today because we never gave them that justification and, maybe out of luck, the situation never escalated.

The K-9 officer eventually gave us some insight into what was going on. Apparently, a call had come in saying something along the lines of: “Three Black men in a sedan sped into a condominium parking lot. Two Black men jumped out of the car and fled around the building.”

That night in 1992, the same year of the acquittal of four officers in Los Angeles who were charged with excessive force against Rodney King—that memory—and the many other stories I know just like it are a clarion call that continue to sound for me. And it is a clarion call that rings loud again in the protests we are watching across the nation. It is up to each of us to hear the clarion call, and to channel our knowledge, our experience and our compassion for others accordingly—to answer the clarion call.

I will admit that I have struggled to compose this message. There is so much going on in my mind, and I’m sure many of you can say the same. We are grappling with our own lived experiences, the near-misses, the micro-aggressions, the unconscious bias, the outright racism, the trauma of what we are living through right now. But we will move forward together; we will support one another; we will answer the clarion call; it is piercing and unmissable, but so will be our response.

—William H. Robinson
Vice Provost for Academic Advancement
Executive Director of the Provost’s Office for Inclusive Excellence
Vanderbilt University