June 3, 2020 at 6:05 p.m.

Coming Together to Respond to Anti-Black Racism

Dear CSSW Staff and Faculty,

I write knowing that there is a heavy weight in all of our hearts. The events of recent days, since the murder of George Floyd and so many others, have served to underscore the deep scars and constant wounds inflicted by anti-Black racism and discrimination in our society. Sadly, the U.S. has a long history of oppression. But we continue to live in a deeply racist present, demonstrated in countless ways: through racial profiling, mass incarceration, voter suppression, the legacy of redlining, employment discrimination, denial of health care services, higher exposure to environmental hazards, unequal scales of justice, and abuses by law enforcement personnel who fail to meet their oath to protect our communities. A 2019 analysis estimates that a Black man’s lifetime risk of being killed by police use of force in the U.S. is a staggering one in a thousand (Edwards et al., PNAS) – along with Black women and American Indian and Alaskan native women and men, these rates are significantly higher than for white women and men, according to the authors.

Every day, minute by minute, reports in the news and social media reinforce the continued pain, destruction, and casual cruelty inflicted on Black people across the country. The killings by police and rogue vigilantes are appalling in their brutality; these unspeakable acts of violence are but one element of the damage being wrought. Studies have demonstrated time and again the toll of racism on mental and physical health, and how chronic stress inhibits immune system responses, rendering the most discriminated against in our society the most vulnerable to diseases like COVID. The injustices continue to mount to an unbearable point.

The sadness and despair can feel overwhelming to many. It sounds facile to say we must stay strong. But I believe with every fiber of my being that we must cling to hope, despite everything. This pain cannot be borne by anyone alone; we must find strength in one another, as a community. I hasten to add that this is not a problem “of” or caused by Black people. Those of us who are white must recognize our responsibility in this, our part in supporting unjust systems and remaining silent in the face of racist ideas, actions, and policies that breed and perpetuate inequity. We need to hold ourselves accountable. We need to take a deep look inside ourselves, and ask, “What racist beliefs and practices do I hold onto?” and “What racist policies do I benefit from?” We need to do the work – to critically self-reflect, educate ourselves, and stop relying on our Black colleagues and friends to assuage our guilt or dry our tears. Borrowing from Ibram X. Kendi in his brilliant book, How to Be an Antiracist, we need to move well beyond simply self-identifying as “not racist” and instead actively engage in promoting antiracist ideas, actions, and policies in every domain of life.

I write today to you, our faculty and staff, for several reasons: first, to acknowledge the grave injustices against Black folks to which we are all bearing witness; and second, to recognize that these events take a profound toll on many of us – especially the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in our midst. Together we are one community here at CSSW. But the burdens are not distributed equally. Some members of our community are under incredible duress at this time. Let’s remember to demonstrate kindness, patience, and compassion to all in our circle as they attempt to process and make sense of the senseless, while also trying to keep up with our day-to-day lives at work and at home. At some point, something’s got to give – please be ready to accept the results of such distress in your colleagues, co-workers, and students.

CSSW strives to support our community as we balance our desire to engage in activism as well as healing. We want to join in reversing the racism and hatred that have marred our society and instead contribute to a better future. Progress must involve both words and actions. To that end, we are taking the following initial steps:

  • We are designating this Friday, June 5th, as our first “wellness day” for staff here at CSSW. Please take a day away from work for self-care – whether that means joining a protest, writing a letter to government officials, meditating, reading, or just being with family and loved ones. Do what you need to do to best support your own healing.
  • We encourage those of you who are willing to join the CSSW Council of Deans by signing on to our statement condemning anti-Black racism. Please visit this website if you want to add your name as a signatory. In addition, we are also collecting photos to demonstrate support. If you’d like to submit a photo of yourself holding a sign with an important message for our community, please submit it to swcommunications@columbia.edu. We will share these on our website as additional personal attestations to our commitment.
  • We will continue to offer a number of community check-ins, affinity group meetings, and healing spaces, and we hope for wide participation by those in our community. In these meetings, expect to find mutual support as well as challenges to your outlook and perspectives. It is often through discord that we find truth. Please look for announcements from our Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the coming days.
  • The COVID-19 Action group is transforming into the Action Lab, a broad coalition of students, faculty, and staff who are united in their goal to respond to anti-Black racism and other key social justice issues, while employing ethical and inclusive approaches to promote equity. Please keep an eye on their website for volunteer opportunities, educational resources, and new advocacy initiatives that you can join.
  • Kindly consider adding the following statement to your email signature as an ever-present reminder of our commitment: We at CSSW condemn anti-Black racism in all its forms and are committed not just to making statements, but to taking action.

Please keep in mind that these are just first steps. We will continue to engage with one another in conversations about race, and develop multi-pronged efforts to defeat racism (in ourselves and in our community), eradicate systems of white supremacy, and move our country to its as-yet unfulfilled promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

I will close by reiterating the following fact: a great deal of human suffering is manufactured. This is all too apparent now. But if we created it, we can fix it. The knowledge and skills and passion required to do so are all found right here in social work – and right here in you. It’s time to join our strengths together.

In community,