Dr. Reuben Jonathan Miller Tells Class of 2021: “More than a profession, you’ve chosen justice”
The following is the text of the keynote address delivered by Dr. Reuben Jonathan Miller at a virtual commencement held by Columbia University’s School of Social Work for its 2021 graduates, on Friday, April 30.
Thank you to President Bollinger and Provost Boyce. Thank you especially to Dean Begg and the faculty and staff at the School of Social Work for the invitation. And thank you to the class of 2021, a class that has figured out how to do community and social change and make good trouble despite a pandemic. You’ve made connections and cared for one another and cared for people we’ve learned to throw away. The world is better for you being here. I’m grateful that you’re with us.
I sat down to write this address in the wake of the Derek Chauvin trial, who was found guilty of murder. But the courts can’t really give us justice. I record this one week after Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy, just a baby, was gunned down by an officer who says he saw him with a gun. And they say a gun was recovered. In the end, another baby is dead because we don’t yet know how to love him.
And I write to you the day after another one of our precious babies, Ma’Khia Bryant, was gunned down by police who say this also was justified. I record this message after a summer in which our cities burned, as I think they should have. They burned with indignation and rage and solidarity, a historic burning, a worldwide burning. They burned with the search for truth.
This reminds me of a scripture from my faith tradition. It’s one where the Most High meets with a group of people who loved him while they were traveling on the road. And the Most High walked with them and went into their homes and sat with them for a meal and revealed over their journey together the truth, the truth of a lynching, of a brutal murder that was state sanctioned. It wasn’t until they broke bread sitting at that table together, after hours of talking strategy and history and how best to organize and about their role in the cause, that the travelers recognized that it was the Most High who traveled with them.
“Oh, how our hearts burned with us,” they said, reflecting on the truths they heard, the truth of torture, the truth that would change and challenge power, the truth that lost life and lost friends and lost precious, precious little ones in the name of something larger than themselves.
This summer, with the truth of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, of Breonna Taylor, of course of George Floyd, it was the summer that Gwendolyn Carr, the mother of her beloved son, Eric Garner, made her way, as she always does, with other mothers from the movement, to bring the kind of strength only one who has borne such grief can bring.
It’s also the summer that nameless men and women died every day. Some died at the hands of our state. All died at the hands of their countrymen due to our hatred of difference and disdain for and failure to believe the reports of violence against women and gay and lesbian and bisexual people, and our refusal to love trans women and men, and especially trans women and men of color, who are killed by police officers and conflicted boyfriends and drunk men at bars every day. They, too, are precious. They belong to someone’s mother. They loved and were loved by others. They have truths that must be told.
Those truths must first be faced and held. And this is a difficult job because the truth burns our globe. How our hearts have burned and ached this year, how they burned for truth, how they ached for something that resembles justice. It’s a year that we’ve seen children turned away at our borders and millions of poor men and women locked away in cages.
But our truth, the one that burns, reminds us that this has been our practice since we’ve had a nation: from the barracoon to the auction block, to the long coffle to the battlefront, to the breadline to the reservation, to the cotton field to the red lines that insurance agents, and now real estate speculators draw, if for different reasons, to the police baton to the service weapon. The truth that burns tells us that this is a remarkable yet unremarkable history. Unremarkable because it’s been this way for so long.
How our hearts have burned and ached. How they burned for the truth to be told, how they burned for the truth to be held, a truth that itself burns and is hard to hold.
Now, I’ve been asked to say something to you that might help you as you go about your work, which is the work of truth, a truth that you hold, one that you share, one that you know. You have chosen a field that shakes off the innocence of this nation, an innocence that has produced such pain in its embrace of lies and myths. The field you’ve chosen, social work, requires you to straddle social situations, placing you in between the social worlds of the people we care for and the structures and places that they hope to belong to.
This in-betweenness is a fundamental part of our profession, and it positions us uniquely to bring about change. That is, our position, as social workers, situate us in such a way that if we pay attention, we might be able to change the world and change it for the better.
And while this is all true, it is also true that you have chosen to embark on a journey in a field that, unlike others, begins from a position of care. This is a radical place. We do not start objectively. We take a side. And we are on the side of the poor and the racialized and the denigrated and the sexually assaulted and the misunderstood and the marginalized, and all of those who have been left out of the social contract.
We are part of a long freedom struggle for the full rights and equality of our people, a people that the world would throw away. We do not presume that the world in its current state is fair. But we take a stand. We embrace the realities of our world even when those realities are hard to bear. We embrace it to end the needless suffering. And we must, because the people we care for suffer. The people we work with suffer. And it is our position that we must hear their voice and work alongside them to bring about change.
This is a radical position, indeed a radical position of care. We lead from our values and engage in what we might call a radical politics of care, one where, if we allow ourselves, we meet people we have come to care about in their best and worst of times, when we see the full expression of their humanity.
In this way, we become stripped of our innocence. By this, I mean that we learn through our practice and our study and our rigorous pursuit of justice that people are neither fully good nor bad, neither innocent nor guilty, but they are fully human, and as such deserve a place in the world.
I think that your belief that you might take some part in changing the world, that you might make it so that the people we’ve thrown away might belong, makes you a kind of optimist. But this optimism is not naive. It is a brave optimism, one that looks squarely at life on life’s terms. That is what separates you from others. You refuse our myths. Your optimism looks and tries not to flinch, though at times it wants to. It takes in the whole of it. It sees and hears and bears witness to life’s greatest pains and pleasures. It holds its burning truths.
Oh, how our hearts ache for truth, for something that might resemble justice.
And in the best of times, the people you care for make it through. But you also know that some days will be hard, that sometimes, in fact often, we will lose. And sometimes we will lose the people we care for. But your optimism does not turn away, even when the reality is grotesque or violent or painful, simply because you, in your radical politics of care, in your radical and brave optimism, believe that the child deserves to live, that even the people we’ve taught ourselves to fear deserve a place in the world, that the world can be made more just, that it must be made more just, for our precious, precious babies.
Your work, if you do it faithfully and with courage despite the real pain you will surely encounter, is what James Baldwin would describe as an act of love. “Love,” Baldwin writes, “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here,” he says, “not merely in the personal sense, but as a state of being or state of grace. Not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of a quest, and daring, and growth.”
Why does Baldwin say love is not the same as happiness? Why does he present it as somewhat incomplete, something that perhaps is never finished, something that is a kind of quest? I believe that Baldwin knew something that committed social workers know all too well. Writing to his young nephew James in 1962, he reminds us of something that poor Black people in the Jim Crow South knew from their flesh.
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets. And one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death, by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.
Our optimism is tempered by the lived experiences of the people we’ve come to care for and by the experiences we’ve amassed in our own lives over all these years because we know ourselves and our frailties. And we know we do not work with saints or sinners, not good or bad people, but fully human participants in a human community who, if we allow ourselves to get close, to be proximate, as the attorney Brian Stevenson reminds us, we will meet at their best and worst times.
You did not choose this field because it would be easy. You chose it for love, a love that burns within you, a love that aches for justice beyond a verdict in a trial, beyond a court system at all, one that knows it must remake the world. And it must make it in the image of love itself. And this love will allow you the strength and guidance to be close, and that closeness will allow you to be vulnerable.
Through that vulnerability, which is hard, you will see the dynamic lives of the least among us, and your love for justice will push you. And if you let it, it will make the world a better place.
For that I thank you, that you have endeavored to confront with passion the conundrum of life, in Baldwin’s words. That more than a profession, you’ve chosen justice.
It is my hope that you remember how justice burned. And on days when you feel tired, burned out, ineffective, when you raise the questions about your life and your work that the world works against every day, you will hearken back to the summer that our cities burned, and to those truths that likely burn and ache within you still.
Congratulations, and thank you for taking your part in the struggle for justice.