In the US, the 2020 news cycle was rife with police brutality, political tension and division, and the impact of COVID — both to our physical health and to our societal well-being. Some of us have been personally affected by sickness, furlough and job loss, as well as significant changes in the important social connections that buoy our mental and emotional wellness. Ultimately, surviving 2020 is a worthy accomplishment for which we should all be proud and grateful.
2021 ushers in major political transition and a global effort to contain and eradicate COVID-19 from which many of us are looking for respite and recovery. The events of the past few weeks, however, seem to threaten the fulfillment of our hopes that a new year could mean a return to some semblance of normalcy. Not only was there an attempted coup on January 6, but the world watched as white rioters from all over the United States encountered disproportionately less resistance and fewer acts of brutality from law enforcement than Black and brown protestors at last year's anti-police brutality demonstrations. As Dr. Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor of higher education and Diversity Scholars Network (DSN) member, commented in a recent Diverse: Issues in Higher Education article: “When we see people that are peacefully protesting based on the injustice of police violence against people of color and Black people specifically and anything happens — usually escalated by police — we don’t get the same language and the same treatment. Black and Brown people are demonized and villainized and criminalized by their efforts to exercise their constitutional rights. And in cases like this, similar to how we deal with mass shootings, these are exceptions rather than the rule. And I would actually argue that the opposite is true.”
Understanding the long reach of historical and current trends of injustice prompts additional consideration. In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dr. Kidada Williams, associate professor at Wayne State University and DSN member, observed, "The White Power movement has only recently been seen as a threat.” Referencing the Black Power movement and American Indian Movement in the late 1960s, Dr. Williams said, “The federal government is expert at destabilizing movements that it perceives as a threat. The White Power movement has only recently been seen as a threat.”
In pursuit of recovery, many of us are asking ourselves how we can make a tangible difference in our communities, and how to balance this with the demands of professional and personal commitments. As I often urge my students to remember, activism is multi-faceted, ranging from demonstrations in the street, to speaking to friends and family about structural systemic issues of discrimination, to modeling how to move through and dismantle these systems. Activism also consists of generating knowledge around these intersectional issues of identity, difference, culture, representation, power, oppression, and inequality — as they occur, affecting individuals, groups, communities, and institutions (i.e. diversity scholarship).
For example, activists who seek to widely vaccinate the public against COVID-19 must contend with both the logistic and social barriers to their goal. In a recent op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, U-M University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology and Public Policy and DSN member, observes that trust in the vaccine falls along racial and class lines. Dr. Watkins-Hayes says this is "understandable and unsurprising given the ways in which the health care system and government have systematically and historically underserved and mistreated poor people and people of color." She asserts that these issues "must be addressed if we have any hope for a successful national vaccination rollout," and points to the HIV community's holistic approach which has provided positive lessons learned in mitigating these inequities over the past 40 years.
To use another example of scholarship as activism: As we gradually return to in-person learning, we must grapple with the not only the logistics of moving students back to campus, but also the racial macro- and microaggressions that were enabled by the systems responsible for the magnitude of the pandemic in the first place. In her forthcoming book, Why They Hate Us: How Racist Rhetoric Impacts Education, co-editor Dr. Susana M. Muñoz — associate professor in higher education at Colorado State University and DSN member — examines how racist political rhetoric has created damaging and dangerous conditions for students of color in schools and higher education institutions throughout the United States.
As activists pursue organized political change, activists should turn to scholarship for historic lessons learned. Commenting on the Georgia runoff election, Dr. Pearl Dowe — Emory University Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies and DSN member — spoke with Time Magazine: "This is an opportunity to dismiss the idea that Southern voters, Black voters, voters of color, poor voters are ignorant and that they do not understand politics. They understand politics, they understand their needs and they know how to effect change."
Because such scholarship elucidates and delineates the historical threads running through issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, activism should be grounded in scholarship of all kinds. However, none of these efforts to improve our current conditions would be possible without hope. I hope you will be inspired by these five key science-backed strategies to cultivate hope, by Dr. Jacqueline S. Mattis, dean of faculty at Rutgers University–Newark College of Arts and Sciences and DSN member.
Although the events of 2020 highlighted and exacerbated social ills, neither a new administration nor a vaccine in 2021 can undo the long-standing and pervasive structural issues in our country. This work is as important as ever, and we all must continue to invest in catalyzing and drawing on rigorous research and scholarship to inform and expand discourse and action around systemic inequality in higher education and society. The NCID remains committed to this mission through our various resources, activities, and opportunities. We hope you'll join us.
—Tabbye Chavous, PhD
Vice President for Research
Professor of Education and Psychology
University of Michigan