COVID-19, which disproportionately affects communities of color and especially Black and Latinx communities, has further amplified and exposed racial disparities that the United States was built on. Black Americans today face the brunt of police violence in the time of COVID-19. George Floyd is an example of this — he died with COVID-19 antibodies in his blood, surviving infection only to die as a result of police brutality, according to an article from The New York Times. 

Brandeis community members met over Zoom on June 2 at an event hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion to share their pain and grievances, call for action and support and find community following the tragic death of Floyd. Over 600 community members registered for this event, and at the peak of attendance, there were 714 participants. 

Coming together to face systemic racism

The event began with an 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence — the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck — to honor Floyd. Comments were then made by Dean of Students Jamele Adams and Rabbi Seth Winberg from the Office of Spiritual Life. Chief Diversity Officer and VP for ODEI Mark Brimhall-Vargas and ODEI Program Administrator Lydia Casmier began the event discussion with a definition of systemic racism, below.

“Racism is a system of advantage based on race … Racism is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals. In the context of the United States, this system clearly operates to the advantage of Whites and to the disadvantage of people of color.” (Wellman, 1993; Tatum, 2013)

Wellman, D. (1993). Portraits of white racism. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Tatum, B.D. (2013). Defining racism: “Can we talk?” In. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Eds. Adams, M. et al). New York: Routledge.

Brimhall-Vargas explained that there is a misconception that racism only occurs in interpersonal relationships and between people with prejudice. “Oftentimes people are bewildered. How did this happen? Aren’t we better than this?” he asked. The answer, he explained, is tied within systems that have allowed racism to not only continue, but to thrive.

President Ron Liebowitz then made some statements on behalf of himself and other members of the administration. Liebowitz said that the “brutal and extreme killing” of Floyd has forced everyone to “confront the most brutal forms of racism.” He apologized for past inflammatory or insensitive remarks and implored the administration’s desire to do better in response to racism, explaining that “this gathering does not suffice action. We need to follow up.”

In a June 1 letter to the community following Floyd’s death, Liebowitz wrote, “the history of our great university is intertwined with the pursuit of justice. Brandeis was created in response to antisemitism and bigotry. We cannot tolerate discrimination, hatred, or violence against another person based on their race, religion, or background. These values are as important today as they were at our founding.”

The event began at 5 p.m., and Liebowitz left early at around 6 p.m. to “attend another engagement.” The event ended at 7:15 p.m. 

The event also served as a forum for students and community members to discuss their experiences with racial discrimination and the variety of emotions they were experiencing in these painful moments. 

Alaysia Penso ’24 explained that a difficult challenge for her was living in Miami, Fla., which she described as a “minority majority” city, meaning that racial minorities outnumber the white population. She continued that many of her community members disregard the pain and trauma of the Black experience, instead claiming that all minorities and people of color struggle, despite that these struggles can be vastly different across communities. “When people can’t say ‘Black lives matter,’ my life doesn’t matter,” Penso said in tears, adding “I have to spend my entire life fighting for something that I didn’t choose to fight for.”

One strategy used to obscure conversations about racism is failing to specifically identify certain actions as anti-Black, Michaela McCormack ’23 responded. “You can’t talk about police brutality without naming anti-Blackness because what we’re seeing right now is violence against the Black body,” McCormack said. 

Brandeis investigator in the Office of Equal Opportunity Valerie Imparato thanked the organizers of the event. Imparato explained that this is the first opportunity to discuss racism that has been made available to her during her professional career. “I urge people here to not be so afraid of the term ‘racist’ or of the term ‘prejudice’ because I think what we need to recognize is not are we good or bad but the level to which we are prejudiced … rather than having a defensive posture,” Imparato said.

Information Security Team member Jade Fitzgerald emphasized the importance of education, checking sources and keeping misinformation from spreading. “Fellow white people, please make a point to educate yourself. We have resources,” Fitzgerald said. “We should not need to rely on exhausted people of color to give us a basic level of education.”

Co-president of the Brandeis Black Organization Kwesi Jones ’21 echoed the previous calls on white individuals to evaluate the ways that they contribute to systemic racism. He encouraged people not to enter direct messages on social networking sites with grievances and sympathy. “Feelings are important, but material support [like advocacy] and resources are more important,” Jones said. 

Jones continued that, in spite of its “roots in social justice,” per Liebowitz’s email, Brandeis is no different than other institutions. “We can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,” Jones explained, referencing Black poet Audre Lorde’s famous words. He continued that there is generally a “culture of silence” and lack of support at Brandeis, specifically in regards to protest, explaining that Black protests have been silenced in ways that others have not been.     

The Brandeis Police and Department of Community Living also disproportionately criminalize and work to the detriment of Black individuals, Jones said, echoing the sentiments of last year’s Still Concerned Students protest. Jones explained that he had been stopped by police his first year at Brandeis because he “fit the description” of an armed robber, and that he was not alone in this type of experience. 

Jones concluded by suggesting that Orientation be used to highlight racial movements on campus, like the Ford Hall protests. 

Sonali Anderson ’22 explained the importance of this event to her and the importance of understanding the state of mind of Black individuals in response to the “trauma of it all.” Anderson explained that she had always felt “shielded” from trauma, but in response to COVID-19 and Floyd’s death, “my shield really broke.” She continued, “That transition of having that burden where you did nothing wrong, and a system that was meant to hurt you because of the color of my skin,” Anderson said in tears. “It hit me this time, but this is the mental health that has been going on for centuries, that mental burden … you [white individuals] will never have to understand that burden never, never, never.” 

Deborah Ault ’22 discussed how each individual’s experience with racism and racist society is different, which therefore requires more mental health resources to be available to students. “I would like to acknowledge the community of grief, but I would also like to recognize the humanity of each person and their experiences,” Ault said. She recognized that, although people are grouped based on skin color, that all people have individual identities. She, for example, shared that she had never identified as Black until she came to Brandeis and that she had previously always called herself Carribean-American.

Ault urged Brandeis to create accommodations in the fall for more mental health services in order to accommodate what each person is experiencing. She explained that she is fortunate that her family can afford therapy, but even still, she said, “I barely sleep at night.” Ault asked what the experience might be like for those with fewer mental health resources than her, saying “Racism comes from privilege and privilege comes from power and power comes from resources.” 

Following this event, Ault and Anderson went on to co-create the Black Action Plan, a list of demands for structural and inclusive change on campus. 

Budget and Operations Analysis for the Advancement Administration Daphney Bernier discussed both the pain and “hypocrisy” in the news and media’s treatment of protesters. “There are a few Black looters and all are viewed as violent, but only a few bad cops, and we are supposed to think that all cops are good?” Encountering these violent images of Black individuals dying and then further seeing violent or negative representations of the Black individuals who protest this results in a lot of trauma, she said, adding “You have to constantly compartmentalize feelings so that you can cope.” Bernier emphasized the need for more informed racial education and racial history, specifically mentioning that more education should exist regarding the new system of Jim Crow that continues today. 

Graduate student Eddy Mkwambe reread the definition the University outlayed about systemic racism. He explained that he sees racism as bullying. “Two things that the bully does is benefit himself and make himself feel superior, so racism does two things: exploit and enjoy superiority,” Mkwambe said. Just by certain people having power in place of others, racism exists because there are economic and ego benefits, he explained. Racism continues by constantly “terrorizing the victim, denying opportunities and denying people knowledge of who they are,” he said.

“In my opinion people don’t believe that Blackness is less … [but in order] to move forward [we] must acknowledge and recognize that racism is a system of exploitation,” Mkwambe said.

Graduate student Toyosi Oyebanji ’20 explained that he had never felt this level of anger back home in his country of Nigeria. He asked that Brandeis community members look inward at the campus. “Jobs are segregated, almost,” Oyebanji explained. Many minority students are involved in essential jobs on campus. He continued that this can be problematic because most people get jobs through some sort of network, which culminates in white individuals and their white friends dominating certain jobs on campus and Black individuals and students of color dominating others. 

“White silence means we are complicit with the system,” Prof. John Ballantine (Heller) said. Particularly around the topic of white silence, he encouraged that we “be immediate and recognize that our silence allows racism.” 

Posse Scholar and tour guide Jacob Krau ’23 explained the inherent contradictions within some of Brandeis’ policies. He explained the ways marketing to prospective students differed between Jewish students and students of color. He pointed out, as an example, that tour guides are encouraged to highlight the Jewish population present on campus and to highlight diversity within other minority groups only if those groups are present.

Krau explained Community Advisors’ role in “building community” but mentioned that he noticed that Black students are disproportionately reprimanded for activities that the population at large take part in without facing consequence — issues like the use of illegal substances, such as marijuana. “[It] truly makes me sad to see that we can’t even get fair treatment with that,” Krau said. 

Krau also focused on the lack of diversity in classes, explaining that he was the only Black man in his General Chemistry class and the pressure he felt in terms of performance as a result. 

While Brandeis is heralded for its accommodations for Jewish students, Krau noticed a disparity between Jewish and Muslim students. He explained that the Muslim Association had to fight for accomadation (specifically for religious holidays) and that Jewish groups did not. 

Leah Sagan-Dworsky ’21, who is a Music major and an African and African American Studies minor, assessed the value she had garnered from taking AAAS classes as a white individual — she said she found these classes “extremely valuable.” Sagan-Dworsky said the responsibility should be on the University to require AAAS classes and education for all students, not just those with an interest or those who choose to major/minor. The University Writing Seminar is required, but students are not required to learn about racial biases and education, she explained.

“We bleed, we bleed, we bleed,” Associate Dean for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Maria Madison said. “What I heard was 15 Black students bleeding in front of hundreds of students,” she observed after a number of Black students spoke at the event. Madison discussed the ability of white individuals to compartmentalize the violence against the Black community that Black individuals are unable to ignore. “Right now, [refuse to] compartmentalize in the name of George Floyd,” she said.

Madison urged students and community members to reflect on one action they can each do as individuals to make Brandeis an anti-racist university. She then asked for a moment of silence the length of “one-eighth of what George Floyd experienced. How many breaths will we come up within a minute?” she asked.

Adams, along with a student he had been working with, challenged everyone at the event to  purchase a children’s book about racism and donate it to a family or to a shelter to increase education about racism. 

Brimhall-Vargas and Casmier then brought the event to a close with discussion of further activism and resources for people to get involved with, as well as initiatives and affinity spaces their office was creating. “Think about this as a comma and not a period,” Brimhall-Vargas said. 

“Never again should we hear the words ‘I can’t breathe,’” Weinberg said. 

— Editor’s Note: Justice Editor Cameron Cushing ’23 is a Community Advisor for the Department of Community Living. He did not contribute to or edit this article.