Editorial: Amid protests against police brutality, Northwestern administrators need to break tradition of empty statements

On May 25, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s death followed that of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in her own apartment on March 13, and that of Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered by two white men while on a run in his neighborhood on February 23.

Their names have become the center of nationwide protests against police brutality — and represent only a few of the many black people who have lost their lives at the hands of white Americans and police officers.

First, The Daily Northwestern editorial board commends the recent flood of action taken by students during a time of crisis. We recognize this labor is often taken on by black students first, and appreciate everything students have done to support each other, be it showing up at protests across the country, sharing information and resources, donating money and time, and more.

But the lack of an immediate and adequate response from the University has set a dark cloud over the solidarity students are slowly building. Marginalized and vulnerable members of our community are already dealing with COVID-19, as well as its disproportionate effects on black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income populations. So when incidents of police brutality, racial profiling and more occur in cities where many students reside, and our nation continues to mourn and protest these lost lives, Northwestern’s black communities need support from every person and resource possible.

Some top administrators have commented since Friday, the day many large scale protests began. President Morton Schapiro posted a statement online in the Leadership Notes section of Northwestern’s website, while Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier sent a community-wide email on Saturday, expressing support “during times of racial injustice.” Also on Saturday, Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty sent a statement to faculty and staff, saying she stood by them in the fight against hatred. Finally, Northwestern posted a security alert concerning Chicago’s Saturday curfew two hours after the shutdown began.

Yet, between those three statements, many parts come off as empty platitudes rather than affirmations of the horrors our country has faced in the past few months and for decades prior. Within the combined 1,224 words Payne-Kirchmeier and Hagerty wrote, the words “black,” “racism,” and “racial injustice” are each used only twice. Neither piece mentions “police” or “law enforcement,” referring only to the general “violence” inflicted on black communities and George Floyd.

Schapiro’s statement is the lightest of all. In 154 words, he calls George Floyd’s killing a “fatal mistreatment” and mentions race one time in reference to Medill Dean Charles Whitaker’s “African-American sons.” He does not mention the words “black” or “police.”

All three administrators — and their colleagues — have extensive educational backgrounds, hold a great deal of influence on campus, and certainly know the power of word choice and specificity. Payne-Kirchmeier’s pledge to converse with campus leaders about what they would like to see from Northwestern is appreciated. However, historically, student groups have been fighting to stop racism on campus for decades and often do not feel listened to by top administrators. In addition, it is hard to take these statements of solidarity seriously when administrators are not clear about what exactly they’re standing in solidarity with.

Northwestern’s administration does not have to look far to find anti-blackness on campus. In 2019 alone, multiple “It’s okay to be white” stickers appeared and a noose was found in Henry Crown Sports Pavilion. Notably, former vice president for student affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin did not immediately send statements condemning either case — they came two weeks after the stickers were found and five weeks after the noose was found. In 2018, administrators stood by their decision to let researcher Satoshi Kanazawa remain on campus, despite his racist work, because of the University’s dedication to “academic freedom.”

It is not lost on members of The Daily editorial board that a piece we published last April is asking for the same thing this year — an adequate response to anti-black and racist occurrences that directly or indirectly affect members of the Northwestern community.

Our own administrators have not publicly condemned police violence in these statements, failing to mention the main reason unrest has sparked across the country in the first place. Unlike the University of Minnesota, which recently vowed to cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, our leaders have not pledged to reconsider Northwestern’s relationship with the Evanston Police Department — which just had a use-of-force incident during an arrest last Wednesday.

Additionally, Payne-Kirchmeier recognized that students were protesting, an action that “inspires hope.” However, several students were issued citations by University police and faced student hearings for “disorderly conduct and interfering with the duties of a police officer” following their protests against former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November 2019.

Schapiro’s longtime advocacy of “safe spaces” in national papers and during school speeches ostensibly serves to show incoming and current students that the administration cares, that our community will be protected. But with little evidence of those words directly translating into action, the care that the administration desperately attempts to project is nothing more than a performance, and an empty promise.

The empty statements, combined with their hypocrisies, send a message to black students and other marginalized community members: their presence on campus has no value beyond their ability to benefit the institution financially and academically.

Our nation is in need of healing, as well as the “safe spaces” Schapiro has previously championed. One small way to achieve this is to explicitly call out the racism pervasive at our university and in the country, and tell us what they plan to do to protect black students at Northwestern going forward. When administrators can’t even do that, they are complicit in maintaining white violence.

This piece represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of The Daily Northwestern. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members or Editorial Board members of The Daily Northwestern.