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President Fram Virjee: An Open Letter to Our Legacy Leaders in White America

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To Our Legacy Leaders Across White America:

I write at my wits’ end and with exhausted patience. I write on behalf of those who do not have the privilege to worry about their patience draining as they watch the news or their wits thinning as the next hashtag emerges; instead, they are, as they must be, focused on their blood draining in the street and the air thinning in their throats as they are shot down and suffocated under the knees and at the hands of the very people who are sworn to protect and serve them — all while white America watches it unfold, too silent and too much waiting in the background.

Yes, my heart breaks for our nation and the sickness that is the systemic racism and white privilege that we, you and I, as a people, are allowing at an incalculable cost. But in this time and space, it is not my heart that matters. It is the hearts of black moms seeing a video of another black son crying out for his mother as his life slowly drains from his body. It is the heart of the man disrupted from bird watching by a woman whose 911 call is riddled with a weaponizing subtext that anyone who looks like him knows all too well. And sadly, it is the hearts of all parents who send their black and brown children into the world every day, terrified that their son or daughter could be next.

While I do not pretend to fully grasp or understand the weight of this constant terror that people of color in our nation live with (and often die under), I can use my unearned privilege to call out a system that seems institutionally designed to have human beings imprisoned or murdered for doing just about anything — walking, jogging, driving, wearing a hoodie, and yes, birdwatching — while black. And to borrow Nancy Armour’s words from her recent USA Today column, when I say “privilege,” I am not referencing the economic sense, although that is real and tragic in and of itself. I am naming the privilege that is the “ability to go about daily life without being judged at first sight or having the innate fear that your mere existence will bring you harm.” And if we do not believe that privilege exists or cannot recognize it, then we are not only a perpetuator of a system that benefits us, we are a real and actual danger to people of color.

To be sure, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it has brought to bear on us at California State University, Fullerton and our leadership team — and all it has wrought and imprinted upon us as a nation and all leadership teams — it would be easy to miss or dismiss the events that reveal the true plague upon our communities. But my heart, my faith, and my God will not let me do that, and I feel certain that I am not alone among my colleagues. I feel sure that many are similarly disgusted, incensed, and moved to tears by what is rearing its visage in our communities, wreaking havoc in our institutions, and playing out upon the streets of our country.

To those allies I say we need to not just be moved to tears, but to action. To not just wring our hands, but ring the alarm. To not just stand by, but stand up. To not just talk about the issue, but know when to shut up and listen to those whose lives are upended by it. To not just whisper in shaded corners, but shout out from whatever platform we have been given.

Indeed, there comes a time when inaction reveals more than betrayal of principle. It portends complicity and acquiescence, if not quiet permission. That time is long past due. These black and brown lives are our students, our future, our Eden. If we do not hear their cries, listen to their lived experience, and step out and stand up for and with them, we will surely perish ourselves as a people and as a nation. For one need only click on the television or social media to see that the ties that bind us as Americans are fraying and the bonds that quilt us as a people are at their ridged limit.

I write only after direct communication with multiple leaders of our black community in and around Orange County. Leaders like Dr. Thomas Parham, Dr. Ivan Pitts, Dr. Ralph Williamson, Dr. Dawn Person, Dr. Soraya Coley, and Lt. Col. Ron Coley (Ret). I write only after listening to what they say must happen; that all leaders in this nation — not just black leaders but all leaders — need to stand and be counted, to step up and out, to speak truth and work for systemic change.

And so I write to you, calling you out as I do myself. We, each of us, are in positions of leadership, positions of privilege, positions of influence. We tolerate, enjoy, and dare I say defend, the paradigms and institutions that have at their very inception insidious whiffs and seedings of racism and privilege for some at the expense of the other.

To you (to us) I say, it is time. It is past time. Time is up. We must face who we are, how we live, what we allow and turn our faces from. To do so is not traitorous or heretical any more than a peaceful black knee bending in protest of a murderous white knee is unpatriotic or un-American. On the contrary, kneeling with, standing for, and speaking out on behalf of our black and brown communities is not only the very definition of patriotism, but what we must do with greater courage and conviction if we hope to see the human spirit endure.

It seems that we have been put here with purpose and, for some of us, with privilege. Can we recognize our purpose and use our privilege to effect change? Can we do so not just in our classrooms and boardrooms, but in our streets and parks? Not only among our students, faculty, and staff, but throughout our communities? Not only in our heads, but in our hearts?

We often talk of existential threats. I say we have met that threat and it is clear. It is staring us in the face, reflecting in the mirror, smirking at us on video screens, rising from the shadows of persecution with the stench of marginalization and manipulation, ignorance and complacency, privilege and power.

Unchecked it has and will again shoot someone as they jog in the street, choke someone to death as others beg for empathy, or call the police with a false charge in the hope that similar atrocities befall another innocent person of color – and no one will stop it.

I want to stop it. Our black and brown communities want to stop it. I am sure in my heart you want to join us in stopping it. Now and forever.

And so I ask, might we begin to talk as a people to bring that dream to fruition? Might we talk of action to change; of stepping up and speaking out? Might we as leaders seek, no, demand a national convening, a renewed dedication, and a reaffirmed determination to face this enemy; to root out this insidious institutional racism; to exhaust privilege and give way to justice, equity, humanity?

Will you each commit aloud to this? Will you join me? Will you seek out, organize and galvanize with our communities of color to face this challenge; come together at the local, state, and national level; lend your name, character, reputation, and, dare I say privilege, to this effort? Will you?


Framroze M. Virjee, JD