An Open Letter from Dean O'Hearn to the UTEP Community
I want to reach out to you with a message of support and encouragement. After the recent murders around the country, many of us feel a deep hurt, weariness, and anger. Just when we thought we had seen the worst of COVID-19, a much older pandemic, racism, came to call. Yet people are moved to take action, so we also have reason to hope.
Bear with me as I relate my own experience with the virus and racism. I am sure you have your own stories. For the past few months, as I hunkered down from the virus, I watched workers renovating the house across the street. They were all men of color, placing themselves in danger by working in close proximity during the pandemic. They had to put their own health on the line to put food on the table.
Each night I watched the bricklayers, the plasterers, and the painters go home. The heat of day turned cooler, and people came out to walk their dogs. Each night, several of them walked up to my neighbor's house to look around the building site. I don’t think anyone would have considered them to be trespassers…I certainly didn't.
Then I saw that video of Ahmaud Arbery. He did exactly what people from my neighborhood did every night. Yet he paid with his life because he was black.
George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, Michael Ramos in Austin, José Rodríguez in Nogales. And on and on and on…ad infinitum…ad nauseam.
So what do we do?
We are scholars and teachers. So let us think of our forebears who made a difference.
One great scholar, C. Wright Mills, talked about “the sociological imagination”. He said that we, as scholars, have a duty to help people look into their personal troubles and see how they are linked to broader social issues. We don't do this just “to understand”. No, we do it to change the world for the better and to get rid of the things that should never be: racism, inequality, and state violence.
George Floyd lies dying with a man’s knee on his neck and two others holding him down. He called on his mother as his last words before his death. This incident is not just a matter between George Floyd and an isolated group of policemen. It is the most recent event in a long history of events fueled by racism and hurt in a country that was founded in genocide and nurtured on slavery and state violence.
We often seem to be afraid to say these things. We live in denial. A second great scholar, Stanley Cohen, was a South African exile who worked in England and fought against injustice. He wrote a book called States of Denial. How do social institutions and many people react to state violence? At first, they deny it. But when a Ferguson or Minneapolis happens, flat denial is no longer possible. So then, they deny its prevalence. It is an exception, just a few “bad apples”. Finally, when it happens so often that no one believes the talk of “bad apples” any more, we hear, “well, it is very complex, there is good and bad on both sides.” Or, "that is a problem in (name a city) but thank god it does not happen in El Paso". As Stanley Cohen wrote, without acknowledgement we can never confront state violence or change it.
Today we have great scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Michelle Alexander, who demonstrate the continuity of racism, from slavery to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration. This shows how deeply racism is rooted in our society and it indicates how hard it will be to root it out. Whether racism kills people of color, or discards them in prisons, it is an abuse and a terrible waste of creative humanity.
All of these scholars and activists, like many of you, use their research and their speaking abilities to make the world a better place.
So, as academics this is our mission:
- We go into the communities, not just to study them but to provide resources that help us identify and achieve our common goals. We use our sociological imagination to expose, confront, undermine, and dismantle inequality, racism, and violence.
- In the classroom and university, we acknowledge and confront the long history of racism in the US. We discuss what institutional racism has meant and continues to mean for people of color. We confront our fears to talk about race and racism. We neither ignore nor deny. Students, especially students of color, need to know that we see them, hear them, and support them; and that they can discuss these issues openly, without fear of reprisal or ridicule. We are building a new generation of Cohens, Gilmores, and Alexanders and where we have fallen short, they will take things forward to end this scourge of racism for once and all.
- Everywhere, we must practice love and respect for one another. We can have rigorous discussions and disagreements in the classroom and in the community but they must all be guided by mutual respect and with the goal of providing light not heat.
¡Ya basta! We must continue our work to stop the pain and violence caused by fear, hatred, and abuse of power before we can begin to heal. Continue to do what you can. Do more. And know that we support you and we are with you.
In solidarity with you all,
Dean of Liberal Arts, Professor of Sociology