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“Is this America?” Reflecting on Those We’ve Lost and a Process for Healing and Transformation

While watching the impeachment proceedings of former president Donald Trump, I was moved by the retelling of an emotional conversation between two Black Capitol police officers. One of them asked, “Is this America?”

This question haunts many of us, for various reasons, and I imagine it has been the focus of countless conversations at kitchen tables across the country. I have considered both pessimistic and optimistic responses because of my lived experiences as a Black woman in a society where the false belief in a hierarchy of human value fuels division, injustices, and oppression, and because I am an educator who believes in the possibility of transformation through liberal education in preparing the next generation of leaders to build just and equitable communities.

Like many, I feel the emotional trauma associated with the continuing racial and social injustices in our country. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, and too many others have strengthened my fears, fueled my anger and desire for change, and exasperated my anxieties as the mother of a teenage Black son and the wife of a Black man. The continuing health inequities experienced by communities of color, as evidenced through the disproportionate loss of lives because of years of inadequate health care, reiterate the power of privilege. The inequities in the educational system that continue to disadvantage marginalized and minoritized students represent structures that are designed to hinder social and economic mobility.

Is this America?

My answer—as painful as it is to acknowledge—is yes. We live in a country where the false belief in the hierarchy of human value is deeply embedded in our systems, our structures, our policies, and our people.

But is this the America I am willing to settle for? No.

I believe in the promise of a high-quality liberal education as the foundation for building just and equitable communities through civility, empathy, diversity, the free exchange of ideas, truth-telling, accountability, and evidence-based decision-making. These tenets of what a liberal education looks like inform my commitment to change and drive AAC&U’s work with institutional change leaders as part of the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers effort.

Across the colleges, universities, and local communities collaborating through the twenty-nine TRHT Campus Centers, the shared vision for what our communities will look like, feel like, and be like when there is no longer a false belief in a hierarchy of human value centers our efforts and unites us for change across our many differences. We acknowledge that it will take time, and this change may not fully happen in our lifetimes. But our fear, our anger, or desire for change, and our anxieties guide us toward the transformation we seek.

Our work is not in vain. Through finding mutual understanding and changing the narrative on race and racism, prioritizing racial healing and relationship building, and dismantling the hierarchy embedded in our economic systems and structures, laws, and segregationist policies, we work collaboratively with educators, students, and community partners to challenge inequities and injustices. This is the America WE embrace.

As we celebrate Black History Month, let us remember those we have lost and the reasons why we must continue to work toward OUR America.

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