Office of the President
May 29, 2015
Tags Speeches/Remarks

2015 Convocation Remarks: "On Inequality"

From the President

Members of the Brown community — Chancellor emeritus Artemis Joukowsky, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students — it is my great pleasure, as president of Brown University, to declare the two hundred and fifty-second academic year OPEN!

I want to extend a special welcome to the members of the entering classes of the graduate school, medical school and the college. Among them are:

  • 144 dedicated medical students
  • 778 talented master’s and doctoral students
  • 9 brilliant RUE scholars
  • 93 incredibly perceptive transfer students
  • And of course 1,620 exceptional first year students, the core of the stellar class of 2019

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to the new faculty who are joining us this year, and who will be introduced at a faculty meeting immediately following this Convocation.

Now let me say to all of you who are new arrivals that you have come to a very special place. Brown University has a long and proud tradition of educating students who, as alumni, proceed to take on the important challenges of the day. That they succeed is a testament to Brown’s signature approach: empowering students to be the architects of their own academic journey, a freedom that not only engages their minds, but opens their hearts.

And I believe it is the power of both — the mind and the heart — that unleashes the knowledge, passion and imagination needed to effect change.

Today, as we consider the power we can wield for good, it is hard not to reflect on events of the past year that our country continues to confront. New Orleans, Ferguson, Baltimore, and recently Cincinnati — the torment we have witnessed in these communities impacts all of us.

So, before I introduce our convocation speaker, I want to offer a few observations on racial inequality in America, an issue that — after generations of struggle — still requires truly transformational change. And I want to talk about how Brown can help all of us summon the intellect and the empathy to address this issue, thoughtfully and purposefully.

I thought about this over the summer, as I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, a book by legal scholar Michelle Alexander that was assigned summer reading for first year students. And I thought about it during the past year as I followed the drumbeat of news about young black men and women dying at the hands of police officers across the country.

I thought about it as I read scores of articles highlighting the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a cataclysmic event that left lasting scars on an entire city. I know, from research I did on New Orleans after the storm, that the scars were borne primarily by low-income families of color who lived in the Lower 9thWard and other vulnerable areas.

And I thought about it last spring, when I taught a sophomore seminar on health disparities and had to explain to Brown University students that, in America, black people live on average nearly 4 fewer years than their white counterparts, and are significantly more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and AIDS.

Presented at every turn with potent research and harrowing facts on the ground, it is impossible not to ask a fundamental question: how is it that “race”—essentially a social and historical construct — can so decisively influence the chances that a person does or does not live a healthy, productive and fulfilling life as a full member of society?

Here is a pathway for considering this question.

When lionized anthropologist Clifford Geertz died several years ago, an obituary celebrated the Geertzian notion that human beings are “symbolizing, conceptualizing meaning-seeking animals” with an innate desire to make sense out of experience and give it form and order.

For Geertz, making meaning is what we do.

And so scholars and students in various disciplines come at these fundamental questions — like the one on racial inequality I posed a moment ago — in very different ways. We assign different meanings to events and claim different ways of knowing about the world.

Those of us who are economists and sociologists prefer theory and evidence that shapes the big picture: how large are racial disparities in incomes, assets, health status, and educational attainment, and why do these disparities persist?

Those of us who are social psychologists and neuroscientists seek to understand where racial bias comes from, how it is processed in the brain, and how it is expressed in behavior.

And those of us who are humanists and artists take a critical, comparative approach, asking questions like: What historical forces presaged current inequalities? How can literature and artistic expression help us understand lives different from our own? Or, what is a just society, and how might we get there?

The reality is that while all of these ways of knowing are right, any one of them, taken alone, is insufficient. We know more if we look at complex problems like race in America through a set of lenses that give us multiple perspectives. And, we understand better when we integrate these different perspectives together.

Take The New Jim Crow book I mentioned earlier. If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to read it. It is a compelling work about the devastating effects of the War on Drugs and the U.S. prison and policing systems on black Americans. Alexander’s thesis is that the United States — through policies and practices that, at face value, have nothing to do with race — has created a system of insidious traps for black Americans, traps that are hard to avoid, impossible to escape, and extremely damaging to the lives and families of those who become ensnared.

The New Jim Crow makes its points through a relentless marshaling of statistics and legal analysis. For me, an economist who loves data, the book was an illuminating read, perfectly suited to how I like to learn, to my way of knowing. And I learned a lot from reading it.

That said, I’ll be honest. Although the book did offer examples of people who had suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system, it did not help me understand their lived experiences. The New Jim Crowengaged my mind, but failed to touch my heart.

I read something else this summer, however, that did. The book Between the World and Me, by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, couldn’t be more different in style than The New Jim Crow. It is a lyrical, deeply personal memoir, written in the form of a letter from the author to his black teen-age son, and prompted by his son’s reaction to the lack of an indictment in the Michael Brown case.

Coates describes a bleak coming-of-age, navigating the tense streets and schools of Baltimore, and the anger and despair he felt when a close college friend was shot to death by a police officer for doing nothing more than sitting in his car. He expresses his deepest hopes and fears for his son, who is growing up in a world where he is “always on guard.” The book is powerful, disturbing and, especially to a white reader, deeply challenging.

To me, these two books reflect two very different ways of knowing about a complex issue. The New Jim Crow is a book of the mind, forceful because of the analytical heft levied at the subject of institutional racism. Between the World and Me is a book of the heart, forceful because it exposes the effects of institutional racism on the human spirit. Neither book gives us pat answers to difficult problems. But together, they give us complementary “ways of knowing” about racial inequality in America. And together, they enhance the meaning and understanding we seek, to anchor our call for transformational change.

I will remind you, of course, that academics — or “book learning” — is only one way of knowing. Another way is to learn from each other, through frank conversation and sharing of personal stories. This is precisely how I came to know how offensive racial profiling could be.

Many years ago, I was an assistant professor at Princeton when a new colleague — an African American political scientist — had the experience of having her young teenage son arrested by police, with guns drawn, while putting his brand-new New Jersey license plates on his family car, in his own driveway. The officers assumed he was stealing them. I tried to fathom the damage done to that young man, and, from that point forward, dismissed any possible benefit to racial profiling as a crime prevention strategy.

And yet, learning about tough problems but stopping there isn’t good enough, is it? Brown’s Charter emphasizes that knowledge and understanding must serve “the community, the nation and the world.” This means taking action.

The Brown community takes this to heart.

This is why Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service organizes student-led creative arts workshops in Rhode Island Correctional Institutions.

This is why members of the Brown Medical School faculty work to bring high-quality physical and mental health care to people incarcerated in Rhode Island.

And this is why, through Brown’s TRI-Lab program, Brown faculty and students will work this spring with Brad Brockman, Executive Director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.

We are, as well, obliged to ensure that we are not perpetuating racial inequities here on campus. This is why, last year, I challenged our community to double the number of faculty who come from underrepresented minority groups.

And this is why I will ask the Brown University Community Council — a group of faculty, students, staff and alumni — to take up the issue this fall. In the public meetings the Council holds throughout the year, we will explore how the University’s policies and practices — on employment, college admission, public safety, and other matters — actively counter racial inequities in America.

This is a call to action. I look forward to working with all members of this community in the days, weeks, months and years ahead — to make sure that everything we do at Brown reflects the values we hold dear, and upholds our commitment to an education that engages minds and touches hearts.

With that, I would like to introduce our Opening Convocation speaker, Professor Tricia Rose, someone without peer in these matters.

Born and raised in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City, Tricia graduated from Yale University where she received a B.A. in sociology. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from Brown, and went on to teach at New York University and the University of California–Santa Cruz. Fortunately, Tricia returned to Brown and has been a professor of Africana studies here since 2006. She was named director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in 2013.

Tricia is an internationally respected scholar of post-civil rights era black U.S. culture, popular music, social issues, gender, and sexuality — perhaps best known for her groundbreaking book on the emergence of hip hop culture. Titled “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America,” the book is considered a foundational text for the study of hip-hop, a work that has defined what is now an entire field of study.

The best praise of Tricia came just recently from a brand-new Brown University student, who I expect is here in this audience today. When I mentioned to her that Tricia Rose teaches at Brown, her response was an excited “Tricia Rose — do you mean the Tricia Rose?”

Will all of you please rise and welcome the Tricia Rose!!