President's Letter: Exploring the Past, Building Davidson’s Future
A few weeks ago, students, professors and staff members from Davidson College partnered with community leaders—firefighters, police officers, town board members, faith leaders and others—from the town of Davidson to participate in a class with the Racial Equity Institute (REI), based in Greensboro, North Carolina.
REI facilitators presented a broad analysis—in health care, employment, education, criminal justice and more—of experiences and outcomes for different racial groups in the United States.
The data, some quantitative, some qualitative, convincingly show that white people consistently have better experiences and outcomes than Black people. Some examples: Black motorists are less likely to have contraband in their cars but more likely to be searched during a traffic stop. A résumé with the name Lakisha or Jamal gets fewer call backs than the exact same résumé with the name Emily or Greg. A teacher watching a video of preschool kids is asked to identify behavioral problems. The kids do exactly the same things, but the teacher calls out the Black boys. In health care, education and employment, among other things, white people systematically fare better than Black people in the same situation.
Overall, the analysis REI presented indicates that racism is more than a “bad apple” problem. Individual actions alone can’t account for the pervasive nature of white advantage. Of course, many white individuals are struggling and many Black individuals are successful. Many people of all races work hard and some from all races do not. But if you look at aggregate data and correct for other variables (income, education, pre-existing health conditions), you see an across-the-board advantage that goes along with being white. I think of it as having the wind at my back. I may not notice it, but it’s there, unearned, helping me along so that my hard pedaling gets me farther. I will never know what it’s like to ride against that wind.
Classes like the one we attended with our town partners equip us with useful analytical tools so that we can more comprehensively explore our world, past and present. Each exploration invites and inspires another. On campus, this powerful desire to learn drives us to expand and reframe the questions we ask and to bring to light our unexamined assumptions. We want both to understand the world around us, in all its complexity, and to understand why the world is as it is. Such unfettered inquiry is in keeping with Davidson’s calling to fully employ our intellectual powers in an exploration of the whole of reality, whether physical or spiritual, as we dedicate ourselves to the quest for truth.
Our shared quest for truth is grounded in foundational convictions that grow out of the Reformed Christian tradition. One of these convictions urgently unites us now, namely an unshakable respect for the dignity and worth of each person, especially those whose stories have yet to be widely heard and whose lived experience differs from our own. How can we listen for these stories and open ourselves with empathy to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s skin?
The report from the Commission on Race and Slavery, to which much of this issue is devoted, recommends steps our college community can take to nurture a genuinely inclusive culture. With the leadership of professors, archivists, alumni and our amazing students, we are exploring our history more fully and connecting with those whose stories have yet to be heard. We’re learning more about Mr. Hiram Potts and Mr. Enoch Donaldson—their lives, families and decades-long contributions to the college—even as we’re learning about the racist laws, practices and ideas that denied to generations of Black Americans opportunities and recognition that white people take for granted.
Davidson College is a special community that inspires love, loyalty and a commitment to live up to convictions borne of faith. I’m grateful to be a part of a community whose love and unrelenting desire to learn overcomes any fear of what unfettered inquiry might reveal. This quest for truth and the courage to pursue it are crucial steps toward building a more just and humane present and future for an extraordinary institution.
Carol E. Quillen
This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2020 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.