The recent killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, tragically among so many others, demonstrate the persistent danger of racist violence to African Americans. As historians, we understand this danger as the ongoing effect of centuries of systemic, institutional threat to people of African descent in the United States, which originated in the atrocity of transatlantic slavery and continued after Reconstruction through the era of Jim Crow, segregated and unequal schooling and generational income inequality. As a department, we are alarmed for those of our students, our staff and our faculty, as well as members of the wider New Brunswick community, who continue to live daily with the threat of violence. We also acknowledge that Rutgers New Brunswick is part of a system whose white students have benefited from a state tax structure which has for decades directed vastly more resources to historically white schools and allowed the defunding of urban schools in Newark and Camden. As a result, the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP is currently suing the state of New Jersey.
The ongoing brutalization of African Americans dehumanizes and degrades everyone who fails to confront it. For us as fellow citizens, scholars, and teachers, our duty more than ever is to come to terms with centuries of oppression and their reverberations in the present. We see this as a moment in which we must build on ongoing local and national campaigns to end that brutalization. These include the Prison Abolition Movement, which dates to 1998, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2014 after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice. Critical understanding of the carceral state and the prison-industrial complex has been powerfully articulated by our own scholars. It must be advanced through continued protest and engaged with city councils, state houses and Congress.
The silencing and suffering of Black citizens in the United States compares to the histories of oppression under imperialist and fascist rule and their legacy through racial capitalism, neo-colonial wars and the militarization of police forces around the world. This is why the current protests, which began in our country, have become global in scale, from Brussels and Berlin to Sydney and Seoul. Rarely does the present come into view as a clearly defined historic moment. The outpouring of democratic opposition to police violence and systemic racism mark a turning point in the history of our nation and the world. As historians, we commit to teaching the vital lessons of anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle to establish a more equitable world. We pledge to integrate and uphold these commitments in our intellectual and institutional practice to build a future that is no longer dictated by the past. Alongside many in our cities and around the world, we recall Frantz Fanon’s powerful statement from over sixty years ago: “we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
The History Department also pledges to oppose racist violence by reckoning with the prejudices at work in our own institution, and committing to eradicate them. The scholarship produced by the department-led Scarlet and Black project on the history of subject peoples at Rutgers requires that we exercise self-examination. Our world-class community of African American historians has brought rigor and insight to these issues through scholarship, teaching, the Black Atlantic Seminar and the recent two-year “Black Bodies” seminar at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. At this moment of suffering and uprising, we must redouble our efforts to sustain the scholars and students whose research has helped bring about this reckoning. We must protect and support the African American students who enroll in our courses by making common cause in a struggle for equal justice. We must acknowledge the insidious power of white privilege within as well as outside the university, and we must work together to dismantle that privilege. We must engage more deeply with the African American community in New Brunswick by demanding that our university serve that community’s well-being alongside that of its students and employees. We must resist the violence imposed by our own institutional leadership on the most vulnerable at Rutgers – the loss of jobs and health care that disproportionately threatens black and brown staff and students, who are fundamental to the life of our university and the success of its educational mission. And we must, in the wake of pandemic disease that has taken its cruelest toll on the least powerful among us, commit to the struggle for a just recovery that puts racial, social and environmental justice at its heart.