We Need to Talk
The University has an opportunity to be a leader in starting to dismantle structural racism. Will we take it?
Adora Land (B.A. ’11) and Ernest Comer III (B.A. ’09) are cochairs of the U of M Black Alumni Network (BAN). They wrote this essay for Minnesota Alumni.
This past spring, in the midst of a global pandemic,
our world slowed down. As we watched
George Floyd gasp for air, call out for help
and for his dead mother, and cry that he
could not breathe for 7 minutes and 46 seconds, the eyes
of many Minnesotans and others across the world were
opened to a global pandemic Black people have felt for
Racism is a form of sickness and it’s a far greater
pandemic than COVID-19 could ever be.
George Floyd was certainly not the first Black man to
lose his life at the hands of police officers poorly equipped
to handle their role in our community. Perhaps the most
disturbing part of his case is that he is just one among many
known and unknown examples of brutality and inexplicable
police encounters that ended in unnecessary loss of life.
Beyond police brutality, the demonization and criminalization of Black bodies has been at our front door for
more than 400 years. Colonization and the transatlantic
slave trade created the foundation for how the ideals of
anti-Blackness were fortified. Those issues also laid the
groundwork for institutionalized racism, a deep-seated
wrong that still perpetuates in society today.
This problem exists both in and well beyond police
brutality. In our Black bodies, we walk through society
constantly brutalized verbally, emotionally, and physically
by some of those around us. And despite our household
income, home address, education, or profession, the
attacks still come.
As a result, we find ourselves fighting to survive and
falling into a mindset designed to extinguish the audacity
of hope or quell any ambition beyond surviving from one
moment to the next.
Despite the racism and anti-Blackness that plague our society, Black people still ascend. We reach new levels of achievement individually and embolden efforts for collective prosperity. Our backs together, we uphold one another despite the people, institutions, and systems that would have us be anything but alive and well.
What comes next at the University of Minnesota?
Last year, the U of M celebrated the 50th anniversary
of the Morrill Hall Takeover. During that event, 70 Black
students of the Afro-American Action Committee entered
and occupied the University administration building
for 24 hours. Their demands included an Afro Studies
Department, the transfer of an MLK scholarship to a Black
organization, and financial assistance for a Black Student
Conference. The result was the formation of the Afro
Students Department, what is now the Black Student
Union, and the inclusion of community voices on the MLK
As Black alumni, we acknowledge and applaud
President Gabel’s response to the call to action from
the first Black student body president of the U of M, Jael
Kerandi, to cut a number of ties between the University
and the Minneapolis Police Department. This act also
elevated an ongoing conversation around what it would
look like to potentially defund, divest, and dismantle the
police departments. Minneapolis and St. Paul Public
Schools have already canceled their contracts for
school resource officers within their districts. Nationally, cities, schools, universities, and communities are
having a broader conversation about the role of police
departments, with the hope of redistributing funds to
other necessary functions.
There is more work to be done.
Over the years, the U of M has eliminated programs and
colleges that historically served as an entry point for Black
and other students of color into the University. Eliminating programs such as the General College significantly
decreased the number of Black and brown students on
our campuses. [Ed. Note: General College was closed
in a 2005 U of M restructuring and absorbed into the
College of Education and Human Development.] If we
believe education truly is the pathway out of poverty,
and that it serves as a means to combat oppression,
then we must build, sustain, and strengthen pathways
for education equity.
The University of Minnesota was founded in 1851, and Jael Kerandi was the first Black student body president in the institution’s nearly 170-year history. We believe her example can encourage future Black students of the U of M to become her successors and prepare this institution for what the future can bring.
Where do we go from here?
The University has an amazing opportunity today to
continue setting the tone nationally and leading work in
a movement to defund policing and reimagine a society
where these resources are allocated in ways that bring
more safety, security, and preventative measures to
campus life and the student experience.
In order to lead in this way, the University must listen
to the voices of Black students and alumni. We want
to share insight, perspectives, and stories about our
experiences. And we want to see the University invest
in Black leadership, including faculty, staff, students,
vendors, professionals, and community members who are
committed to the success of the student body, as well as
the institution. We want to see the University research
and build institutional knowledge of the root cause for
negative outcomes and experiences for Black people
on campus, and then leverage that knowledge to drive
accountability internally. And we want to see University
leadership continue taking massive action in real time to
correct circumstances that exacerbate the challenges of
being a Black person, Black business, Black organization,
or Black initiative engaging with this institution.
Listen, invest, research, drive accountability, and take massive action in real time. This is where we should go from here, and it’s the path forward.