University of Minnesota Alumni Association


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.

Photo Credit: Nancy Musinguzi

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 centuries: racism.

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 Scholarship Committee.

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.

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