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Where Do We Go From Here?

Nelms Charlie

Given the ubiquitous attack on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) led by current and aspiring politicians, including former President Donald J. Trump and Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, a first-time American visitor might erroneously conclude that the country has been attacked by a cultural virus created by artificial intelligence designed to infect the purity of American democracy. Even those running for city council, school boards, and state and congressional seats are invoking DEI and critical race theory (CRT) as dangerous, divisive, and destructive to democracy. The attacks are relentless, as is the coverage by traditional media, social media, and podcasters.

Dr. Charlie NelmsDr. Charlie NelmsThe resulting evidence speaks volume. Since January 2021, there have been 99 proposed anti-DEI bills in 33 states, 12 of which have passed in nine states. DEI offices at the University of Arkansas and other universities have been discontinued, and DEI efforts in Florida, Texas, and other states have been curtailed. During the 2022-23 school year, there were over 3,000 cases of book removals in school and classroom libraries. More than 1,500 of those books targeted focus on some aspect of ethnic, racial, or gender diversity. Among the authors whose works have been targeted are those of the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker.

History, not surprisingly, is also in the crosshairs. We have witnessed alarming attacks and the prohibiting of the College Board Advanced Placement African American Studies course in selected states. School libraries and their dedicated librarians have been targeted, as have public libraries that have helped ensure literacy and access to books for all. Public libraries have been a mainstay of democracy since Benjamin Franklin, and the American public education system was once the envy of the world. Now, they are both contested spaces in the increasingly vitriolic culture wars.

The forced resignation of leading university presidents, such as Harvard’s Dr. Claudine Gay amid charges of plagiarism, by antagonistic donors with deep pockets and their own political agendas, is an ominous sign. This is all set against the context of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the use of affirmative action in college admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina and its decision to severely curtail female reproductive freedom by reversing Roe v Wade. Seemingly feeling empowered, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are children, thereby leading to a pause in IVF treatments in clinics around the country.

There are numerous other causes for concern as the pace of restricting the rights of some while championing and demanding the rights of others accelerates: the depth, frequency, and coordination of the attacks on DEI, the willful lies that perpetrators peddle to support their views; the amount of media time and attention provided to those whose sole purpose is to disrupt and detonate pathways to opportunity for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other historically disenfranchised peoples; the attack on democracy reflected in part by MAGA Republicans and the Jan. 6 insurrection; and the unethical and secretive behavior of selected Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) members.

What I find most worrisome is the silence of a large swath of the American populace, especially historically disenfranchised people who benefited exponentially from the gains ushered in by the civil rights movement. It seems that we have lost our way, our voices, and our courage to stand up, to speak out, and to have our say. Many have cited exhaustion, and it is true that rest itself can be a form of resistance. It is important to acknowledge that social change is a marathon, not a sprint.

For a moment, it seemed that the protests associated with the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, and too many others would culminate in the resurgence of a sustained movement to ensure the rights of Blacks and other marginalized peoples to safety, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Just as it appeared that the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, things went quiet. The backlash began. If we do not recognize that none of us are truly safe, we all risk a future filled with even greater peril.

Over decades in the 20th century, culminating in the 1950s and 1960s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the leaders of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and other civil rights leaders established a high bar of expectation regarding protest and civil disobedience that seems to have been forgotten or ignored. Amnesia is the enemy of activism.

We must draw on lessons from protesters out front and strategists behind the scenes, from organizations such as the SCLC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Countless exemplars such as King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael, and members of the Black Panther Party, embraced the power of protest and used it fully. They did not let themselves become discouraged by the relentlessly oppressive tactics of the powers that be. Neither should we.

Now is not a time for handwringing or facile social media outrage. It is more urgent than ever for disenfranchised people to take a stand and say NO to duplicitous politicians who cravenly use race, class, gender orientation, and privilege, not only to control the narrative, but to control the actual lives of Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and other people they have cast as “other.” Silence is NOT an option. In the words of King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

On the eve of perhaps the most consequential national election in American history, disenfranchised peoples of all ethnicities, genders, economic classes, educational backgrounds, and geographical regions have an opportunity to come together to ensure that the rights of the least and the greatest among us are assured, indeed protected. We, the people, can be the philanthropists that fuel our own movement. We can offer our precious gifts of time, talent, and treasure to effectuate activism inspired by civil rights ancestors. As individuals, we can insist on modeling critical thinking with empathy and civility, wherever we find ourselves. Working together and keeping our eyes on the prize, we can stop the slow-motion death of American democracy. Instead, we can resuscitate it, and lovingly nurture its ideal of wanting to create “a more perfect union.” Doing so honors all those on whose shoulders we stand, whose eyes never left the beacon of freedom.

Dr. Charlie Nelms is a veteran higher education administrator and chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University.

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