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Excerpted From: Brandon Hasbrouck, White Saviors, 77 Washington and Lee Law Review Online 47 (July 15, 2020) (39 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage.
I am an assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law. I am a tenure-track faculty member. I am Black. Two of my Black colleagues, Cary Martin Shelby and Carliss Chatman, endorse my entire statement below in full. Together, we make up the permanent Black faculty at the law school.
It is time for Washington and Lee University to drop both George Washington and Robert E. Lee from the University name. The predominantly White faculty at Washington and Lee recently announced that it will petition the Board of Trustees to remove Lee from the University name. This is the first time in Washington and Lee's history that the faculty has drafted such a petition. It is worth exploring why the faculty has decided to make a collective statement on Lee now and why the faculty has not included a demand to drop Washington in their petition. The answer is simple--it is no longer acceptable, profitable, or convenient to be associated with Lee but it is for Washington. At least for now.
Bryan Stevenson, the Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, delivered an impassioned commencement address at Washington and Lee University in 2019. There, he encouraged our graduates and our community to engage in truth and reconciliation around race to facilitate healing. That is, “[t]o repair the harms caused as a result of an era of enslavement, an era of racial terror lynching and violence, an era of Jim Crow segregation, and an era of mass incarceration, we have to commit ourselves to building an era of truth and justice.” As part of the truth-telling process here at Washington and Lee, we need to confront our history with race and must engage with that history more honestly. I'll go first. Both Washington and Lee were perpetrators of racial terror and, for that reason, should be removed from the University name. That is a necessary beginning. Truth and justice, however, require that we not bypass institutional actors. Indeed, institutional racism is created and sustained by such actors, which includes the predominantly White faculty at Washington and Lee. In order to move forward--indeed to transform our institution--the faculty must acknowledge its significant part in perpetuating white supremacy and engage in genuine and continued work that advances racial equality and justice.
George Washington enslaved more than 300 Black people. Washington's brutality, inhumanity, and cruelty are well documented. Washington would have his enslaved Blacks whipped for no reason at all, such as walking on his lawn. As president, Washington came up with elaborate schemes to travel with enslaved people to Philadelphia in an effort to avoid Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which provided enslaved Blacks a pathway to freedom. Washington understood that America's economy rested on the backs of Blacks and the protection of the institution of slavery. This is why he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed enslavers, like Washington, to stalk and torture runaway enslaved Blacks in free states and criminalized those who helped enslaved Blacks escape. Indeed, Washington had a reputation as being the most aggressive slave catcher. In one of his trips to Philadelphia, Ona Judge, an enslaved Black woman, escaped. Washington hired head-hunters, offered a reward, and placed ads in newspapers seeking Ms. Judge's return. Ms. Judge “evaded capture, married, had several children and lived for more than fifty years as a free woman in New Hampshire.” Enslaved people were tortured under Washington's ownership. His “dentures were made from the pulled teeth of slaves.” Enslaved women were raped on his estate by his adopted son. Washington's connection to the University--then Liberty Hall Academy--is based on his gift to the University of stock worth $20,000, which allegedly saved the school from insolvency. It is important to underscore that this gift would not have been possible had Washington not accumulated his wealth on the backs of enslaved Blacks. In recognition of that gift, the school was renamed Washington Academy (later changed to Washington College).
Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, was a slave-owner too. Lee believed that Black people were inferior and that slavery was “necessary” because we needed “instruction,” “discipline,” and leadership. Lee's reputation for racial violence and hatred is well known. He was a monster. Black bodies were desecrated and skin mutilated by Lee himself. If enslaved Blacks survived his wrath, they likely ended up separated from their family by Lee's hand was, as Ta-Nehisi Coates described it, “a kind of murder.” Lee served as the president of Washington College from 1865 until his death in 1870. Although his time as president has been celebrated for creating a world-class liberal arts program, what stands out to me is that his students were sexual predators--they sexually assaulted Black girls from local Black schools. “His students formed their own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan” and were involved in two attempted lynchings. Award-winning historian, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, concluded, “The number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that [Lee] either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors or turned a blind eye to it.” The school's name was changed to Washington and Lee University in 1870.
Washington and Lee decided to integrate in 1966. Since that time, Black people have had to operate under the oppressive eyes of Washington and Lee. Many students, administrators, support professionals, and professors of color have detailed their painful experiences for years--often wrought with trauma, indignity, and abuse. The statues, portraits, and the name itself--and all that Washington and Lee represented then and now--are symbols that are racist. Too often members of the Washington and Lee community dismiss Black pain--you know, why did you come to an institution named after Washington and Lee in the first place? That is the thinking of a segregationist, not an antiracist. We must acknowledge that for many, Washington and Lee's adoration of both Washington and Lee effectively signals adoring and cheering for racial subordination and violence.
As part of truth and reconciliation, there must be a true accounting of the University's history and the roles power structures played in it. One such structure is the predominantly White faculty. The faculty, in their petition, champion themselves as “stewards”--people who look after and are responsible for their students; all students. I agree. Unlike many other institutional actors, the faculty can profoundly impact our students' day-to-day experience at Washington and Lee. Indeed, the everyday work of racial justice and equality rests largely on the faculty's shoulders. The predominantly White faculty has failed to live up to its obligations as stewards.
This faculty has collectively been deaf to Black suffering, cries, and desperation. That is, until last month. A great awakening--and for some a renewed interest--has occurred among the faculty that the name “Lee” must be dropped from our University. None of the faculty have advanced a resolution to remove Washington from the University name. The faculty is rightly outraged over the most recent cases of Black dehumanization and murder. Many believe this provides an occasion to adopt a faculty resolution--stylized as a petition--that requests the Board of Trustees to drop Lee from the University name. The leaders of this resolution are mostly (if not all) White and mostly (if not all) tenured. Despite this movement being driven by Black voices-- indeed I have participated in two events over the past month calling for transformative change and sponsored our antiracist resolution White colleagues have received all of the press lately. One colleague made a compelling case on why Lee must go. Two other colleagues were quoted extensively in a piece on the proposed name change. Most (if not all) of these colleagues have been associated with the University for years (if not decades) and the same case against Lee (and Washington) should have been made for years. There must be an acknowledgment that each year that this predominantly White faculty remained silent, neutral, or worse, harm was committed against Black people.
In fact, this past February (as in five months ago)--when many law students, support professionals, and some professors signed a petition to the Board of Trustees, which would have allowed students to have an option to remove Robert E. Lee's portrait from their diploma--a significant amount of the White faculty did not sign that petition. Nor did they demonstrate any interest in having Lee's name removed from the University at that time. The Board of Trustees denied that petition. The message we received was clear--we were counseled to educate ourselves so that we may learn to appreciate the positive contributions that Lee made to education during his time as University President. During all of this, several students and faculty of color received hate messages. And, still, no collective movement, statement of solidarity, or resolution from our predominantly White faculty. Nothing. How about when the Ku Klux Klan distributed leaflets on campus in 2018? Nothing. There have been countless other incidents of anti-Blackness over the years at Washington and Lee and in America. The predominantly White faculty's collective response every single time: Nothing.
In a recent meeting, a White faculty member made a statement that cuts at the heart of the issue--the circumstances today are completely different that the only option left for the Board of Trustees is to pursue a name change. My question is, different for who? Not for Black people.
My colleague, Cary Martin Shelby--a Black associate professor of law-- has used the phrase, “profiting from our pain” to illustrate her research on social impact investing. It's related to this idea that White people take advantage of moments or circumstances to position themselves to gain from Black pain. This happens even when the motive is good. This is precisely what is happening at Washington and Lee University now--and part of a larger problem at all institutions. A financial model with Lee at the center is no longer feasible long-term in light of the current Black Lives Matter Movement. Moreover, any association with Lee right now is not a good look for our predominantly White faculty. The faculty understands this and have collectively become champions for some racial justice. But Washington is still acceptable because the faculty can continue to profit--socially, economically, and politically. Until they can't. Professor Derrick Bell, “father” of critical race theory, calls this interest convergence. Interest convergence contends that “[t]he interest of [B]lacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of [W]hites.”
[. . .]
Truth and reconciliation require more--more everything. At Washington and Lee University, it starts with the following:
1. The removal of both namesakes;
2. Acknowledgement from this predominantly White faculty that you all have profited and benefitted from Black pain--through promotion, tenure, competition, and other ways;
3. Acknowledgment from the predominantly White faculty that you all have been deaf or unresponsive to Black suffering--and that the difference is immaterial;
4. Acknowledgment from the predominantly White faculty that each year you have remained silent, neutral, or worse, harm was committed against Black people;
5. Acknowledgment from the predominantly White faculty that your (at best) neutrality perpetuated racist thinking and policy decisionmaking;
6. Acknowledgment from the predominantly White faculty that it has been students, particularly law students and students of color, who have demonstrated leadership, courage, and advocacy on issues of race and racial justice and equality;
7. Commitment from the predominantly White faculty to antiracism consistent with the resolution I sponsored for the law school. Antiracism demands that we are proactive in dismantling racist systems, not reactive. It requires that we support--in actions--antiracist policies;
8. Commitment to hiring, retention, and promotion of faculty and administrators of color at all levels of recognition for scholarly achievement and university leadership, including, but not limited to, department chairs, endowed chairs, deanships, provost and president positions, and the Board of Trustees. A further commitment from each school to have majorityminority permanent faculty and Board representation by 2030 (the state of Virginia is projected to be majorityminority during this decade);
9. Commitment to increase diversity in our student body to reflect at least 50% students of color by 2030 (again, the state of Virginia is projected to be majority-minority during this decade);
10. Acknowledgment that during Lee's presidency of Washington College, students committed atrocities against the local Black community. For that reason, it is necessary to repair deep fractures between the University and local Black community. To that end, we must develop partnerships with the local Black community to help serve our broader community;
11. Fund critical race and ethnic studies and make those courses a general-education requirement. Emory University just voted to approve a general-education requirement across the college for critical race and ethnic studies. In addition, there should be a commitment by the predominantly White faculty to diversify courses;
12. Develop and fund a center for antiracist research; and a
13. Commitment to create a reparations committee to identify the enslaved Black people whose labor--and sale--Washington and Lee, as owners, directly benefited from. A further commitment to establish a reparations fund to assist the living descendants of those this institution enslaved.
Unless some are afraid of too much racial justice and equality.
Assistant Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law.
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