Emerson College President Wants America to ‘Wake Up’

Emerson College President Lee Pelton recently penned a letter to the Emerson community detailing his own experiences with racism, as well as his response to racism in America in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The Times spoke with Pelton to discuss his thoughts on the letter and the unrest happening in Boston and across the world. 

The June 1 letter,  in which Pelton describes America as being “on fire,” has reached between seven and eight million people, he said. Pelton told the Times that the letter “has opened the door for other black leaders to walk through and publicly describe their interactions with the police.”

In the letter, Pelton describes his encounters with police as a black man, writing that he has “been called the n-word by white people in every state and every city that I have ever lived in. I have been pulled over driving while black more times than I can remember. I have been spit on by a white parking lot attendant.” He goes on to say that when he was President of Willamette University in Oregon, teenage boys blocked his path home with their car because he looked similar to someone who was accused of stealing from homes in the area.

“When I asked what that person looked like they described someone more than twenty years younger than me,” Pelton wrote. And at twenty years old, Pelton said he “suffered the deep humiliation of having to go to the back alley of a local restaurant to oder food” in Arkansas. 

Pelton said he chose to be this deeply personal in a public letter because he was “speaking both as a black man and as a president,” and that he felt the recent events “required” him to represent both.

“In some ways, my letter is a representative example of what Du Bois called the ‘double consciousness’ of black people and that in our daily lives we are required to negotiate being black in a predominantly white world,” Pelton said. “Black Americans have a profound sense that Mr. Floyd’s murder is not new, and is in fact part of a long history of racial injustice in the US that began even before its founding in 1619 when slaves were brought to these shores.”

Pelton said that the nationwide protests have brought up feelings of “frustration and anger” in people and said that it “seems clear” to him that there are many across America “with hearts to feel, voices to be heard, and minds to think have a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a Black person in America.”

He said that many black people, including himself, “get very nervous” when they see a police officer in their rearview mirror. “I have felt that way sine I first started driving 50 plus years ago,” he said.

In response to repeated racism and police brutality, residents of cities across the country, including Boston, are calling for their local governments to defund police departments and direct a portion of the money to programs and organizations that directly benefit the community. Pelton said he thinks this is something that could be a reality in many cities.

“I do believe that cities will begin to reallocate funding for law enforcement to programs that promote health, safety, and education,” he said.   

City Councilor Julia Mejia also filed a hearing order on Monday for a hearing “concerning college and university campus police in the City of Boston,” which would examine police departments at colleges and universities in Boston and call for testimony on what needs to change.

Pelton said that Emerson College’s Police Department used to be called the Emerson College Security Department, and does not function like a traditional police department. “Our officers carry no guns, we don’t have any militarized weapons, and I would suspect that over 90 percent of our budget for the police is people, not programs,” he said. “Our police force is very small.”

He added that Emerson College’s police department differs from other larger universities “where officers carry weapons and have arrest authority.”

This letter is not the end of Pelton’s conversation with the Emerson College community. Pelton said he will be further addressing the Emerson community in the same way that he always does: “with an open mind.”

He said he wants America to “wake up” and recognize that “these are structural barriers in our nation’s cities that deprive black and brown folks from access to wealth, to quality education, to equal access, to employment, and those barriers are what we refer to as structural racism. They are long-standing and deeply embedded in this nation’s history beginning in 1619 and at its very founding.”

He said that “unraveling” this structured racism “will require time, leadership, resources, and an unflinching commitment.”

Unconscious bias is an example of racism and bigotry, he said, and requires “a different kind of effort because it involves people’s attitudes and prejudices and blindness to how they behave and act with respect to people of color in this country.”

He added, “there’s no free passes for anyone, including me.”

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