An Open Letter to The King’s College: “What is a diploma from The King’s College to a Black student?”
Last week official audio tapes of a private conversation between then Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon were released. The statements made by Reagan were clear demonstrations of racism and dehumanization towards Black people. On the released tape Reagan calls Nixon to share his dismay at witnessing Black statesmen in the United Nations. He calls the statesmen ‘monkeys’, commenting on their ‘uncomfort’ when wearing shoes and explaining his conviction that if America were to follow the lead of African countries, it would be an example of “the tail wagging the dog.” Following the phone call, Nixon proceeded to notify members of his administration that Reagan’s view of the African statesmen as ‘cannibals’ was widely shared amongst those of the same conservative political ideology. Reagan’s dehumanizing language intermixed with his dismay about relying on Black people speaks volumes to the latent hate festering in his soul. This recording alters the lens in which history examines Reagan’s impact on the political landscape. The King’s College alongside many other Conservative groups are now grappling with how to understand the legacy of a hailed Conservative hero.
This display of prejudice was a surprise to many across the country, and I have no doubt shocked many within our own King’s Community. However, this audio recording came as no surprise to the Black and Brown communities of America, and more specifically to the Black and Brown community of The King’s College as they have been daily reminded of Reagan’s discriminatory legacy given his role as a school namesake. Reagan extended facets of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ to win over southern voters from President Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s disregard for minority communities is illustrated in several instances such as his infamous States’ Rights speech in Neshoba County, less than 10 miles away the infamous, Freedom Summer murders, where three peaceful voting rights activists were abducted and killed by a coalition of Sheriffs, Police and Ku Klux Klan members. Another example is in efforts to cut social services, Reagan created the awful caricature surrounding Black women as ‘Welfare Queens’, casting single Black mothers who received government aid as irresponsible women leeching off taxpayer dollars to finance their immorality. Most notably, the war on drugs under the Reagan administration was the root cause for many of the catastrophic intergenerational effects on Black and Brown communities living in inner cities. Reagan’s imprint of mandatory minimum sentencing, stricter punishments for crack instead of powder cocaine, and invoking fear to fuel his ‘Law and Order’ campaign is supporting evidence of why these communities were not shocked to hear Reagan call Black men ‘monkeys’.
Despite all of these racial transgressions, President Reagan was still praised and placed as an official House namesake here at The King’s College. Although it is disappointing that King’s would name a house after Reagan, this is not the only time the college has been home to racism and willful ignorance about discrimination faced by people of color. In 2017, during a lunchtime event entitled ‘Difficult Discussion on Race’, I stood among faculty in the back of a congested City Room, witnessing tensions rise as a community attempted to confront their ignored reality. The panel comprised of students, faculty and staff, attempted to explain profoundly complex accounts of inequality faced by students of color. During the question and answer portion one student raised her hand to express the inner turmoil she experienced attending a college that lauds a president like Reagan, associated with such racist policies. How could she feel valued when her college constantly overlooked moral failings of such a high magnitude, especially towards vulnerable groups that she was a member of? There was no answer then, and King’s failed to ever provide a satisfactory one.
If you’ve been around The King’s College community during the past six months, you’ll know that there continued to be incidents that devalue and demean minority communities. These incidents have forced uncomfortable conversations, internally within King’s and the administration, as well as publicly on social media. Here are a few examples, first, the incident at Interregnum evening lecture where racist memes were widely circulated. Secondly, the multiple incidents of unacceptable hateful speech being posted from anonymous King’s student twitter accounts. Since I first stepped foot on campus, many of my peers have perceived King’s to be shelter for their prejudicial beliefs and bigoted worldviews, I can only imagine the heightened confidence they must feel sharing their views from anonymous social media accounts.Third, another incident occurred this summer when a full-time faculty member publicly stated via Twitter that people who wear hoodies, burkas or have tinted car windows are untrustworthy in response to a clip of a robbery in Srinagar, India. The Chair of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics department tweeting, “I don’t trust people with their hoodies pulled up or with tinted car windows”, alongside another post calling for women to be stripped of their religious freedoms with the hashtag, “#BanTheBurka” is an egregious offense. These incidents in their totality are disappointing, but come as no surprise to me. I do not believe our staff and faculty are unaware of the devastating effects these incidents have upon our community, or the precedent established by our weak sense of accountability. This is an example of neglectful administration or, an example of this institutions character. Therefore, when students of color speak out and remain unheard, they begin to believe their insight carries no value, because that truth has been communicated time and time again.
I’ve spent the last four years wondering why The King’s College remained devoted to Reagan. Was there no other admirable male namesake they could find? Whenever Reagan was referenced in class, the discussion would glorify his legacy and overlook any critique directed towards the former president. Meanwhile, my white classmates would emphasize how Dr. Martin Luther King’s infidelity tainted his activist legacy. (This has been rumored to be an influencing factor as to why he was not chosen as a house namesake.) It was remarkable to me that the greatest American advocate for civil rights and loving thy neighbor was so heavily scrutinized when an official public servant, elected to the most powerful position in the world and sworn to uphold the Constitution, was given a gracious pass. It became clear that the love for President Reagan epitomized the divergence between the white majority community and the rest of us. Students of color are forced to study and accept leaders who devalued us in every meaningful way. Our centers of learning excuse immoral behavior committed by white leaders, and they still become angered when we call for change that imposes upon their maintained conservtaive order.
We are not surprised when political leaders of the past are ‘discovered’ to be racist. Why our love for truth dissipates when we justify admiration for people who surely had no love for me is astonishing. It is ironic how the Admissions Department has asked Black students, myself included, to represent the college so frequently when all we have ever asked for was representation for ourselves. I am reminded of the intense scrutiny The TABLE — — a student organization dedicated to creating a space for students of color to feel safe, loved, and included — — from students and administration alike. I am reminded of students of color being told that the way they worship during Refuge was only a guise in order to receive attention from others. I am reminded of when the Refuge Executive team asked me to be a liaison between them and The TABLE, effectively avoiding interaction with the Black population. I am reminded that students of color faced the honor council at an alarmingly higher rate than white students. I am reminded how the ideal King’s student should look when my professor berates me for what he deemed an unprofessional outfit of a cardigan and khaki pants. I am reminded of how that same professor in an attempt to apologize, presupposed that my attire reflected my low income and unprompted placed $50 before me for clothes. I am reminded of how before he let me leave his office, he asked me to bring back a receipt to verify my purchases. I am reminded of a professor naming another student as my ‘white counterpart’ and suggesting I act more like him to fit in. I am reminded of when I asked a business professor for advice on how to create financial freedom, and he told me not to worry, “Because you’ve always seemed like a hustler.” I am reminded of all the students who looked like me that felt inferior, but could never place why. I am reminded of having to say goodbye to those same friends as they exited the school.
We have spoken out for years, we have felt true loneliness at the hands of a community that repeatedly promised we were welcomed. We have been tokenized for diversity sake, for House competitions, for marketing campaigns, for Inviso panels, and for so much more. We have been called upon to serve in every way possible, except in leadership. The exploitative relationship between Kings and students of color is most apparent in the poster child like fashion we are advertised in efforts to sell a narrative of diversity and representation. Highlighting the assortment of different backgrounds students come from is excellent, however, Kings has transitioned into tokenism where the diversification of students represented in marketing is only a symbolic gesture to create the appearance of equality instead of promoting actual diversity within our curriculum, incoming students, and full-time faculty.
This year King’s elected the first Black Student Body President, who has appointed the most diverse cabinet in recent memory. Although this feat might appear as progress electing a lone student of color to a position of temporary visible leadership does not address any real barriers to minority success. This accomplishing feat will become a sole anomaly if there is not a concentrated effort to diversify those in power. For example look to the elected House leadership. Only 3 out of 40 executive positions were filled by students of color. Altogether the student body only elected 4 students of color. Where do you recommend an incoming student of color find solidarity when only 7% of their elected leadership resembles them in their new home? The TABLE with only a fraction of the House budget cannot be expected to supersede the House system for all students of color.
I have suggested publicly that King’s should remove the namesake of Ronald Reagan and introduce the House of Frederick Douglass. However, I ponder how someone who is constantly neglected while concurrently being exploited by their institution should be expected to participate and celebrate the system. In Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech he confronts a similar inquiry while speaking to a primarily white audience, “I say it with a sad sense of disparity between us… Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” The heavy burden of change unjustly falls on the shoulders of minority communities all throughout history. The sad reality is, regardless of intention, disparaging sentiments often are communicated unbeknownst to the perpetrator.
Douglass continued on saying, “The same sunlight that has brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.” In my extended stay, and full submersion into the community, Christianity and culture of the King’s College, I can say with full confidence that the values, standards, and praise of community at 56 Broadway were weaponized and wielded as a means of exclusion for low-income students, Black and Brown students, women, LGBTQ+ students and many other marginalized communities. So I ask you, what does a diploma from the King’s College mean for that neglected population? What purpose does the untransferable credits serve to a student brave enough to leave? What does it mean when you affirm my faith, but discount my Black existence? The stories that many of my fellow classmates share with parents and prospective students do not describe a shared experience, but an experience of the majority with the resources to navigate an atmosphere of homogeneity.
James Baldwin once said about his home country, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I share that sentiment with the college I chose to call my home. King’s was, and continues to be the cause of great opportunity gifted by God, favor, and people generous enough to invest in me. I am grateful for the relationships organically grown through mutual love for the journey of self-discovery, maturation, and overall personal development. I do not reject the countless positive memories, the unquantifiable amount of knowledge and wisdom bestowed upon me during my time. I still love King’s because it aims to build a community of young adults dedicated to exhibiting virtue and love throughout their lives and work. The staff and faculty work to enhance student’s ability to critically examine the world around them, while simultaneously learning to practice the love Jesus Christ shares with the world. I love Kings with my entire heart and that is why I insist on criticizing her perpetually.
The official vision statement of the college as well the vision statements of Student Houses and Student Orgs all affirm virtuous principles in which a healthy foundation of community and learning can only be built upon. My question to all of King’s is what will be your breaking point? When have enough public outbursts of dehumanization, ostracization, and blatant racism taken place to reform our communal fabric? When does that internal reflection commence? When do we engage in the practices of Lincoln, Socrates, or C.S. Lewis and introspectively evaluate the root causes for this type of behavior, or discern what role we play in attracting these types of individuals. Let’s begin to address how these racist incidents are not isolated, but reflective of a longstanding culture of prejudicial exclusion.
Again I look to the life of Douglass for guidance and draw from the profound bond formed between him and President Abraham Lincoln, the epitome of honorable leadership. Their friendship was infused with earnest debates over the most pertinent issues of their day. Licncoln’s and Douglass’s beliefs often clashed as their visions for governing, desired pace of reformation, and views for the Union as a whole deeply contrasted. In spite of their glaringly distinct worldviews these cultural icons built their relationship on mutual respect and humility. They were not held captive to convictions, but free to seek understanding through accountability and love.
The practices of Douglas and Lincoln’s friendship needs to be reapplied within the Kings community. There is a clear chasm between communities of color and The King’s College at large, and if we have any hopes for healing, reconciliation, and most importantly growing a community of love we must rehabilitate our strained relations. This is why I am calling for, with many co-supporters, the removal of Ronald Reagan as a namesake to introduce the house namesake of Frederick Douglass. In a similar fashion to how Douglass held Lincoln accountable by offering wise guidance, the House of Douglass will fulfill that role within the King’s College community by exhibiting the values of Douglass. These house values will reflect characteristics of Douglass and his life pursuits that transformed America for the better. Equality. Dignity. Resilience. Grace. There are no four words better fitted for Douglass and no better values King’s needs to be reminded of.
What does a diploma from The King’s College mean to a Black Student? I can only tell you that I am unsure. I hope it will become something I can proudly hang for the world to see, but as of right now, we all have so much work to do before I can.