The Rice community has both an urgent responsibility and a strong desire to listen, learn and take necessary actions to address racism and its ugly consequences.

“I can’t breathe.”

These painful words have rocketed across America, and indeed the world, in response to the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It isn’t the first time we have heard these words in this very context. Three and a half years earlier, Eric Garner uttered the same words before he died in New York City. In between, there were many other Black Americans killed in encounters with the police or armed civilians, several of whom I mentioned in my recent letter to the Rice community: Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. 

This issue of Rice Magazine had been largely finished and submitted for publication when the protests spread across the nation and around the globe. In future issues of the magazine, we’ll hear more from voices on our campus and among our alumni and share university plans in response. 

We are now in the midst of three national crises: a global pandemic, a financial and employment crisis that is the worst since the Great Depression, and a protest and reckoning over racial relations and justice in America. 

Universities have a core responsibility in each of these arenas and most especially in the last. In fact, all three of these crises raise issues of inequality and disparate consequences based on race. We have a responsibility both to understand the ways that our own institutions have contributed to racial inequality and how we can do better. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves and others about these painful experiences and questions. We have a responsibility to research the underlying systemic causes of these issues. We have a responsibility to help formulate the actions that will address them. These responsibilities are fundamental to our university mission.

We, and this nation, must begin to do this by speaking out against injustice, listening to our communities (and most immediately the Black members of our communities), reflecting on what we have heard, learning from that process and taking the actions needed. Speaking out in support, listening, reflecting, learning and acting — that is the path we must follow as a university and indeed as a nation.

We will not always agree with each other as we undertake this process. The conversations will be difficult. But if we do not engage wholeheartedly and commit to increasing our shared understanding and then improving our community and our institution, we will not make progress.

Last year, we took some actions that will help in this process. We launched the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice, chaired by professors Alex Byrd and Caleb McDaniel. The Center for African and African American Studies was established under the leadership of Professor Tony Pinn and a new minor was created. And Professor Jenifer Bratter launched BRIDGE — an initiative for Building Research on Inequality and Diversity to Grow Equity. Some 30 professors across the university in a wide range of disciplines identify themselves in some significant way as working on issues relating to race. We will be identifying ways to leverage that faculty engagement, along with our alumni, staff and students who are eager to contribute to the ongoing process of building a better university.

A mural honoring George Floyd in Houston’s Third Ward. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

But there is more listening, learning and action that must be done. Action plans will emerge out of the conversations occurring even as you read this. As I wrote in my letter to the campus:

“There is anger and pain and fear across America, not because these are new things to deal with, but because they aren’t. …

“We must therefore join with our own expressions of concern and sympathy and outrage. We must work to build an inclusive environment, one that respects and values people from different backgrounds. We must take part in efforts to reduce the deadly discrimination and racism that is an unstaunched wound in our national fabric.

“And so I write today to convey on behalf of the Rice community, to all of our community, and most especially to the Black members of our community, that we acknowledge the sorrow and the fear and the pain. And that we know as a university and as individuals we must contribute to healing that wound.”