Remarks Delivered at the Whatcom Human Rights Taskforce 19th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Conference

I want to thank the conference committee of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force for inviting me to speak with you today. It’s a privilege. The work that the Task Force does, and that all of you do as educators, advocates, and agents of change has never been more important.

This is an especially significant day of remembrance for the life and legacy of Dr. King, the first after the 2016 election. Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of equality, justice, humanity and social change is especially meaningful this year as we recommit to the process of healing and bringing together our communities.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I want to speak about today. When I accepted the conference committee’s invitation, I did so somewhat reluctantly. While I am in awe of individuals like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and how their work and perseverance changed the course of history, the same admiration gives me pause about my qualifications to speak at an event like this. I don’t consider myself a motivational speaker. And, I am not a teacher and scholar of history or social change to give a talk from that perspective. Nevertheless, I finally stopped worrying about stringing together an integrative presentation. What I am sharing with you are some reflections and experiences over the past few months.

I also did not realize when I agreed to this commitment that the 2016 election would turn out as it did, an election in which outrageous statements about people of color, immigrants, and other minority groups, were tolerated in the mainstream press, and normalized as part of the public discourse in ways we haven’t seen in decades. The heated and divisive political discourse surrounding the U.S. political election contributed to the already tense environment in the nation. It resulted in resurfacing of intolerance in American public life, sowing fear, doubt, suspicion and despair not only within our communities and neighborhoods, but towards our public institutions as well.

At the same time, it appears that people have increasingly insulated themselves from viewpoints, information, and ideas that they don’t like or don’t agree with. It is easier to construct a picture of another group of people independent of any reality and certainly without any personal interaction with members of that community. The toxic mix of certainty about someone else according to stereotypes, without knowing anything about that individual’s life experience, is unhealthy.

New communication technologies have made it easier to express opinions and prejudices that would once have been considered embarrassing with relative anonymity, impersonally, and to a large audience. While these prejudices have always been around, in the past they were driven “underground” because most people could not work up the nerve to be so nasty to someone’s face. And rightly so. As we have grown accustomed to more impersonal and anonymous modes of communication, we have unfortunately become more tolerant of dehumanizing rhetoric. And the power of repetition breaks down taboo, outrage, and standards of civil conduct even further; the kind of talk that was once heard only from the fringes or the anonymous shadows of social media have become talking points for those willing to show their faces and names in the mainstream media.

And it is not just the elections. Over the past few years, we have been experiencing a period of abusive police and civilian action that have taken the lives of people of color and, at times, has resulted in a backlash against legitimate forms of authority, especially law enforcement officers.

As a country we are as divided as we have ever been since I came to the U.S. in 1978, insulated in our own information bubbles and increasingly willing to engage in overheated and irresponsible rhetoric without considering the impact on actual human beings. As a nation of nearly 320 million people, we can talk about statistics regarding trends, averages, and large number of people. But it is only at the level of individual human beings that we can grapple with what Dr. King called the “eternal dignity and worth” of persons. I believe that at least part of the long hard road out of our current predicament involves dwelling in this individual yet shared humanity, and listening to these stories of individual people.

Several undocumented students at Western have shared accounts of their personal journeys that deeply resonated with me. They are just a few of the many more of such stories, and I’m sure that many of you could add to them.

Many of them arrived here as small children, believing they were making a temporary visit to a parent or other relative who had been sending money home.  They didn’t know that they were leaving everything behind and staying for good until they were already here.

Parents, out of love for their children and hope for their futures, left everything behind so they could get a better job or education and improve their lives.

Some came from relatively well-to-do middle class families that simply sought more security than was available in their home countries.

Many didn’t speak English when they arrived, which made their sense of alienation from peers in school or their neighborhood all the more intense. 

They talked about the fact that undocumented workers pay taxes, but don’t qualify for welfare and will never receive anything from the Social Security system they are paying into like everyone else.

Last term, I also had an opportunity to read stories from a number of diverse Western students, stories put together by Western’s Journalism Professor Maria McLeod.

I learned about a black student expressing his frustration that he had no one to talk to about the shooting and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and how hard it has been on him to be the only black person in his classes, feeling expected to speak on behalf of black people everywhere, yet uncertain how speaking his truth would be received.

I read about a U.S. born Muslim student imploring people to understand that she and other Muslims are their neighbors, doctors, farmers, teachers, students, like all other people.

I read about a student who grew up on the Lummi reservation, continuously doubting whether he really belongs in college, and how he will get the support he needs to be successful in school.

And, I learned about a student coming to terms with their gender identity and expression, navigating insensitive cultural attitudes towards those who identify as transgender, non-binary and/or gender queer.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the communication I have received from several students with more conservative political or social viewpoints about how uncomfortable and insecure they feel among their colleagues and professors in several of their classes—fearful of being outnumbered, not feeling welcome, having their perspectives summarily dismissed in classroom discussions or peer conversations.

The presidential race brought into the open the depth of disagreements and divisions based on race, ethnicity, nationalism, religion, and income inequality. But this is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon, and one doesn’t have to look deep into the international news to see similar forces at play in other countries. We see them in the increased popularity of parties like the UK Independence Party (which led the Brexit movement), France’s National Front, Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and Austria’s Freedom Party. Nor is this recent trend limited to developed countries, as is witnessed by rise of extremism in the Middle East and extreme views in parties like the BJP in India. A recent report by the United Nations estimates that in 2015, over 65 million people were displaced by war, civic strife, poverty, and environmental devastation, more than the population of Britain and more than at any time since 1945 (New York Times, December 11, 2016). Were he alive today, I think that Dr. King would consider this the humanitarian crisis of our day.

Over the holiday break I spent a couple of weeks in Pakistan. We changed flights in Dubai, which, as you know, is the business hub of the Middle East and has been called the crane capital of the world, home to almost 25 percent of world’s construction cranes. Walking through the airport, I marveled at the affluence and at the people from all over the world busy purchasing gold jewelry, designer merchandise, technology gadgets, and much more. Yet, I wondered how many of them realized that few hundred miles east in Yemen or a few hundred miles northeast in Iraq and Syria, we have total chaos in the making.

One of the more shocking experiences I had on a previous visit to the United Arab Emirates when I spent some time in Dubai and Qatar was seeing buses, with metal bars on windows, transporting construction workers, mostly from south Asia, from their living quarters (to which they are assigned and confined by authorities) to construction sites—just like transporting convicts to prisons. Those workers had no access to their passports—no mobility or other human rights we expect for individuals in the west.

I had gone to Pakistan, at least in part, to make sense of the loss of a parent, my father who passed away last year. His life was shaped by the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, which resulted in one of the largest and bloodiest migrations in human history. He lived through it; he witnessed massacre, arson and violence; his stories were harrowing. And while he made it from Delhi to Lahore in September 1947, he never got over the 1947 trauma; the result was a lifetime of struggle in search for a sense of place and identity.

It is ironic that today Pakistan is trying to evict hundreds of thousands of Afghan immigrants, some of whom have lived in Pakistan for many years and contributed to the country in many ways. And in this case, there isn’t even a difference of religion as in the subcontinent division! This is just another reflection of anxieties about national security and economic security and how fine grained the rising ethno-nationalism can be.

It is easy to get discouraged and depressed. But what gives me hope and optimism is Dr. King’s message that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

On July 15, 1965, Dr. King made a speech at Syracuse University. At the start of his speech, he quoted what he called a “provocative” statement from President Lyndon B. Johnson made about a month prior: “We are not going to stop until every child in this great and beautiful land of ours can have all the education of the highest quality, which his or her ambition demands and his or her mind can absorb.” Dr. King followed this quote by saying that the White House conference to be held the following week on the topic will do no more than make recommendations and issue statements. His call in his speech was that “we must move without delay from words to deeds” to fulfill this “worthy” objective.

I don’t purport to know what Dr. King would do or recommend to us if he were alive today.  But I do think part of the way forward requires bridging the impersonalizing, divisive and isolating forces at work in contemporary life.  We must reach out to engage, listen, empathize, and acknowledge the humanity of others; we must be relentlessly personal in revealing the consequences that words and deeds have for real people’s lives.  

Our healing efforts must be community-based and must be expansive and inclusive. The easy response to acts of discrimination is to attribute the behavior entirely to ignorance or malice and then relegate those who commit such acts to groups that are thereafter unreachable and nothing but adversaries in the quest for justice. In many cases this a missed opportunity to understand the more complex human experiences that led to that act.  

Such thinking also stands in the way of building the coalitions and bridges between different groups of people that any significant, broad, and lasting social change requires.  If we are going to make a difference, the healing process must engage all groups within communities. Dialogue is a two-way street and requires that we suspend our judgment and listen to others, as much as we expect them to do it for us. We must strive to understand the different values, perspectives and experiences in a respectful and supportive environment. And the environment must have the capacity to challenge some of those narratives, yet deal with tensions that are bound to arise when exploring and sharing different and conflicting perspectives.

Perhaps there needs to be a recognition here that this doesn’t mean that we must be endlessly tolerant of intolerance. A commitment to listening and dialogue doesn’t mean that all viewpoints are equal in terms of truth, evidential support or the standpoints of privilege and power from which they are expressed. And we certainly must not tolerate harassment or discrimination, against anyone – that is not “protected speech” in any sense.

Most importantly, diversity, equity and inclusion must begin at home, at a personal level. This starts with each of us examining our mental models and the implicit biases that influence our own judgements and choices. My recent travels abroad reminded me that all of us have blind spots of some sort, all of us have some kind of privilege that we are often unconscious of. I have been part of several listening sessions following student protests as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. What I heard from students was not so much that they were subject to overt discrimination, though there was some of that too, but rather acts of micro-aggression in classrooms and conversational settings by well-meaning individuals. Decisions are made one action at a time—in our offices, classrooms, hires, promotions—actions that when put together are more consequential than they appear to be one action at a time.  Actions which, over time, shape our habits and our character, and that of our institutions as well.

I will conclude with a few comments about action in the education area. Talking about “genuine equality”, Dr. King said, “it is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.” Our goal for genuine equality in education is both incomplete and urgent.

I think you have all seen the story in The Seattle Times from January 7th, where in an annual survey of the nation’s public education systems, Washington ranked second to last when it came to narrowing the gap in performance between low and high income students. Even though the state ranked 13th in overall K-12 achievement.

The national statistics for higher education performance on this achievement gap metric are equally sobering. Between 1970 and 2010, bachelor’s degree attainment rates for students from families with income in the top quartile nearly doubled from 40% to about 78%. In contrast, degree attainment for students from the bottom family income quartile has remained essentially constant at about 9%. No progress in the last 40 years. We are going to see increasing numbers of students attending our universities from the bottom family income quartiles, which also are more ethnically and racially diverse. In today’s knowledge economy, the consequences of not having any post-secondary degree are significant, as reflected in gaps in income, household wealth, poverty rates, dependency on government assistance programs, and even health and longevity outcomes, between the haves and have-nots.  The consequences for the economic, political, and social vitality of our country are just as important.

Those of us in the education community have our job cut out for us: to advance inclusive excellence. Certainly, this is area where we have the power to make a difference; where we can “move without delay from words to deeds,” as Dr. King said. We can commit to reaching and including more of the underrepresented and first generation students in the State of Washington in our academic programs and learning communities. And we can commit to increasing student success, including drastically reducing achievement gaps for students from diverse and under-represented socio-economic backgrounds.

We are gathered here today to honor Dr. King and his legacy. Let us truly honor Dr. King by committing ourselves to advancing genuine equality and opportunity in our circles of influence. For me, that circle of influence is education. I believe that an educated population is more tolerant, more fulfilled, more capable of having the uncomfortable and difficult conversations to better understand the experiences of being different and of building sustainable communities. Only if we can build our homes, communities, and our campuses as places of respect, truth and humanity, can we extend that work to our nation and the world of all people, for all people.

Thank you.