Fred Kowal: Skin Deep

Sep 10, 2015

There’s this great song written by blues legend Buddy Guy called “Skin Deep.” He sings how people are much more than what they appear to be and that despite our differences, underneath we’re all the same.

Though the song was recorded in 2008, it has particular relevance in this troubled year. It was just over two months ago—June 17 to be exact— that the nation was transfixed by the horrendous event that occurred at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Nine African American worshippers taking part in a Bible study class that evening were brutally murdered by Dylann Roof, a young white man the group had graciously invited to join them after entering the church with a loaded handgun.

The attack shined a glaring light on the great racial divide in America—on racial injustice, bias and hate, and on the violence that goes on day in and day out in African American, Hispanic and Native American communities.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, African Americans are four times more likely to be murdered than the national average; 82 percent of victims were killed with a gun. The murder rate for Hispanics is twice that for whites; guns were used to kill more than two-thirds of those victims.

Native American children living on tribal land deal with violence, abuse and neglect on a daily basis; they experience post-traumatic stress disorder at about the same rate as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Indian Law and Order Commission. Suicide rates among young Native American adults are more than double the national average. Research has documented that this violence is a direct result of the long history of genocide perpetrated against native people in the Western world.        

President Obama, in his eloquent eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina senator, talked about violence, racial injustice and hatred as he urged the nation not to “slip into a comfortable silence” and go back to the way things were once the television crews packed up and left Charleston. 

Yet, it seems like that’s what’s happened.

As summer comes to a close, the heated debates over banning the Confederate flag have quieted. The rapid pace of the media’s news cycle has shifted coverage away from the important issues of race relations.

Yet, the hard work of creating lasting change lies before us. As a society, we’ve come to a crucial crossroads. While none of us alive today who are white bears the responsibility for creating America’s racial divide, we are responsible for racism’s continued impact on the lives of people of color. We must take on the difficult work of bringing about its end.

And there are few places better situated to help make this happen than institutions of higher learning.

Tens of thousands of students in all shapes, sizes, colors and cultural backgrounds are back in class at more than 60 SUNY campuses across New York. The opportunity to do the heavy lifting that will result in true, long-lasting change—is here.

It’s a challenge for everyone at SUNY, from its leaders to its academic and professional staff, to view the University in this way. There has been far too much emphasis recently on pushing colleges to become job factories and relying on universities as economic engines to spur the economy. SUNY can and should be a catalyst for positive change.

I have had the great fortune to teach at SUNY for nearly 30 years. On the first day of class, I always told my students that what we were embarking upon was a journey toward wisdom. I continue to believe that higher education’s primary goal has been—and must continue to be—to shape generations of students dedicated to the principles of equality and justice for all. We can—and must—be the wise architects of a better America.

As educators, it’s up to us: It is time to reclaim the role of being agents for social change. It is our responsibility to educate our students to be world citizens who reject racism and work to end it.

To echo Buddy Guy, our public universities must reclaim a mission that is more than just “skin deep.” They must create a deep, lasting impact in the building of wise citizens of the world, and—in turn—a better world. 

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.  

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