My comments at commencement for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity

Given the recent messaging from our administration that some student activism has become “uncivil” and “divisive,” I drafted and delivered these comments at graduation today:

“At this point, the director of the undergraduate program is asked to say a few words. Since this is my last year as chair, and since so much has happened this last year, I want to say a bit more than I usually do, but don’t worry, it will not exceed four minutes, I promise.

What has captured our attention since the last graduation?

Ferguson
Gaza

Immigration rights
Gay marriage

Baltimore
McKinney

All difficult, critical issues that exceed disciplines, for issues of race, ethnicity, and gender in the world exceed neat academic categories in their manifestations.

And therefore the remedies to racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and other destructive aspects of our society require unique kinds of research that is more wholistic, and this is exactly appropriate, for we are addressing systemic injustice.

I’ll be a bit more brazen at this point.

Innovation, entrepreneurship, disruption: these are all buzz words here in the Valley and especially at Stanford. But as exciting and useful and sexy and wealth-endowing as they sound, without a strong moral and ethical purpose behind them these words and what they stand for take up a hugely disproportionate amount of our time and energy, and betray a loss of human values and indeed humanity.

Our students, your children, fortunately have not succumbed to that. On the contrary, they are critical, engaged, intellectually brilliant, and ethically inspired. And disruptive in the spirit of all great rights-based activists.

They have gained a lot but many of them have paid a price. For all the injustice they draw our attention to, and all the work they do toward a more positive vision of how we should live together, they have been told they should quiet down, that their actions and speech are disruptive in a socially-unacceptable way. Which is another way of those in power saying that things may not be perfect, but they’re close enough, and hey, we are working on it. They are told they are being “divisive.” To that charge I would ask, “Why should we want to be united in being unjust?”

Our students, your children, don’t accept these accusations of divisiveness. And rather than side with authority, power, and the pursuit of wealth, they side with justice.

Note that I said wealth, and not simply earning a good living. That’s important. Because it was precisely the unbridled, egotistic pursuit of wealth on an obscene scale in the early part of this century that exacerbated the already existing divisions between the very rich and the very poor. Our students, your children and friends, are fighting against all that.

And not only are our students, your children and friends, right in their outrage, compassion, and protest, they are urgently needed for precisely that.

They are living, vital examples of the progressive vision that MLK set out for us, as distinct from what I would call complacent liberalism.

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke explicitly on this issue: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

So I thank you for sharing your children and your friends with us. They have contributed so much to not just our community but to the world outside Stanford as well in bringing about the presence of justice. We draw inspiration and energy from them. Whatever you did in teaching them, supporting them, listening to them, you did exceedingly well.

And thank you, CSRE students, for re-invigorating us and provoking us, and in that way, inspiring us to re-approach our own teaching and research with your insights, and actions, in mind. Your legacy will last a very long time and the students that follow you will benefit as much as we do.”