Reflecting on Today’s Verdict and the Path Forward

Dear AU Community,

Today’s verdict in the Derrick Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd is an important step in the ongoing effort to address systemic racism in our society. While we see accountability in this outcome, there is still so much work to be done.

The murder of George Floyd and the many other acts of violence against Black people and communities of color are horrible reminders that racism still exists in many forms. It harms individuals and communities and damages the fabric of our society in many ways. In particular, racism in the criminal justice system exacts an enormous price, often resulting in the loss of life and undermining the rule of law. And sadly, we know the next racist incident will likely happen before long.

Even with today’s verdict, the tragedies of racism and violence can leave us feeling like we don’t know what to do. It is ok to take time with these difficult situations. The pain and uncertainty cannot and should not be brushed aside. We must create the space to process these events and care for ourselves and one another. At American University, we encourage community members to navigate these situations in ways that support your well-being. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and no expectation that anyone should be “fine” just because this one episode is concluded.

I know I cannot fully understand what Black friends, colleagues, and community members of color endure each time racism upends a city, occurs in a private interaction, or causes a deep personal fear that something terrible could happen to my husband or my children simply because of the color of their skin. Acknowledging that I am shielded from this hurt and fear and do not understand what it feels like is a vital first step.

Here at AU, we cannot flip a switch and undo the previous racist incidents that have ripped communities apart. But what we can do is take action here at home to build the knowledge and leaders to make a difference in a more inclusive world. We are advancing the critical work of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARPC), including hiring a new permanent director and supporting the needed scholarship of ARPC faculty affiliates from across the university. We are enhancing our curricular activities to study these issues and advance our mission. We are conducting training for our teams to better understand bias and improve how we interact with each other. We are working to open Black Affinity Housing in the fall and advance a sense of belonging for the community. We are mobilizing resources to care for our community including counseling services and emotional support. And we know more needs to be done.

We are confronting hundreds of years of systemic racism. We are also a society plagued by endemic violence. Mass shootings in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Boulder, Austin, Orange County, and too many other communities to list in just the last month alone. The all too frequent senseless killing of children, mothers, and fathers. The January 6 insurrection and the recent death of another Capitol Police Officer during an attack at a security checkpoint. While each tragedy has its own circumstances, they combine to represent a hollowing out of our humanity.

As an educational institution, we must pursue our mission in ways that address these crises, whether through creating knowledge, teaching and mentoring of our students, or building community. This means acting from an informed perspective–one that looks critically at what causes racism and violence, what steps can mitigate it, and what participation is required of all of us. It means moving beyond the rhetoric to the reality of the hard work that needs to be done.

There is no easy solution to systemic racism or horrific violence. There is hard work, cooperation, and understanding that yields progress. That’s what we are committed to at American University. It does not erase the pain; it does not make up for hundreds of years of hate and oppression. But it is where we have to start.

Be safe and be well.

Sylvia M. Burwell
President, American University
American University Men’s Basketball Releases United Message against Racism and Social Injustice
Darnell Sutton with Son, Christian
Darnell Sutton with Son, Christian