A Guilty Verdict, a Sigh of Relief

College presidents, student leaders, and scholars welcomed the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin even as they renewed their resolve to stem persistent racial inequities in higher education.

April 21, 2021
 
Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Protesters react to the Derek Chauvin verdict in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

The conclusion of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty on murder and manslaughter charges for the killing of George Floyd, produced a sense of hope and relief among students, faculty members and college leaders across the country.

After a year of anger and outrage, accusations and recrimination, bridge building and bridge burning, calls for accountability and promises of change -- played out mostly remotely and on social media as Americans hunkered down while in the throes of the pandemic -- the verdict Tuesday was largely viewed as a welcome development and a symbol of possibilities for positive change for the country -- and perhaps on American college campuses.

But while many people celebrated what they considered a just outcome, others were more philosophical, noting that the trial represented an important moment and not an all-encompassing milestone. Justice may have prevailed, they said, but much work remains to eradicate entrenched racial inequality in every aspect of American life, including in higher ed.

“You can’t just celebrate what one would deem justice in this particular situation when there is no justice for the Black woman in the political science department with her very racist department chair,” said Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center.

Harper is cautiously optimistic about the racial progress that has occurred in higher education since Floyd’s murder. The painful incident was a catalyst for student activists and faculty members of color who'd long advocated for racial equity on their campuses and pointed out systemic and structural racism. It was eye-opening for many white faculty members and administrators who were blissfully unaware of or dispassionate about the repeated and systemic injustices Black people face. It propelled movements led by Black students and their white and multiracial allies to correct those injustices. College administrators, some openly acknowledging institutionalized racism present since the founding of their institutions, implemented policy changes, new initiatives and resources for Black students and other students of color.

Still, Harper worries about the next act of violence or racism against a Black person, whether by police on a random street, or within an academic department.

“Higher education institutions, like all the other industries, were forced into a long-overdue conversation about these particular forms of racism” after Floyd and Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman in Louisville, Ky., were killed by police, Harper said. “There was something about these two murders and the uprisings that ensued that helped us understand that we need to analyze our policies and curricula through the prism of structural racism.”

Such sentiments were not lost on the numerous college presidents and chancellors across the country, who issued statements voicing their strong support for the verdict but also noting the work left to be done in higher education and society at large.

Harold L. Martin Sr., chancellor of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, pointed to the historically Black university’s “long and storied history of civil rights activism” as a foundation for putting “intellectual resources” toward strategies for more just policing. The institution is the largest HBCU in the country.

“We cannot give in to hopelessness or the idea that such dynamics cannot be changed,” he said in a statement. “We must be about transformative solutions and seizing the opportunity to change the world.”

California State University system chancellor Joseph I. Castro sees his university system playing a critical role in fostering that change.

The nation is “yearning for an inflection point, one that marks a turn toward healing, reconciliation and recovery,” he said in a statement. “The CSU can serve as that inflection point. We lead the nation in driving social mobility for our students, yet there is much more work to do.”

Black student leaders spoke of the toll the last year has taken on their mental health and the heavy demands of campus activism for racial justice. Floyd’s murder motivated and  reinvigorated their movements and required more of their time and energy.

Kendall Vining, president of the Rice University Student Association, who helped organize a major campus fundraiser for Black activist organizations after Floyd’s murder last year, said she felt immense relief after the guilty verdict. After nearly a year of discussing and reliving Floyd’s death and those of other Black people killed by police, Vining said she wants to use the positive outcome of the Chauvin case as an opportunity to pause and take a breath.

“This whole year, I feel like I’ve had to put my traumas out there for others to absorb,” Vining said. “It’s important to highlight the small victories when we get them.”

Vining said discussions of the past year about Black life have been consumed by negativity and talk of violence. Her efforts to make Rice a more racially inclusive campus is ongoing, but she believes students and the Black community at large should take a moment to reflect.

Black scholars also described being relieved that the trial was over.

Miltonette Craig, assistant professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, avoided actively watching the court proceedings because she found revisiting Floyd’s murder traumatic, so news of the guilty verdict felt all the more sudden.

“I feel a little more confident in the justice system,” said Craig, who researches racial disparities in policing. “As a lawyer, I know there’s going to be an appeal, and I hope that doesn’t undo the justice that we had today. My real hope is this is precedent setting... It doesn’t change the lives that are lost, but I have hope for positive interactions between citizens and police hereafter.”

Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University in Washington DC, said the guilty verdict offers the Black community a “little light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s far.”

“A lot of the conversations between students, student activists and school administrators have been from a place of pain,” he said. “Many student activists have accomplished things from a place of pain, but there’s many things that can be accomplished from a place of hope.”

Toldson, who is co-editor of the book, Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope (Teachers College Press), said the outcome of the trial was not only good, but necessary. He was concerned about the level of hopelessness a not-guilty verdict would produce in Black communities and the negative mental health impact it would have on young Black people in particular.

In the days leading up to the end of the trial, several college presidents and counseling centers put out statements offering support for students who might have heightened emotions in response to the outcome. As the administrators braced for student distress, some planned in-person or virtual discussions and debriefing sessions for students to gather and share their reactions.

Even with a guilty verdict, emotions may still run high for students in the aftermath of the trial, said Luis G. Pedraja, president of Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts.

“Unfortunately, the outcome of the trial will not bring solace to everyone in our country,” he said in a statement. “Today is a strong reminder that there is a lot more work to do in order to eradicate and dismantle systemic racism in the United States.”

David K. Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, said throughout the trial his mind was on students at the historically Black university who “have experienced so many deaths of individuals who looked like them.”

In the past, each time a police officer walked free after shooting an unarmed black person, he wondered what a not-guilty verdict signaled to students and "said to them about their own lives.”

Wilson feels justice was served with the conviction of Chauvin, but Wilson also believes the verdict calls for reflection and mourning, not just celebration.

“My thoughts on this day are still of Mr. Floyd lying on the concrete with an officer’s knee on his neck for more than nine minutes pleading for his life,” Wilson said. “The jury found the accused guilty, but we can’t bring back the life of George Floyd, and that’s painful.”

Sharon Mitchell, senior director of student wellness and director of counseling services at the University at Buffalo, said two staff members of the campus counseling center joined students as they watched the verdict live in the student union on the New York campus.

Though students, especially Black students who wanted justice for Floyd, may not need the same level of emotional support for a guilty verdict as they would a not-guilty verdict, it was important for them to see that the university allocated the time, space and support for the emotionally charged moment, Mitchell said. The trial itself took an emotional toll on students, and the university also held and planned for additional listening sessions about racial trauma this week, she said.

“What’s important is to offer something,” Mitchell said. “You don’t want to not provide these opportunities to discuss and come together and then for students to feel like, ‘No one cares and is there for me.’”

She praised college presidents who issued statements voicing support for Black students and the community, and who took stock of this important moment for the racial justice movement. But the guilty verdict is just one piece of a broader fight for racial justice in all American institutions and is only tangentially related to higher education, Mitchell said.

“Higher education is part of a greater ecosystem that has to take a hard look at inclusion, fairness and equality in how we treat people,” she said. “One guilty verdict does not fix everything. There still needs to be a deeper look at how higher education can do better.”

Toldson warned that now is not the time for campus activists to become complacent. They should instead use the momentum of the verdict to hold college leaders accountable for the multitude of promises made last year in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

Kyndavee Bichara, president of the Black Student Athlete Association at Appalachian State University, feels compelled to keep pushing hard for more progress on her campus.

“It’s necessary to acknowledge the steps forward because it can seem very dark sometimes,” said Bichara, who is a leader in BlackAtAppState, an ongoing campaign to improve Black students’ experiences at the university. “But it’s not time to take your foot off the gas.”

She did pause to acknowledge the recent progress led by Black student leaders on her campus, which was in part fueled by the reaction to Floyd’s murder. Student affairs officials are facilitating a debriefing of the verdict, the Appalachian State chancellor addressed the trial and resources for students in a recent campus email, and members of BlackAtAppState met with local police leaders this past weekend, Bichara said.

“They are listening,” she said of college administrators. “That was one of our issues before -- that they were not proactive in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd … The community’s response this go-around is much better.”

A statement from the State University of New York Board of Trustees and Chancellor Jim Malatras promised students “a safe harbor from hate and discrimination” on SUNY campuses, because racial inequity “doesn’t go away with today’s verdict.”

Charles H. F. Davis, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan, noted that even if the verdict comes with a temporary “sense of relief” -- especially for Black students who may have been distracted by the trial as final exams loom -- this should be a moment of “recommitment” to racial justice for higher education leaders and scholars because the country has yet to meet his definition of justice. Davis is the founder and director of Scholars for Black Lives.

“For me, justice is about the preservation of Black life, not efforts of accountability after it’s been taken,” he said. “I don’t want it to be confused that indictment is justice, that a verdict is justice. Justice is about George Floyd still being here.”

In the aftermath of the trial, he wants to see scholars focus their attention on listening to underrepresented communities. He also thinks campus policing needs to be “meaningfully reconsidered” by university leaders.

“This moment perhaps invites an opportunity for us to leave the ivory tower to be in relationship and community with everyday people, those affected by many of the things about which we write and we speak and we present at conferences,” he said. “So often we try to make sense of the broader sociopolitical world without recognizing that we too at these institutions are very much microcosms of that sociopolitical world.”

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