Skip to main content

President Valerie Smith on Uniting Against Racial Injustice

Parrish Hall

President Valerie Smith shared this message with the campus community on Monday, June 1.

Dear Friends,

I feel compelled to write to you as our nation is — yet again — reeling in the aftermath of the incomprehensible murder of another black person. This time, it is George Floyd; before him, it was Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many others. These names are familiar to many if not most of you. Their tragic deaths provide context for what is happening across the country today.

My emotions during the past several days have run the gamut, from anger, fear, and deep sadness to confusion and despair, all exacerbated by the crises already plaguing our country — the COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic downturn, the abdication of leadership at the highest levels of our government, and the currents of racial, ethnic, and xenophobic hatred and violence that are sweeping the nation. I worry that my black nieces and nephews — some of whom are the same ages as our students — are unsafe every time they leave home. And I ask myself what kind of country we live in when black people’s lives are at risk merely for driving, running, sleeping in their beds, or bird-watching.

During moments of national crisis, we often draw comfort from the idea that we are “all in this together.” But times like this also remind us of the profound inequalities that underlie our society. The public health, economic, and climate crises hit poor, black, and brown communities disproportionately hard, and the persistent problem of racial violence — especially but not exclusively police violence against black people — is as old as the nation itself.

I have found reasons for hope. I’ve watched as people with power and privilege have quite literally put down their weapons and marched with those yearning for change. I also find hope in our community and our collective commitment to Swarthmore’s mission and the contributions we make toward improving our society. Just one week ago, we celebrated the achievements of our graduating seniors, the work of our faculty and staff, and the lifelong love and support of family and friends that brought us to that moment. That ceremony likewise highlighted the values central to a Swarthmore education: intellectual curiosity, scientific reasoning, clarity of expression, empathetic collaboration, and bold creativity.

We stand today with those who are suffering from the threat and the consequences of racial violence, economic despair, disease, and death. Inspired by our values and ideals, we must dedicate ourselves to fighting for justice; to caring for those who are sick, hungry, or hurting in mind or spirit; and to repairing our broken world. 

For some, this dedicated action will mean advocating as citizens or public servants for racial equity, economic opportunity, and climate justice. For others, it will mean making art that emancipates the mind and spirit or conducting research that mitigates disparities; for still others, it will mean engaging in acts of loving kindness. I hope for all of us, it will mean exercising our civic duty in this presidential election year, when our right to vote may well be at risk, and making sure each of our voices counts. It is abundantly clear — perhaps now more than any time in recent history — that leadership matters.

However you choose to act in the face of these crises and injustices, I encourage you to do so with vigor and empathy, with great care for those who are most vulnerable, and with the values that bind the Swarthmore community in our unyielding commitment to social justice and serving the common good.

Be safe and be well, 

Val Smith