After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, people across the country and around the world have been speaking out against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
That’s no different right on our own campus.
Members of the Lehigh community have responded by pushing back on an email sent by President John Simon and Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Clayton, and student organizations of all kinds have launched a new wave of activism around the issue of racial justice.
Initial backlash to Simon’s response to the killing of Floyd arose when he posted a scenic photo of a morning walk he took on campus on his Instagram account on May 31, writing it was “a beautiful morning in Bethlehem.” This came a day after a protest in Bethlehem over Floyd’s murder and hours before Simon’s official condemnation of hatred and bigotry was sent to the campus community.
About 70 comments — including those from Anique Groce, ‘21, Lisa Do, ‘20 ‘22G, Gabriela Montes, ‘20 ‘21G, Arianna Pineiro, ‘20 and Raphael Keele, ‘22 — can be seen on Simon’s post expressing concerns with his lack of a response to Floyd’s killing at the time.
Simon’s email came hours after his post on May 31.
“The recent tragic events in Minneapolis around the death of George Floyd, as well as other incidents of violence inflicted upon African Americans in our country, have shocked the nation and deeply affected all of us,” Simon said in the email.
But for some Lehigh members, the email was far from satisfactory.
Groce felt that Simon’s statement was only given after student’s expressed their dismay on his Instagram page, and did not offer any actionable plans or solutions to improve racism on Lehigh’s campus.
“The fact that (Simon) was saying to make sure we uphold the values at Lehigh, when being a student at Lehigh for three years, I’ve witnessed myself, things I’ve dealt with first hand, and being apart of the community, we’ve had a lot of racist issues, whether that be microaggressions in the classroom, or huge instances that make the national news,” Groce said.
When Groce shared her dismay with Simon’s response on her personal Instagram, she said she was contacted by friends from other universities who shared that their schools had already addressed the issue. A friend of Groce who attends Indiana University of Pennsylvania said her university president had sent out a personal video discussing the events surrounding Floyd’s murder. Another friend who attends the University of Pittsburgh told Groce her school also had already spoken to the campus community as well.
“Issues aren’t addressed in a way that makes students feel comfortable at the school and I feel like a lot of people, minorities, people of color at the school, we just feel the school is always looking for times to take pictures of us at events, when we come out and show support, and they’re comfortable with using us for marketing campaigns and brochures and things like that, but when something as huge as this Black Lives Matter movement is happening, and it’s taking over every single news source, it’s kind of like you can’t escape it,” Groce said. “I don’t think (the email) helped at all.”
Do said she was upset that the email did not include the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and thinks the university needs to take a bigger stance than just respecting each other. She cited her disappointment with Lehigh’s response when the Umoja House was vandalized in 2013 and said the school needs to explain how they “expect to keep black students safe.”
Do said she would like to see Lehigh donate money to funds that support the Black Lives Matter movement, encourage their alumni to donate and find more actionable ways to stand with black students.
“At this point we really have to ask if they even care at all, and if they do care, is it performative or is it not,” Do said.
After receiving Simon’s first statement, Montes said she felt the university’s statement was vague and could have been talking about anything, due to the lack of inclusion of names.
The Brown and White reached out to the Lehigh Black Student Union (BSU) for a statement. They asked us to circulate their official statement on their Instagram page in lieu of an interview.
“Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, George Floyd and David McActee are a few among the thousands of Black people that have been murdered by the hands of racism…We are NOT taking it anymore!” the statement read.
“We must continue to disparage those who promote racism and police brutality in our country. We must also call out the idle individuals who have become complacent in a time where their voice is paramount. With the nation reaching voting season, it is critical that each of us utilize the opportunity to manifest changes in our society through political action… BSU hopes that the administration will not only re-evaluate their current response but also their past inactions,” BSU said in its statement… “Lastly, we are currently taking steps with other black and POC organizations on campus to better the experience of black students at Lehigh.”
Pineiro attended the protest in North Bethlehem on May 30 and was on campus the day that Simon posted on Instagram.
In her comment on Instagram, Pineiro — a student of color and a member of Greek life — noted the disparities in the university’s reaction to student issues.
“When Greek life was suspended, we got almost an immediate response through email,” Pineiro said. “In the past few years, particularly with the incidents at the first-gen house and Umoja House and now this, the university hasn’t really made enough of a response.”
Pineiro, too, felt Simon had released the first statement only because of the comments that many students had made on his Instagram post.
“I don’t think that measured PR emails are enough, ever,” Pineiro said. “I think that it needs to be followed up with actual action, actual donations and actual support.”
Several other students, including Keele, noted the language used in the first email was incorrect. Framing the discussion around “African Americans” excludes black students from African countries and those with Caribbean ancestry. Montes also said using the term “African Americans” showed that the university isn’t using the necessary terminology when talking about these issues.
Keele grew concerned when the university did not speak out at first.
“It upset me because this is not the first time that black students have demanded change on campus,” Keele said.
Among the faculty members who have spoken out about Floyd’s murder include Sirry Alang, an associate professor in the sociology and health, medicine and society departments. Alang contributed her voice to articles on university responses to Floyd’s murder and police brutality and has been vocal on social media.
“I have many different feelings but the most significant one I have is that what is happening is not new,” Alang said. “People are angry and people are enraged and this is what black people feel every day.”
Alang said she felt the university’s initial statement was recycled and wishes to see action from the president and the Board of Trustees in taking steps toward uprooting structural racism on campus. She said it’s important the university administration says “Black Lives Matter” and wants more effort dedicated to critical race and ethnic studies.
Fully funding critical race and ethnic studies was just one of a handful of demands made in an anonymous open letter to Simon and Clayton. The letter, dated June 2, expressed disappointment with Lehigh’s response to Floyd’s killing. As of 5 p.m. on June 3, the letter had received 2,385 signatures by students, staff, faculty and alumni.
“Without those plans [the demands included in the letter], your statements are part of the problem — not any kind of solution,” the letter said.
Alang reflected back on an email Simon sent the university following white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, which reaffirmed Lehigh’s values.
“Between the response that was sent out during Charlottesville and now, what can we say has objectively changed on campus?” Alang said. “That is the question that I would like all of us to answer, as faculty and as staff and students. Especially the administration and the Board of Trustees.”
Just a day after the circulation of the open letter, Simon and Clayton responded on June 3 with another email acknowledging the letter and the concerns of the Lehigh community.
The email laid out several steps the university will take to ensure its policies and procedures are “anti-racist,” including launching an independent review of the Lehigh University Police Department and an assessment of Lehigh’s joint efforts with the Bethlehem Police Department to ensure these departments are operating in an anti-racist manner.
Keele, however, voiced his skepticism to the response.
“I am not personally optimistic about the second letter from Simon and Clayton because most students do not know that Lehigh often disregards racial tensions,” Keele said. “So I just want people to see that message and that this is the beginning of the fight.”