Teaching while black

11/29/2018, 6 a.m.
We have read with disgust report after report from around the nation of incidents of white people calling the cops ...

We have read with disgust report after report from around the nation of incidents of white people calling the cops on African-Americans who are engaged in nothing more than the normal activities of daily living — barbecuing while black, going to the pool while black, waiting at Starbucks while black, going into your apartment building while black, vacationing at an airbnb while black, selling Girl Scout cookies while black and campaigning for public office while black.

The racism and hubris of white people who falsely believe they have authority and power over public spaces and who has the right to occupy those spaces becomes like an invisible dragnet waiting to ensnare an unsuspecting person of color. 

So we were both astounded and disappointed by reports that Caitlin Cherry, an African-American artist and visiting professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, suffered the same ugly treatment at the hands of a colleague in the university’s School of the Arts.

The Chicago-born Ms. Cherry, who holds undergraduate and graduate fine arts degrees from the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University, has exhibited in galleries around the country, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, and in the United Kingdom. She also has completed a residency at The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Fla. She was asked to come to VCU to teach graduate students and help bolster their work in the painting and printmaking program.

But on Oct. 25, Ms. Cherry experienced irrational bigotry and unfairness while eating breakfast and checking her emails in the Fine Arts Building. She was in a room dedicated for the use of professors, grad students and administrators that can be accessed only by a code when, according to reports, Javier Tapia, an associate professor in the painting and printmaking department, walked in. She stated that he did not respond when she greeted him, and he looked at her and left. Moments later, VCU campus security arrived and asked her for her ID to prove she belonged there.

According to reports, Ms. Cherry complained to the department chair and the dean, who apologized and said he would look into what happened. Since then, the matter has been turned over to VCU Equity and Access Services, which still has the case.

Dozens of letters and emails have been sent to university administrators in support of Ms. Cherry. Some call for the firing of Mr. Tapia, a Peruvian-born artist who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Texas. He has been at VCU for the last 29 years.

While Mr. Tapia has made no public comments, a simple apology would be a good start.

This is not the kind of behavior we expect to emanate from VCU, an urban university of more than 33,000 students, where African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and other people of color are in the majority among students from the United States.

Nor is it the kind of behavior that would help attract or retain talented professors of color like Ms. Cherry. Instead, this type of insidious behavior can lead to more dangerous events that involve bodily harm, not to mention lawsuits.

This should be a wake-up call for VCU President Michael Rao and university officials who talk the talk about being “committed to the principle of cultural equality and empowering a just, inclusive and equitable community.” Unfortunately, while there may be some truth to that in terms of its student population, VCU is decades behind when it comes to its faculty.

The number of tenured professors of color and of those on a tenure track are so abysmally low at VCU that students staged a protest and sit-in at the president’s office in fall 2015 to demand that the number of African-American professors be doubled. At that time, 15 percent of VCU students were African-American, while only 5 percent of the full-time faculty was African-American.

And last spring, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder accused the dean of VCU’s Wilder School of  Government and Public Affairs of racial harassment. A new interim dean, Dr. Susan Gooden, who is African-American, was named in May. 

We cannot, however, lay all the blame to the low numbers of professors of color at VCU. The problem is hiring people who are so infused in the culture of racism that they make abhorrent assumptions when they walk in on an African-American visiting professor and call campus security.

Living while black and having the cops show up because a white person believes you are not entitled to be there happens too often in too many places across the nation to too many people of all ages for it to be ignored or tolerated. This is not what we want at VCU. This is not what we want in Richmond.

As VCU launches a commemoration of its 50th anniversary as a university created from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and the Richmond Professional Institute, we must not omit or ignore the legacy of state-supported racism that enshrouds both institutions. Both predecessor institutions barred black students from admission for decades until 1951, when the first graduate students were admitted.

While MCV had a medical school and nursing school dating back to 1893, it started a separate St. Philip’s School of Nursing to train African-American women as nurses rather than admit them to the nursing program. The nursing school finally was integrated in 1962 when the St. Philip’s program was closed.

MCV’s first black medical student, the late Jean L. Harris, graduated in 1955. Dr. Harris, the daughter of the late noted Church Hill physician Dr. Vernon J. Harris and the sister-in-law of former state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, went on to become the Virginia secretary of human resources in the late 1970s in former Gov. John Dalton’s administration, a health policy adviser to five U.S. presidents and mayor of Eden Prairie, Minn.

This is not ancient history. Many Richmonders still alive today can talk about their painful racial experiences with the university.

While that is VCU’s past, it need not — and must not — be its present or its future.

The university is a cornerstone of Richmond. It helps to set the values of the city, and its faculty, administrators and students lead the thought, creativity and spirit that become the fabric and agenda of the city. And we, as a city and a community, need that spirit to be broad-minded, inclusive and embracing of others as VCU enters its next 50 years.