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Exploring Systemic Racism


“The motto immortalized on the Hamilton seal is ‘Know Thyself,’” said Todd Franklin, professor of philosophy, at a virtual panel discussion on June 17 about the history and implications of systemic racism. “Part of knowing thyself, however, is knowing how you are situated. Now is the time to really make a concerted effort to know yourself in relation to race and the context of our nation’s racial situation.”

More than 180 members of the Hamilton community gathered on Zoom to listen, reflect, and explore systemic racism as it exists at Hamilton and in larger communities beyond College Hill. In addition to Franklin, panel members included government professors Gbemende Johnson and Phil Klinkner.

The event addressed the prior weeks of unrest over racial injustice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and many others at the hands of police. Professors Franklin, Johnson, and Klinkner spoke about the lasting societal and political impacts that recent protests will have, sharing optimistic yet pragmatic views of the road ahead.

“While Breonna was shot by individuals, there are still institutional structures in place that play a role in the repeated occurrence of these tragedies that disproportionally affect African American communities,” Johnson said, citing the no-knock warrant policy involved in Taylor’s slaying among larger issues faced by America’s Black population.  

Generated by audience questions, the discussion touched on topics including types of racism, racist institutions and historical context, and necessary actions to make Hamilton and other communities actively anti-racist.

“You hear people say all the time: ‘I’m colorblind, I’m not racist.’ I would just point out that historically, some of the worst forms of racial discrimination were formally colorblind,” Klinkner explained. He pointed to the separate-but-equal doctrine, poll taxes, and federal mortgage assistance as formally colorblind measures that systemically disadvantaged Black Americans. “The question that people need to ask is: How can I act to reduce the inequalities that exist in the world? We have to go beyond just looking for an easy solution of formal colorblindness or neutrality when it comes to race.”

The panelists discussed the need for “decolonizing” curricula by incorporating more diverse backgrounds and perspectives into class materials with the ultimate goal of reading and assigning materials that question the way knowledge itself is shared, shaped, and acted upon.

 “Many people of color on campus have been at this issue for many years,” said Andres Henriquez ’83 P’15. “I want to know what words of wisdom or guidance you have for alumni of color who really are very committed to Hamilton College, but are tired of being tired.”

“I’m tired of being tired. I know you are, and I know why you are. We are tired,” Franklin responded. “We’re in this together. What renews the spirit and what drives the commitment is the thought of those who are with us, who are coming along behind us, and for whom we must continue to struggle along with so as to make times better.”

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