Dear Members of the MSM Community,
There have been times in the past when I have felt it necessary to write to the MSM Community following incidents occurring in New York City (terrorist attacks in Chelsea and on the Westside Highway in 2016 and 2017) and elsewhere in the country (terrorist attacks in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas), and MSM. Unfortunately, I am once again moved to reach out to you, this time in response to events unfolding on the national stage.
We are in the middle of a pandemic that is occupying the minds of most Americans, and the last subject I expected to have to address during this public health crisis is yet another egregious demonstration of this country’s endemic racism. “Isms” and “phobias” of all types – sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ageism, heterosexism/homophobia, ableism, etc. – not only cultivate an unlevel playing field for both personal and professional success but are horrible agents of harm. Collectively, these prejudices hold back people from being their full and best selves; they are fueled by irrational fear and hatred of “the other;” and they are perpetuated to keep people “in their place.” They frequently lead to violence and, as we’ve seen so often, death. However, here in America and beyond, it is one ‘ism’ – racism – that is one of the most pervasive and dangerous form of hatred and a powerful and persistent tool of systemic oppression.
This month alone we saw in four parts of America, four different scenes of racism played out in front of all of us. First, it took two long months, even after clear footage of the out-and-out brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was jogging in Georgia in February, for the government to step up and begin prosecution of two white men. This week on Memorial Day, Christian Cooper, an African American man who was bird watching in Central Park, was verbally assaulted by a woman who, when asked to put her dog on a leash, threatened Mr. Cooper: “I’m going to tell them [the police] there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Stunningly, she did just that. The gentleman, thank goodness, video-recorded the entire incident. And on the same day in Minneapolis, video footage revealed George Floyd, another African American man, unarmed and handcuffed, pleading that he couldn’t breathe, being killed while pinned down by a policeman’s knee on his neck. Finally, the FBI has now begun an investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, an African American woman gunned down in her home in March after police who were searching for someone else came to the wrong address.
And so I am compelled to write to our Community today because of the stark intersection of these four horrifying incidents in just one week.
Of course, we all know that these events are not isolated; another apparent profiling took place in Midland, Texas this week as well. We also know that there are countless incidents of less-violent/non-violent, deep-seated conscious and unconscious acts rooted in racism. For the past 25-plus years, messages from two of my heroes have hung in my various offices. Two are from the singular African American leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other is from Harvey Milk, the great civil rights leaders of the early LGBTQ movement. Both were assassinated (1968 and 1978, respectively) by people whose hatred drove them to do the worst. Both people were great leaders of their communities, but they also deeply understood the intersectionality of hatred and isms, that where one exists, so do others.
Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
I can’t forget the look on the faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I use the word “I” because I’m proud. I stand here tonight in front of gay sisters, brothers, and friends because I’m proud of you.
The greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed, but the vast majority who’ve sat idly by.
These messages inspire and remind me to be my best on my life’s journey. Of course, I fail regularly, but I also do the right thing regularly, and I urge all of us to try to do the right thing, to not be a part of the vast majority who sits “idly by.” It is my hope that whether or not you are a member of the African American community, you choose to take some action to show your solidarity. Actions like writing your elected officials, taking time to educate yourself on the history of these troubling and systemic racial issues, calling to check on your friends of color, or, as we hope you always do, creating music that heals individuals and breaks down the divisions that keep us all from being our best.
In times like these, I am reminded of MSM’s Mission: “preparing our students to be…effective contributors to the arts and society.” Let us live this motto to the fullest in every way.
Finally, as many of you know, last year we launched our Cultural Inclusion Initiative, created to help our Community lean into challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Our Chief of Staff, Alexa Smith, who leads the initiative, has been working with departments throughout the School to create resources for students, faculty, and staff, and to work to maintain a welcoming environment for all who walk through our doors. All of us carry some isms with us – we are human and flawed. So, I hope you will take part in as many of MSM’s DEI initiatives as you can and that we all continue to push ourselves into perhaps uncomfortable places so that we can grow, change, and become better together.
Should you need help with resources or questions during these difficult times, I invite you to email Alexa at ASmith@msmnyc.edu and, of course, please feel free to email me as well.
President Manhattan School of Music