'The immeasurable distance between us': Reflections on a legacy of promising without practicing
“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
“What, to the slave, is the fourth of July?”
July 5th, 1852
We call upon you as engineering administrators, faculty and community members on this day of remembrance and reflection to recall the whole story. Just two weeks after this nation spent time commemorating the tardy proclamation of emancipation for enslaved Black Americans, we must sit with the tension of a nation celebrating its own independence, made possible by the subjugation of our ancestors. We write to address an overt parallel of conduct within the engineering ecosystem. We draw upon Frederick Douglass’ (1852) words with intention to declare that while chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation no longer operate by their historic faces, the essence of these social systems remain. Where Douglass condemns the nation’s false promises of liberty throughout its history and into its future, which we can testify remains true; we condemn visions of a racially equitable engineering by way of proposed blueprints for impact absent of intentional consideration of the murdered spirits and dreams of all those impacted by the whitewashing of engineering knowledge and practice.
Our subject, for the sake of brevity and specificity, is the American Society for Engineering Education Diversity Recognition Program (ADRP). Just a few days removed from ASEE’s Annual Conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a mere 3.5 miles from where Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, this program is prominent on our minds as a demonstration of flawed understanding and breeding grounds for future promises unfulfilled. We see parallels between the unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Emancipation Proclamation (1862), the Morrill Land-Grant Acts (1862, 1890), the National Science Foundation Annual Report (1972), and the ASEE Deans Diversity Pledge (2017). Fellow colleagues, above your national, tumultuous joy for the promise of institutional and organizational commitments, we hear the mournful wail of the preyed upon, overlooked, marginalized and oppressed, whose metaphoric chains are rendered more intolerable by the shouts of jubilant progress that reach them. To forget them, to pass lightly over their abuses, and to chime in with the popular theme–praise, celebration and complicit acceptance of the perpetuated institutional evils–would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make us a reproach before God and the world. To have celebrated the Year of Impact on Racial Equity in Minneapolis in 2022, just seven years after the Year of Action on Diversity, having no data to justify that either has been actualized and with no true and actionable commitment to the transformation of infrastructure necessary for impact underpins the duplicity of entities establishing the community standards for which we all idealize and aspire.
Must we argue the wrongfulness of an institutional recognition program that honors institutions for promising plans that have no direct transferability or insight into the lived experiences of those from racially excluded groups navigating those environments? Not to mention the omission of any real reckoning with the history of chattel slavery these institutions benefitted from, the degradation of their earliest Black enrollees, and the continued culture of anti-Blackness that has become so normalized into the moral fabric that even Black students embrace it to their own detriment. Nope. We refuse. As engineers, we choose to be efficient with our exerted energies.
Fellow colleagues, we have learned from Frederick Douglass, freedom ain’t free. The “rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by [us]” (Douglass, 1852). So we, on this day, embrace our duty to fight for our intellectual freedom (Shakur, 1973). We insist the epistemic chains suppressing Blackness in academic and professional spaces and wreaking harm in Black communities under the guise of technological advancement, must be broken. We will labor to disentangle that which is truly engineering from that which is intended to maintain a white supremacist culture yet continues to be called engineering. We understand power, and in particular, the power of whiteness, which from the industrial revolution to present-day has constrained engineering to abstract mathematics wrapped in a hardened shell of depersonalization, technocratic hegemony and individual prowess and hedonism. Thus, our labor may remain on the margins, but we will give intellectual, moral, and social instruction nonetheless. In our classrooms, offices, departmental meetings, in our research, service, and public discourse, we will toil to deconstruct what is in order to reconstruct what could be.
Amid these unfulfilled promises, we make our own promise: to unapologetically apply pressure through relentless accountability. We will favor the disfavored and esteem a new set of values. We will not settle for pledges from institutions that make promises lacking actions for understanding the harm done and no mentions of restitution. We will continue to make known what is owed and the logics that make our suffering seem justified and natural. We will not continue to tell our students to go along just to get along, and we will not tell our youth that engineering as-is possesses many benefits for society and deserves their genius. We will tell them that we must engineer our independence, that our social structure has been a failed project from the beginning, and a redesign is long overdue. Oh, what a wicked problem! We will not do this alone; from skinfolk to those engrossed in authentic racial solidarity to white abolitionists willing to disavow the allure of whiteness, we see you laboring and we await the collaboration of others. May our voices and work be amplified, and our cries be ignored no more; in pursuit of justice for the dignified, we shall labor forever more!
DECLARATIONS OF THE PAST. PROFESSIONS OF THE PRESENT.
As you read the meditations of Frederick Douglass, consider operationalizing his words for the current state of engineering education:
Fellow Citizens ⇒ Fellow Colleagues
Slavery ⇒ system of rewards, recognition, and resourcing (here as represented by the ASEE Diversity Recognition Program)
The Slave & [The] Millions ⇒ Those that have been traditionally marginalized, minoritized and/or racially excluded in engineering
The Rich Inheritance ⇒ The privilege of benefitting from the system of recognition, reward, and resourcing
America ⇒ Engineering Education