After Silent Sam settlement, UNC has lost the benefit of the doubt

By: - December 12, 2019 5:45 am

Last December, I condemned the UNC–Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ (BOT) proposal to literally enshrine the confederate statue “Silent Sam” on campus.

Defying belief, a year later I’m now condemning UNC’s $2.5 million payment so that the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) can do exactly that.

Reasonable people can disagree about many things. Nothing about this is reasonable. To do anything but unilaterally condemn and fight this atrocity, in which a public university subsidized a neo-confederate group to peddle its white supremacist view of history is a joke and a disgrace.

I’ll be honest, I’m exhausted. But that is the point, isn’t it? I’m exhausted because UNC has a problematic habit of dropping bombshell news during the busiest point in the semester. I’m exhausted because it feels like nothing any of us did over the course of the last year and a half made a difference.

I’m exhausted that it wasn’t self-evident to the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) that gifting cash to a neo-confederate group with no legal standing to the statue was, to put it mildly, a ghastly idea. I really have to credit the students who undoubtedly feel the same way and yet find the strength to organize and rally around the continued injustices perpetrated by this university.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If UNC won’t listen to reason, it will have to hear my rage.”[/perfectpullquote]

Last year, I tried to provide a thoughtful and reasoned analysis of what was happening on campus, though I largely divorced it from my experience as a Black alumnus and Black faculty member. I did this for reasons of “objectivity” but also out of concern that I would be dismissed as an angry Black man and make white people uncomfortable. And in this country, there remains a terrifyingly thin line between white discomfort and Black death.

If that was difficult to read, then you are starting to understand what is at stake with this statue and what becomes of it. Because if UNC won’t listen to reason, it will have to hear my rage.

The statue didn’t get us here, UNC’s leadership did

The afternoon before Thanksgiving, UNC-Chapel Hill’s interim chancellor sent an e-mail to the campus declaring the issue of the confederate monument resolved, and even thanked those responsible — the Board of Governors (Notably, the fact that they paid the neo-confederate organization was conspicuously absent.)

We didn’t hear anything else from UNC for nine days, during which the campus was rightly excoriated in local and national media. And when we did get additional information, it was little more than a reiteration of which account the money would come from, which is less a reassurance, and frankly, more an insulting distinction without a difference.

Making matters worse was the announcement of a fund to “support the important work necessary to boldly transform our campus.” UNC wants extra credit for turning in a late and incomplete homework assignment right after they got caught cheating on the exam. How dare UNC try to hide behind a modicum of good to distract from the evil it just perpetrated?

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]UNC has lost my trust.”[/perfectpullquote]

I was initially willing to give UNC leadership the small but vital benefit of the doubt. That even if I disagreed with their methods, I believed in their desire to serve UNC. I was a member of the Faculty Council’s advisory committee tasked with representing the faculty to campus and system leadership. In retrospect, it’s hard to say that despite our efforts, we had any noticeable effect in this process. We all got a version of, “We hear you, we can’t say everything, please trust us to do the best we are able.” Even my most cynical self couldn’t have thought up our current “solution.”

UNC has lost my trust. I do feel personally betrayed of course, but anyone paying attention to the events over the last two years alone would similarly have serious doubts about the ability of the BOG to execute their duties to the UNC system responsibly.

The fact that the BOG is now moving its scheduled meeting to a conference call to avoid accountability only reaffirms my misgivings. I’ve yet to hear a single valid reason for the settlement. Even the SCV confessed surprise at their unlikely, yet favorable, outcome. I will no longer extend that minimal amount of good faith to an organization that repeatedly says and does things that prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I do not matter.

Expelling the statue doesn’t expel what put it here

White supremacist ideology is the only element that makes this irrational story a rational one. It upholds and maintains the racist belief that I do not belong here, my Black colleagues do not belong here, and that our Black students do not belong here. This belief is not simply embodied within the history of that statue; it is enacted in any present-day defense of it.

UNC has a sustained pattern of valuing white supremacy over the well-being of its Black students and employees. And UNC continues to do so at cost to its own reputation and success. There have been too many sentences written in the last two weeks containing both UNC and Sons of Confederate Veterans for us to pretend otherwise.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]How many additional funders will avoid UNC for fear they’re simply replenishing the coffers of an organization that subsidizes racism?”[/perfectpullquote]

No one reasonably invested in the future of UNC would have handed over $2.5 million given that this fallout was an entirely predictable outcome. The director of the Institute of African American Research announced at last week’s Faculty Council meeting how the Institute lost a major funding opportunity from a private philanthropic organization because of this settlement.

We look ridiculous asking others for money to implement our various academic endeavors as we hand over cash to neo-confederates. How many additional funders will avoid UNC for fear they’re simply replenishing the coffers of an organization that subsidizes racism?

I would mention in detail how this influences our ability to recruit and retain talented Black students, faculty, and staff, but the pattern of behavior makes it self-evident that UNC vacillates somewhere between indifference and satisfaction at the outcome.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Don’t ask me to serve on a committee. I am exhausted. I am angry. And I don’t trust you.”[/perfectpullquote]

Rhetorically, this is where I should reaffirm my love of this institution so that everyone knows my harsh condemnations are born of a righteous love of UNC. I will always value my stellar education and training. Thankfully I’m driven by my passion for health equity, supported by brilliant colleagues, and motivated by a desire to help our impressive students succeed and thrive – even if the campus I work for can’t say the same. I would love to love UNC again. But how can I even entertain the thought when this place is not just complacent with existing harms but continues to perpetrate new ones?

UNC leadership: This campus needs and deserves better. If my words stung, then I will have made more progress than a year’s worth of reasoned arguments ever managed. Do the right thing. This place knows right from wrong and still chooses to hide from its own professed values. Don’t ask me to serve on a committee. I am exhausted. I am angry. And I don’t trust you.

Dr. Derrick Matthews is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

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