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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: ‘This isn’t who we are’? EWU president takes on the twin plagues of racism and equivocation about racism

UPDATED: Tue., March 23, 2021

David May, EWU’s interim president poses for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, outside Showalter Hall on EWU’s campus in Cheney, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
David May, EWU’s interim president poses for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, outside Showalter Hall on EWU’s campus in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When David May, the interim president of Eastern Washington University, put out a powerful statement last week condemning racist graffiti at the apartment of an African American student, he also unequivocally denounced the Atlanta shooting as a racist act and placed it in the context of a surge in outspoken racism nationwide.

“As angry as I am and as much pain as I feel for the victims, I want to say this to everyone: Choose a side. There is no middle ground. There is no room for equivocation or justification,” May wrote in his statement Thursday.

“Six women were not killed yesterday because someone was having a bad day or because he was a self-declared sex addict. They were killed because of who they are, Asian Americans. The latest attack in our community against one of our students is not because someone had too much to drink or because they made a mistake. This attack was on someone because they are African American, period. It was meant to dehumanize and degrade one of our own.”

His statement drew a lot of supportive reactions, May said in an interview Tuesday. Students and faculty from the Asian American community, as well as those from other marginalized groups, in particular expressed their support and appreciation for his words.

But May, who was named interim president at EWU in August, also heard from people who questioned whether the Atlanta shooting, in which six of eight victims were women of Asian descent and which has put a tragic, emphatic point on a rising problem with Asian American hatred, was really, truly racist.

After all, the tenor of these responses went, the killer said it wasn’t his motive, and authorities have been reluctant to say it’s clearly, legally a hate crime, and some have indicated “sex addiction” as a possible cause.

May isn’t having it.

It’s no time for apologetics and equivocation, he said. No time for the half-hearted or the kinda-sorta. No time for being unwilling to see and name what’s in front of our faces.

“We, as a nation, a society, a culture, have been too willing to put up with the equivocations,” May said.

Part of that is the way in which community organizations respond to acts of hatred – often with self-comforting variations of “This is not who we are.”

May said we can’t pretend that the racism isn’t somehow a part of us, and he put the onus on everyone to actively resist it – to refuse to take comfort in pretending the cancer comes from somewhere else.

“Saying once again, ‘This isn’t who we are,’ is exactly the kind of equivocation I was denouncing in the message,” he said. “We can say it, but that doesn’t make it so. The person who killed eight in Atlanta can say, ‘I wasn’t racist,’ but that doesn’t make it so.”

The racist graffiti last week targeted an African American student and football player, and his roommate. It involved racist language on their front door and damage to a car. It surely wasn’t the first such activity on campus in Cheney. Last year, there were several incidents of a racist group distributing flyers on campus, and those are just the most recent examples.

“I cannot any longer say that this type of hate has no place on our campus or our community – because, as further evidenced by these recent events, it is here–but I can state absolutely that it shouldn’t have any place here,” he wrote in his message.

May is a political scientist, with a scholarly interest in the First Amendment and the Supreme Court. He came to EWU in 1999 and moved into top administrative roles in recent years; he was promoted from the office of the provost to the interim presidency in August, to replace the retiring Mary Cullinan.

A campus leader has to communicate with the university community a lot, about matters both routine and controversial. In his message last week, May was particularly personal and emotional – and, as a result, his words were particularly powerful.

He issued a similarly potent statement in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, an event he said bore some similarities to 9/11 in its sobering impact. In his message, as with last week’s, he put those riots into the context of a plague of white supremacy and extremism, and the responsibility that people have to reject them.

“We can choose to be consumed by this hate and division, to give in to it, and thereby become part of it,” he wrote. “I will not and do not believe that we will choose that path. I believe that we will reject the toxicity and the ideologies of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and discrimination on display yesterday.”

In these messages, May is discussing these events in a framework that not everyone finds comfortable – the fact that racist, extremist voices are louder, more numerous and more prominent now than they’ve been in the recent past, because they’ve been given more cultural permission and sanction.

In recent years, the quiet part is being said out loud a lot more, he said.

That’s why he thinks this is no time to be quiet in return. No time to pretend it isn’t so or look the other way. No time to equivocate or rationalize. It’s a clear, bright line, and if you think there’s a middle, you are standing on the wrong side of it.

“There’s no more pretending this is something it isn’t,” he said. “You are either there or you’re here.”

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