Message to our Students and to the Wider Community

 

We, the members of the Department of Religion at Emory University, decry the senseless murders of our Black brothers and sisters at the hands of those possessing state-sanctioned power. In outrage and in grief, we join our voices with many others to loudly say their names so that their killings will not be brushed aside or easily forgotten.  

Ahmaud Arbery.

Breonna Taylor.

George Floyd.

Tony McDade.

David McAtee.

Rayshard Brooks.

These are just a few of the most recent examples of human beings cut down by the forces of overt and structural anti-Black racism, which remain rampant in this country. We are angry. We are horrified. We are devastated. We lament the needless loss of life. And we stand in solidarity with all those who daringly oppose the forces that sustain such hatred and bigotry.

As affirmed by our colleagues at Emory's Candler School of Theology, we teach in a nation built on white supremacy, in a city beset with anti-Black racism, at a school named after Bishop John Emory, an anti-abolitionist slaveholder. Moreover, the field of religious studies itself developed from colonial violence and the framing of “world religions” in terms of white Protestant Christianity. Our professional guilds continue to be shaped by racial bias and structural differences with respect to training, hiring, promotion, and mentorship. Religious studies departments have used the language of “pluralism” and “positive difference” in an effort to appease student protests against anti-Black racism while maintaining – through the courses we offer, the scholars we hire, and the scholarship we assign – “white entitlement over black life and knowledge.” In discussing the “civil religion” of America, Charles H. Long argued that “for most of its history, [America] has accepted the implicit notion that it is a nation bound together by the unity of the ‘white race.’” For most of its history, the field of religious studies has accepted similar notions about itself—a fact that moved Long to struggle for a more inclusive academy up until his recent death. That struggle continues.

With this outrage, grief, and history in mind, the undersigned faculty members reaffirm the Department of Religion’s commitment—expressed in our statement of Goals for Religion Study—to teaching how communities create systems of value so that, together with our students, we may imagine opportunities for creative cultural and political engagement. The demand today is for engagement in the fight against systemic racism. In our capacity as teachers, we pledge to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy and anti-Black racism by taking the following concrete actions:

  • Self-education. Our first obligation is to listen to and learn from Black students and Black colleagues at our university and in our wider communities. We aim to become better informed about perspectives historically excluded and persistently marginalized, about the construction of race and racial hierarchies, and about the realities of unearned privilege, unconscious bias, and systemic racism. We will do this individually, but also collectively—through an intra-departmental seminar series in which we will read and discuss scholarship, including public scholarship, on race and racism as they relate to religious studies and higher education. We will create safe space for engaged listening to the experiences and concerns of our students, faculty, and staff members of color.
  • Curricular reform. Within our existing subject areas of expertise, each of us will consider possibilities for developing new courses that address the multiple entanglements of race and religion. Each of us will also consider ways of revising our existing syllabi to include, as appropriate, readings by Black and other under-represented scholars, as well as sessions introducing students to how race has shaped and continues to shape our religious and social worlds. The racist and colonial history of the construction of the category of “religion” will be emphasized in courses required for the major, while at the same time we will elevate the work of scholars like Tracey Hucks, who amply demonstrates how African Americans have consistently “used religion to combat moral bankruptcy, resist social brutality, and maintain human integrity” (312).
  • Classroom practice. Understanding that it is not enough to work on what we teach, we will also work on how we teach. We will train ourselves in and implement principles of anti-racist pedagogy, principles that validate the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our students, that consciously countermand the histories of exclusion and bias at Emory University, and that make our learning environments microcosms of the radically inclusive world we envision.
  • Faculty development. Collectively, we will renew the Religion Department’s efforts to recruit a faculty colleague specializing in Africana approaches to African-American religious history as part of our intellectual commitment to expand our scholarly expertise and curriculum on religion and Blackness. We further commit to new forms of faculty mentorship that actively address professional biases experienced by faculty of color at Emory and in the wider academy.

We believe that we are in a time of moral reckoning about the historical legacies and contemporary travesties of racism and structural violence. We join in fierce solidarity with our Black students, staff, and faculty colleagues, and with people of color everywhere. We affirm the many campus conversations about race, yet remain aware that real, on-the-ground work must be the focus of our collective energies. For some, this will be the curriculum and classroom at Emory; for others, this will take the form of scholarship and street protests. Let us move forward together, resolute in our determination to combat anti-Black racism and all forms of bigotry at Emory and beyond.

 

Atlanta, GA

25 June, 2020

Michael S. Berger

María M. Carrión

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger

William K. Gilders

Ellen M. Gough

Pamela M. Hall

James B. Hoesterey

Gary M. Laderman

Deborah E. Lipstadt

Sara L. McClintock

Lobsang Tenzin Negi

Devaka Premawardhana

Eric Reinders

Jill Robbins

Don Seeman

Dianne M. Stewart

Javier Villa-Flores

Wei Wu

Toni Avery

Candice George