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Statement Affirming the Pursuit of Racial and Social Justice through Education

Dear Steinhardt Community,

A few weeks ago, the Trump Administration released an "Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping." This Executive Order prohibits organizations that receive federal funds from hosting diversity trainings, trainings that ascribe “character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of his or her race or sex” or assign “fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex.”

As a school of culture, education, and human development — and as the first school of pedagogy in the western hemisphere — we at NYU Steinhardt condemn the premise upon which this Executive Order was based and the implications to which it may lead. We further condemn any other method or system that could be employed in the future to deny our community the freedom to pursue a broad and progressive educational experience that pushes us to the edges of our democracy. In doing so, we fully affirm the pursuit of racial equity and social justice through education and take seriously the vocation of intellectual pursuits in the service of social impact. 

It is through education — the basis for evidence-based discourse, deliberation, critical thinking, innovation, the apparatus for the engineering of ideas and the kindling of enlightenment — that our society draws closer to justice. We thus applaud the thinkers, the organic intellectual advocates, and the moral trailblazers — those who have committed themselves to dreaming up possible worlds where the dark fog of ignorance is lifted, where people are both empowered and pushed to bend and break orthodoxy. Through them we are united in the opportunity to live out the promises that sit on the other side of intellectual courage. 

This Executive Order is not something Steinhardt or NYU has taken lightly in our response. For example, the Office of Global Inclusion, Diversity, and Strategic Innovation at New York University offered clear guidance regarding the Executive Order. In a memo to the NYU Senior Leadership Team released on October 6, 2020, Senior Vice President for Global Inclusion and Strategic Innovation Lisa Coleman affirmed that “NYU is not pulling back on diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), anti-racism, anti-sexism, and related efforts.” Additionally, Coleman reaffirmed the University’s steadfast “advocacy for its research, education, learning, pedagogical, and co-curricular efforts that advance DEI.”

Less than two weeks prior, on September 24, 2020, the National Academy of Education also released a “statement in support of anti-racist education.” According to the statement:

So important is this value [free speech] that, in the United States, free speech is codified in the Constitution as the very First Amendment. A directly related hallmark of the academy is academic freedom, which has been recognized by courts as within the implied interests of the First Amendment. Both notions, free speech and academic freedom, are deeply ingrained in free societies. Even when the ideas that emerge are unpopular, there is no more precious right than free speech.  It is through respect for evidence-based discourse on difficult subjects that we advance as a society.

We not only affirm anti-racist education, critical race theory, and all of their antecedents, we also call for more initiatives and reflective spaces that humanize us, that might help us to heal from the deep and lingering lashes of our history. By claiming this history (as opposed to distorting or running away from it), we call for new ideas that will advance our common humanity forward and boldly toward racial equity. Such initiatives and ideas have long given us a sense of how to settle the debts we owe for our overdue national sins, and we hope to encourage educators — including those beyond NYU — to continue these courageous conversations and commitments in the classroom. 

To this end, we recognize that when our nation sought ways to resolve its most recent wars, it turned not to the battlefield but to the classroom to promote deep levels of cultural proficiency and to gain wisdom and insight to arrive at a more probable peace. We found in places where bombs and bullets proved ineffective that anti-bias, anti-racist, cultural humility, and critical race work could move us forward. It was in our dedication to thinking broadly and boldly about who we are and who we might become in relation to each other that critical race theories and other such paradigms placed into public action spurred us ahead. These ideas and commitments have helped us care for wounds that carried over from a civil war, ignited flames of progress that fueled a civil rights movement, and sparked monuments of justice erected from more than stone and timber but built on the bedrock of debate and the granite of new ideas.

As a community and as individuals, we call ourselves and others to action, to continue to dedicate ourselves to the intellectual pursuit of truth, reconciliation, and justice through education and beyond it. In the coming days and weeks, our student councils in collaboration with Steinhardt’s newly founded Office of Equity, Belonging, and Community Action will be working diligently to highlight our past initiatives, alongside the fostering and sharing of resources and programming that can help us in this pursuit. However, this pursuit is not about an office or a position; it is about how each of us must commit time and effort, resources and energy into dreaming up a world for tomorrow that is much better than the world today. We can do this. We must do it, for it is our civic obligation.   

The famous American essayist and cultural critic James Baldwin, in reflecting on race and civic responsibility, said: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” In its most patriotic form, education obliges us to be actively critical of our society and the role we play in upholding, or dismantling, its values. Platforms that empower us to question, that give ours and future generations — regardless of identity and social background — room to dream, are at the core of our democracy. These are the genius innovations of a social architecture that have propelled human existence past the bondage of human cruelty and much closer to justice. 

We still have a long way to go. 

In Solidarity,

Dean Knott
Vice Dean Kirkland and the Steinhardt Office of Equity, Belonging, and Community Action
The Executive Board of the Steinhardt Undergraduate Student Government
The Executive Board of the Steinhardt Graduate Student Organization