In a riveting keynote address delivered with masterful oratory on the theme, “Why Major Institutions Must Address the Fierce Urgency of Racial Justice,” Bankole Thompson, the Executive Dean and Editor-in-Chief of The PuLSE Institute, told Brown University and the top leadership of the Ivy League institution, that it should be an unquestioned ally in the demands for racial equality in the modern era.
A nationally acclaimed Black journalist and cultural critic, Thompson was the keynote speaker for Brown University Forum on Race and Democracy in the Era of Black Lives Matter, held Thursday, Feb. 24 in honor of Black History Month.
Thompson is Detroit’s Columnist of Conscience, writing twice-a-week in The Detroit News, where his candid, searing, impactful analysis and commentary about the presidency, public opinion, culture and socioeconomic issues appears on Mondays and Thursdays.
The forum, which was organized in partnership with the Providence Branch of the NAACP and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, featured welcome and closing remarks by Brown University President Christina Paxson, who laid out the university’s efforts in tackling racial inequality.
Jim Vincent, the president of the Providence Branch of the NAACP, who introduced Thompson described him as one of the nation’s leading voices on race, and a “thinker with a profound commitment to racial justice,” while noting that Thompson was the 2011 speaker for the civil rights organization’s Freedom Fund Dinner.
Tricia Rose, the director of Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, who moderated the Q&A session following Thompson’s presentation, called his keynote lecture a “Tour de Force,” for powerfully capturing the essence of the current battle for racial justice, and the obligation of today’s major White institutions.
“The nation is at a crossroads. Our democracy is on life support. Wounded racial justice is laying down in the emergency room of our institutions across this nation, and waiting to be attended to by justice and fairness-loving doctors of equality as Black people continue to carry with them the scars of historic bigotry and the burden of contemporary racism,” Thompson said in his speech. “There is a serious urgency right now in the nation for the surgeons of freedom to perform on the maladies of racism and the philosophy that produces it.”
He stated, “But to challenge the conscience of the nation, we must demand accountability from the institutions that bear the nation’s insignia and strength. America’s strength we are reminded repeatedly is in its institutions, which represent the hallmarks of what the nation stands for. Whether they be educational institutions, business institutions, religious institutions, the media…they represent the American credo of ingenuity and its traditions.”
The journalist went on to list top educational institutions with ties to slavery.
“Among them is Brown University, whose own connection to the history of Black enslavement is well documented. Among them is Yale University, whose involvement in slavery is documented. Among them is Harvard University, which is reckoning with its own ties to slavery,” Thompson said.
He quickly pivoted to major corporations.
“Among them are major corporations- titans of our capitalist system- that descend on the Black community like vultures to simply reap billions and millions in annual profits by marketing products to the Black consumer market, yet the captains of industry who lead some of these companies walk away from any kind of tangible commitments and action items to advance racial equity,” Thompson noted. “Even as they register enormous profits at the expense of the Black consumer market, their corporate boardrooms are insulated and isolated from serious discussions about justice and equality.”
Thompson took on foundations.
“Among them are major foundations, some of whom are notorious for choosing what I have long described in my writings as a helicopter approach: It is an approach that simply surface scratches the issues and allows foundations to impose their own vision and plan from above about how to solve issues in the Black community instead of getting into the trenches of inequality and poverty in urban centers to root out the problem,” Thompson said. “To achieve racial justice, foundations must abandon the helicopter approach to solving inequality in the Black community.”
He said some of the nation’s institutions have failed the Black community.
“When we look at the modus operandi of some of our major institutions President Paxson, they have so far given the Black community a bad check,” Thompson said. “A case in point, since the death of George Floyd in 2020, some major corporations and their foundations pledged $50 billion to address racial inequality according to an analysis from the Washington Post, yet only about 70 million went to groups focused on criminal justice reform.”
Thompson, an impassioned orator said, “History is beckoning on Brown to lead the way on institutional accountability and racial justice because your institution at different times during the Civil Rights Movement hosted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, two of the 20th century’s greatest Black leaders.”
“President Paxson, it is not lost on me that Brown University with an endowment in the billions of dollars has the resources and the tentacles to move with all deliberate speed to lead in restorative and reparatory justice in the grand struggle for Black liberation,” Thompson said. “Brown must see the urgency of this quest to provide bold and courageous leadership in pushing for racial equality as tied to its own destiny and future success as a transformational university. The two cannot be seen as mutually exclusive. They are mutually inclusive.”
He called on the university to dramatically increase its Black student enrollment.
“Beyond establishing a memorial to slavery and publicly acknowledging it’s connection to the scourge on history, Brown must work with all deliberate speed to increase its Black student population, which is currently at six percent. The future wellbeing and presence of Black students at Brown will also determine whether this institution can bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice,” Thompson urged.
Thompson said the university should build a more meaningful and stronger partnership with the Providence Branch of the NAACP.
“In the era of the national reckoning on racial justice, there is no greater opportunity to demonstrate a serious commitment to tackling the challenges of racial inequality within and outside of Brown University than to enter into a partnership with one of the oldest and most respected chapters of the NAACP, the Providence Branch, whose work in being able to get things done in the modern era is well documented,” Thompson said. “That is why reparatory justice is so necessary and needed in this time. That is why the engagement between the leadership of the Providence Branch of the NAACP and the Office of the President of Brown University is an opportunity to address long-term racial disparities and endemic poverty that has largely defined Black life.”
In his speech, Thompson, pointed to the examples of institutions like the National Cathedral, which played a significant role during the Civil Rights Movement under its former dean, the Most. Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., who was an ally of Dr. King.
“Rev Sayre was faced with an existential question that every leader of a major White institution in America right now must face…and that question was posed by William Shakespeare in the illustrious play Hamlet: To be or not to be? Sayre chose to be with the Civil Rights Movement,” Thompson said. “The Socratic question of the hour is: Will the modern-day leaders of our major institutions be with the racial justice movement?”
The speech offered a stronger defense of critical race theory, which has come under assault recently and has seen some school boards moving to ban books in public schools.
“We need major institutions who will take a public stance against the false prophets and the merchants of fear who are selling the stale meat of prejudice and offering blatant lies about critical race theory, and the attempt to dumb down an essential part of American history: the history of enslaved Black people,” Thompson said.
He pointed to the larger meaning of critical race theory by citing the life of the late Detroiter and sharecropper Janie Cousar Kinloch, the mother Solomon W. Kinloch Jr., the senior pastor of Triumph Church, who grew up on the slave plantations of South Carolina.
“Last July, I had the distinct honor of delivering the opening eulogy at the homegoing service of an ordinary and unassuming Black woman named Janie Cousar Kinloch, who was born in Dillon County, South Carolina, one of the founding member states of the Confederacy. She grew up picking cotton on the slave plantations in Dillon County before later moving to Detroit in 1967, the year of the race rebellion in Detroit,” Thompson said. “In lifting up the legacy of slavery, I told the congregation at Detroit’s Triumph Church that Mother Kinloch’s life was the definition of critical race theory. That the lives of Black women like her whose blood and sweat contributed to building the economy exemplify the larger enduring and profound meaning of critical race theory.”
He added, “Critical race theory cannot be divorced from the identity of America. Our major institutions cannot sit on the sidelines as the assault on critical race theory continues to be weaponized as a political cudgel and becoming a display of willful and pathetic ignorance.”
The address also called for a more broader support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“There must be a concerted effort in the wider Ivy League community to fully support Black Colleges especially in these trying times,” Thompson said.
He further noted, “Race and Democracy in the Era of Black Lives Matter, is about the conflicts of the past, the cultural struggles of the present, the drive for economic empowerment in the Black community and the ever present need to affirm the human rights and dignity of Black people. But it forces us into a unified moment this evening in which we play a role to foster our common interest.”
To reach Bankole Thompson at The PuLSE Institute email email@example.com