I grew up on the lower East side of New York City next to public housing, also known as “the Projects.” In my elementary school, it was African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jews and Chinese immigrants. I felt an affinity for all of these groups and, honestly, didn’t notice our differences. I felt our similarities. When we studied civil rights in school, I saw African-Americans leading the way.
In Chinatown, we felt disenfranchised. We didn’t see powerful politicians, astronauts, actors, or other positive images of ourselves reflected in society. We modeled our civil rights movement after the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other African-American activists.
Years later, at UC Berkeley, I was an Asian American studies major. I studied the contributions and alliances that blacks and Asians had in developing the third world movement. That further developed my consciousness and awareness, and still inspires me.
Today, Black History Month is a time we can think about how far we’ve come, and how far we need to go. After understanding Selma and the civil rights movement, we would hope there would be no Fergusons. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Black lives matter. So what is our solution? We, as an educational institution, have a vital role to play: to educate all of our students and our community to develop an understanding of the commonalities of humankind; to show by our actions that people with great differences can also work together in meaningful and joyful ways.
At the same time, the concept of melting pot is no longer valid. We must go beyond tolerating to celebrating our diversity. We have a great deal of work to do in this area. We’ve made great strides, certainly, with the first African-American president, as well as African-American leaders in science, politics, music, sports and many other fields. But look at the board rooms, the CEOs. The people who control that wealth do not reflect the diversity of this country.
Stereotypes, fear and misunderstanding are still pervasive. And it’s not just white Americans who need to look into their hearts and minds. Other people of color can also be judgmental and racist. It's not simple but it is so important for all of us to confront our prejudices.
During Black History Month each February, we have a special opportunity to learn about and celebrate African-Americans, their history, struggles and achievements. Please join me in participating in events at the College and around the community. I have a message especially for our students: let each generation pass to the next generation the significance and stories of African-Americans in our country.