A letter to my students during these difficult but all too familiar times

Opinion by Hakeem Jefferson
June 1, 2020, 3:08 p.m.

Hi everybody.

I write to you from my desk in a quiet apartment. It’s been a long, 12-hour workday, as I had a manuscript deadline to meet, but I can’t log off without sending you a note regarding the turmoil that we are seeing in cities and towns across the United States. Like so many of you, I have spent the past few days in a state of grief. I have grieved for the family of George Floyd. I have grieved for George Floyd, himself. I have grieved as a Black man who knows well the history of this country, and who understands that regardless of my great privilege, to many I am still but a Black man with “no rights which the white man [is] bound to respect.” I write to you as your professor, but I also write to you as a human being with emotions that are so raw, so complicated. I am angry. Frankly, I am pissed off. For the murder of George Floyd reflects one of the few constants of American life — the perceived disposability of Black lives.

I arrived at the University of Michigan in 2011, and during my time there, Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood vigilante who took the life of a 17-year-old high school kid who was armed with Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. In 2014, Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. And later that same year, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy was shot while playing with a toy gun, seconds after officers arrived on the scene. In 2016, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One day later, Philando Castille, a 32-year-old Black man was shot and killed by a police officer while in the car with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. And the list goes on and on and on.

I remember, too, the frequent acquittals, the refusal to hold police officers to account for the harm they had done to people who looked like me, who came from neighborhoods and communities like the one I had grown up in. And I thought often about the friends I had left behind in these spaces — friends who were far less protected from the abuses of the state than I, a graduate student at a prestigious university, surrounded by the gates of White privilege, who lived in a town where the police mostly turned a blind eye to all manner of law-breaking behavior. I remember waking up early in the morning to pen poems like this one:


No Justice? No Shit.

The verdict is in.
Angry. Frustrated. Sad.
Surprised? No.

Because the system has not failed us.
It is working as designed.
Inherently biased against those who commit the unforgivable sin of being born Black in America.
Yes, “criminal” accurately describes our system of justice
Maintained by men whose Klan suits are now bespoke suits.
Sustained by the silence of millions who don’t give a damn
      that a kid can’t walk the streets of his neighborhood;
      that a man can’t drive a car with his kid in the backseat;
      that a woman can’t question an officer’s authority
      without facing a death sentence at the hand of the state
      with no trial by a jury of their peers,
      no due process or right to counsel,
      no day in court.
      All rights afforded the ones responsible for their deaths.

Because though all are created equal,
A parchment guarantee can’t guarantee that Black lives will matter to he who doesn’t believe
that Black lives matter or that all should be free —
Free from the worry
      that at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all
      all could be lost at the hands of one
      whose pledge to serve and protect
      clearly didn’t include everyone.


The tags on the poem remind me that I wrote it a year after Philando Castile’s death — 10 days before the officer who killed him was acquitted of all charges.

Tonight, as I prepare to go to bed, my heart breaks for all of us who live in the shadows of this country’s racist past and its racist present. It breaks for the moms and dads forced to explain to their children that, because of the color of their skin, they have got to be extra careful all the time, lest they become another hashtag. And even when they are as careful as can be, there can be no guarantee that they won’t face the same unfortunate fate visited upon those who commit the age-old crime of being born Black in America — a crime punishable by death in so many corners of this country.

I wish I could give you optimism. I wish I could tell you that history suggests things always get better. To be sure, they often do, but optimism isn’t quite what I want to offer you. I want to offer you something slightly better, instead. I want to offer you a reminder that you are more powerful than you know. A reminder that you, with all of your brilliance, with all of your intellect, with all of your strength — you have the power to imagine and create new realities. At a moment when those in positions of power stoke division and hate, you have the power to sow seeds of love and community. But more than that, you have the power to demand the future that you want for yourself and your loved ones. No, I can’t offer you optimism, but hope for me has never been rooted in some fantasy of a shining city atop a hill. Instead, it has always been rooted in what I know about people who have struggled to advance the cause of freedom across generations. It is rooted in my deep and abiding respect for those who traveled paths more difficult than I could ever imagine.

And make no mistake, we ought not romanticize suffering, for there is nothing beautiful about burying a loved one who has died at the hands of a state whose job is to protect and serve. So, look skeptically on those who tell you that there is something magical or idyllic about suffering. But, as Douglass reminds us, there is something quite powerful about struggle.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitations, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

I invite you to struggle along with me.

In solidarity,

Prof. Jefferson.

Hakeem Jefferson is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford and a faculty affiliate with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. This letter was originally sent to students in his class POLISCI 102: “Introduction to American Politics and Policy.

Contact Hakeem Jefferson at hakeem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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