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Dear New School students and colleagues,
I want to take a moment to respond to the verdict that was delivered last Friday afternoon in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, wherein Mr. Rittenhouse was found to be not guilty on all counts. I have heard from many individuals in The New School community who are reeling from this news. It is an outcome, as many have said, that is as shocking as it is unsurprising.
This case has highlighted some of the most deeply entrenched problems facing American society. The treatment of Mr. Rittenhouse by our criminal justice system stands in painful contrast to the police brutality and killing of unarmed young Black men and women. That Mr. Rittenhouse had a hand in the death of two individuals during a protest against racism and police brutality only deepens the pain. Certainly, the verdict raises questions about the wide availability of guns in the United States, this nation’s broad definitions of “self-defense,” and vigilantism in the service of racism and white supremacy.
The function of a trial in the American system is to decide on strictly legal matters, attempting to separate those from the political issues at hand. But part of what makes this case so difficult is that it surfaces political and legal issues that are entwined in this nation’s history. The history of gun rights and gun violence in this country are inseparable from race, as gun rights have never been extended equally and gun violence disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities. When facially neutral laws aren’t applied equally to all, the strictly legal verdict in a case like Mr. Rittenhouse’s brings these political issues into sharp focus, reminding many of us, as the poet Amanda Gorman noted, that “the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice.”
The Rittenhouse case underscores how much work there is to be done, still. It is not lost on us that the country also awaits the verdict in the trial of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, Jr. for the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Final arguments began Monday. We wait. We watch. We can’t help but worry.
And while I know my role is to lead this university with optimism, I must admit that I am falling short on words of positivity in this moment. I don’t know immediately how to parse the Rittenhouse verdict at a university where students, faculty, and staff work so tirelessly and passionately for social justice.
Therein may lie the answer in this moment: when we don’t know yet what to say, let’s take solace in each other. Let’s unite in our shared commitments and values. I am grateful to be part of this community that is so driven to confront inequality, unpack systemic racism, challenge oppression, and create positive change. While we don’t know what to say, we know what to do, which is to act to build stronger communities, unite amongst ourselves, and use our scholarship and research in service of social justice.
Come what may, our commitments and our community with each other is not only what may bring us solace and strengthen our resolve, it is also the heft of collective action that is needed to change history. As President Barack Obama pointed out, drawing on Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of history only bends toward justice “because we help bend it that way.”
As an unabashedly progressive institution, The New School can catalyze change through teaching, dialogue, scholarship, and creative practice. In these moments that test our resolve and our patience, let us together renew our commitment to being a safe, supportive, welcoming, and inclusive community. Now is not the time for despair, but instead it is a moment to draw on our academic mission and institutional values to support not only each other, but the changes we are working towards in the world.
We keep the faith, we prop each other up, and we keep up our good work.
Onward and upward.
Dr. Dwight A. McBride is the president of The New School.