“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Earlier this week Radford University President Brian Hemphill sent a message to all Radford University students to attend and support an upcoming event this Saturday in the name of Black Lives Matter. Hemphill has even stated he plans to attend this event to “denounce racism,” but we have to ask: how can a university president denounce racism while he perpetuates systemic racism and harm through Radford University and across the New River Valley?
Some may respond “How can a Black man perpetuate racism?” Hemphill himself recalled in his letter to students the various examples of discrimination he has faced as a Black man, so how exactly can someone who experiences racial oppression perpetuate systemic racism? Unfortunately, we Americans are not provided nuanced analysis regarding the social construct of race. Many default to what we know as “identity politics” when trying to figure out how to classify someone. This often results in simplistic and confused ideas that if a person is of a certain identity then what they say and advocate for has to be accepted as correct and true because they embody an oppressed identity, whether it’s on the basis of class, race, gender, disability, sexuality, etc.
Many even consider this an “anti-racist” or “anti-oppressive” framework to use when trying to make sense of complex social issues, but it’s inherently racist logic. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike weaponize identity to realize their opportunistic agendas, none of which have anything to do with social justice.
Liberals accuse others of being racist for not voting or supporting them as a form of coercion to accept their line and not to question their positions — even when it’s evident their policies and politicians are just as culpable as conservatives in perpetuating white supremacy as a system. Conservatives love to find individuals who have an oppressed identity yet affiliate with them. We see tokenism on both sides of the corporate two-party system.
A basic rule of thumb for anyone when trying to analyze any situation is to look at what people do, not what they say or how they look. When we look at the actions of people (especially those in positions of power) we really see what agenda they serve. This is how we know Hemphill is responsible for not only perpetuating systemic white supremacy, but also perpetuating class oppression not just against the student body, the faculty, or staff at RU, but against the entire New River Valley working class.
You cannot ‘denounce racism” when you allow campus cops to incarcerate students under the pretext of the racist war on drugs. You cannot support a “peaceful message” as you perpetuate state violence on Black and Brown students. This September 12th marked the one year anniversary of Radford University student Aris Lobo Perez’s death by the hands of Radford University and other local institutions which could have intervened to save his life rather than incarcerating him, and leaving him to die in jail from medical negligence.
Aris was a disabled Latino boy from Culpeper, Virginia. He came from a Honduran immigrant family, he was a first generation American as his mom came here with nothing, not knowing english, yet managed to support her kids all on her own as a single, working class Latina mother. She sacrificed everything to afford tuition for Aris. The Perez family was so excited for Aris to be accepted into RU after thinking his severe brain injury prior to being accepted would make it impossible for him to attend college and graduate. The Perez family was assured by RU that they would accommodate and work with Aris and his disability, they knew he had a severe brain injury which is known to cause random fits of anger and engage in compulsive and thrill-seeking behavior. They knew this about Aris and his disability, yet on September 12th, 2019 when an RA called the campus cops on Aris for being in a dorm room that wasn’t his while being intoxicated those campus cops and the university didn’t seek to help Aris – who posed no harm to anyone – but rather looked for any reason to charge and arrest him. He confessed to campus cops to underage drinking, and when they searched him they found what they suspected was trace amounts of weed (which Virginia just decriminalized this year). None of these “crimes” Aris engaged in are at all exceptional on campus. College kids drink alcohol and do drugs everyday, that has been a fact of campus life for decades. And regardless of what you may think about substance use and its dangers, none of it justifies the death of a poor, disabled Latino boy who posed no threat to anyone.
Aris’s death is on the hands of Hemphill and those in positions of power at Radford University. It is indisputable the war on drugs is a racist policy that has harmed and killed millions in the US and around the world. Aris is just one more casualty of this war. Hemphill can claim he’s just “following orders”, but that argument didn’t hold up for defendants in the Nuremberg Trials, nor should it be a legitimate excuse for anyone in a position of power in the US – which was founded on white supremacy and remains integral to US society today.
Aris’ mother has said she’s never felt so disrespected before, RU delayed notifying them of Aris’s death, they quickly cleaned his dorm room before his family could come inspect it, many of his personal belongings were missing, local authorities would not let the Perez family view his body until 9 days later when his corpse was transferred to a funeral home where his family found bruises and burn marks across his body (the family has video and photo evidence of this). All RU did was “express their deepest sympathies” with his family and gave them a token certificate that Aris attended RU. Mrs Perez says she wants to rip up this certificate and takes it as a slap in the face.
Hemphill and Radford University officials have done everything to cover up and wash their hands of this instance of systemic white supremacy against a poor disabled Latino boy and his family. They stole the student Tartan newspapers that covered his death. They default back to the official narrative issued by the campus cops and the NRV jail officials which basically says this was all just happenstance, nothing to do with this racist system that seeks to criminalize and harm working class families of color.
And in the face of a pandemic these calls for justice ring even more hollow and hypocritical from Hemphill and other officials as they reopen college campuses for the sake of profit even when it means creating COVID19 hotspots in our community, which means making community members sick and dead. These actions by Hemphill and other local authorities are immoral and criminal. If we are fighting to make it a reality that Black Lives Matter, to end racial oppression and all forms of oppression then we have to expel the identity opportunists from our ranks who are nothing more than wolves in sheeps clothing.
Brian Hemphill you have the blood of Aris and many others on your hands.