For the third time in our long history as an independent republic – the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and now this movement of civil unrest – we see the possibility of real progress in escaping the long shadow of White Supremacy in our country that dates back to its beginnings. The Academy was founded, as was our nation, during the Enlightenment, a moment in which prominent thinkers and philosophers – including Thomas Jefferson – codified notions of racial difference and hierarchy, the bedrock of White Supremacy and racism. These ideas, intrinsic in our national story, are embedded in our institutional history as well, and we certainly cannot advance if we refuse to have frank conversations about the past and the present of racism in our country.
We are proud of the Academy’s long history of gathering together leaders in every domain of American life and thought in service to the common good. We are proud, too, of all that is best in the traditions of our country, beginning with its bold enunciation that we are all created equal, all endowed with the same inalienable rights. But the price of taking pride in the genuine achievements of a historical institution like ours, as in our nation, is that we must accept the burden of its less honorable traditions. We repeat: We have no difficulty in being proud of the Academy’s achievements. That pride can and should guide us. But our shame should guide us, too, driving us to work to eradicate the practices and reform the institutions whose behavior is the ground of that shame. To ignore the shame would be to get our pride on the cheap.
If we are to make the best of the current opportunities for progress, we must begin, therefore, with a frank acknowledgment of the sources of our shame. The universities and colleges that educated our earliest members excluded African Americans. With honorable exceptions, many of our universities made their first real attempts to recruit significant numbers of Black people only in the 1960s, when our most ancient universities were more than three centuries old. Like the country’s first President, the Academy’s founding President, James Bowdoin, was a slaveholder in 1776, when he sided with that revolution in the name of freedom. We cannot excuse him by saying he merely thought with his times. Even Thomas Jefferson recognized, in his draft of the Declaration, that the slave trade violated “the most sacred rights of life and liberty” of Africans. Nor was Bowdoin, of course, the last racist among our members, as Jefferson was not the last of our racist Presidents. The Academy’s historical treatment of women is also replete with sources of shame.
We can be proud that Dr. Ralph Bunche, an African-American international civil servant of the first rank, was elected to the Academy in 1951, the year after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. But equally we must be ashamed that no African American – in the country of W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston – was elected before him.
The fact is that every major feature of our social lives is shaped by massive continuing racial inequalities, as we have seen, yet again, in the current pandemic. Embedded as we are in this history, we have choices to make about how to play a role in combatting the continuing institutionalization of Black racial disadvantage.
Shame is not guilt. We do not have responsibility for the Academy’s past wrongs. But we do accept that we ourselves have not done as much as we should have. Our primary responsibility, though, as leaders of the institution, moving forward, as custodians of the commitment to our common good, is to seek to undo the wrongs and to move us forward in the search for racial justice, advancing the ongoing project of perfecting our Union.
We believe this means at least three things. First, we must make sure that our membership and our leadership are fully reflective of the racial diversity of American excellence. Second, in all of our projects in service to the common good, we must keep our eyes firmly on ensuring that we lose no opportunities to contribute to undoing the unjust legacies of racism. In that task, the formidable intellectual resources of the Academy can be placed in the service of deeper social understanding. And third, we must be rigorously committed to ensuring that nothing we do as an employer continues the legacies of White Supremacy. We recognize, of course, that anti-racism is not the only thing that matters. But we believe it must now be one mainspring of our work. As a result, the Chair of the Board has created a new Standing Committee of the Academy on Anti-Racism that will be responsible for advising the governing boards in our pursuit of these goals.
We accept that the Academy like the nation has much to atone for. A statement, of course, barely atones for anything. Acting on it is what will. We expect the members of the Academy and the wider world to hold us to these commitments. You can expect to hear more of the Academy’s work on these three fronts in the months and years ahead.