In open letter to the UNC community, Lamar Richards says university is ill-prepared for needed change, urges marginalized community members to protect themselves from being tokenized
Dear Carolina Community,
When I arrived at the meeting venue on the morning of my swearing-in as a member of the UNC Board of Trustees, I pulled up to the valet and proceeded to exit my car – at which point, the valet stopped me and said, “Sir, this valet is for members and patrons only. Protestors are standing over there.”
Yes, I was in a full suit and tie. Yes, I had been elected Student Body President of our university earlier this year. And, yes, I was just moments away from being sworn in as a university trustee. The valet, however, still asked for my ID before walking inside to confirm that I was, in fact, who I said I was. I got out of my car, grabbed my briefcase, and headed inside.
But before I walked off, I stood and watched through the glass doors as other cars pulled in. One by one, as the valet opened car doors, individuals got out, nodded their heads, and headed into the building without a single word spoken. As I walked into the boardroom, it hit me: I was entering this space as one of the only people of color to serve as a trustee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ever since Black students were first allowed admission to our university, UNC has continually found itself entrenched in one scandalous situation after another. The Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy is just the most recent and glaring example of our university choosing to prioritize the demands of money and power, rather than its students, faculty, and staff.
Whether Nikole Hannah-Jones should be awarded tenure is a matter that the Board of Trustees should and must discuss, but I write to you today knowing that the longer this matter remains unresolved, the more difficult it becomes for this university to move forward.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe this event will spur the reckoning our university has needed for far too long. Why should we move forward under the guise of mere “reform?”
You cannot reform a system rooted in oppression, racism, and hatred. Tragically, the term “reform” at this university continues to be used as a subtle tactic to oppress students, faculty, and staff—past, present, and future alike.
UNC has continually fallen short of meeting the challenge of serving each and every one of its students. Students of color must speak twice as loud just to be heard at the same volume; graduate students, especially those of color, are treated as modern-day servants, barely paid minimum wage; our staff and faculty of color are overworked and underpaid, treated like property.
The university often tries to paint a pretty picture of “evolution”— a dynamic, forward-facing strategic plan one day, a new Chief Diversity Officer the next, and maybe the changing of a few building names the day after.
Let me be very clear: these actions do not and will not ultimately make a difference if racial oppression continues to flow through our university. To pursue or hope for “reform” from this university is akin to requesting a bandage for a racial wound that is far too deep.
The sincerest thing I can share with each of you is that Carolina is not prepared. Carolina is not prepared for the “reckoning” of which it continues to speak and it is certainly not prepared to face the reality of having to undo the entire system upon which it was built—and rebuild.
Until this rebirth occurs, Carolina is not deserving of your talents, aspirations, or successes. If you are a student, staff member, or academic from a historically marginalized identity exploring UNC, I invite you to look elsewhere. If you are considering graduate school, law school, medical school, or other professional programs at UNC, I challenge you to seek other options. While Carolina desperately needs your representation and cultural contributions, it will only bring you here to tokenize and exploit you. And to those that will attempt to misconstrue these words—my words—understand this: I love Carolina, yes, but I love my people and my community more.
And so in the days ahead, I invite and encourage you to pay close attention not only to who speaks—but who fails to speak. Pay close attention to how many times our university responds with an acknowledgment of uncertain and unparalleled times, asking how students “feel” and what it can “do” for students, before making decision and taking stances that are in direct opposition to student views, suggestions, and interests.
Most importantly, examine how Carolina shifts blame to other entities; then, analyze closely what decisions are made or are not made by our university and question why. The soul of our university is at stake—and Carolina is not prepared.
I urge you all: protect yourself. Protect your peace. Protect your wellness—and brace for reckoning.
Yours for Carolina—today, tomorrow, and always,
Lamar Gregory Richards
Student Body President
Trustee, UNC-CH Board of Trustees