A Reckoning With Race

UM alumni center lake view

A Reckoning With Race

From action plans and virtual panels to academic lectures and teach-ins, the University of Miami’s response to racial injustice has been far-reaching and all-encompassing.
From action plans and virtual panels to academic lectures and teach-ins, the University of Miami’s response to racial injustice has been far-reaching and all-encompassing.

THE ONLY THING RONNIE GRAHAM REALLY REMEMBERS ABOUT MAY 25 IS TURNING ON HIS TELEVISION SET AND SEEING THE DISTURBING CELLPHONE VIDEO OF MINNEAPOLIS POLICE OFFICER DEREK CHAUVIN PRESSING HIS KNEE INTO GEORGE FLOYD’S NECK AS THE HANDCUFFED FLOYD PLEADED, “I CAN’T BREATHE.” Up until then, “everything else about that day was pretty much a blur,” the third- year University of Miami Law student recalls. It was late Memorial Day evening, and the Floyd vi deo had already gone viral, sparking nationwide protests and demonstrations. But Graham, preparing to bed down in his Miami apartment after a long day of studying, was just getting his first look at the footage. “My initial thought was, ‘How could anyone who was standing there not have done something,’ ” he says. 

During his first two years of law school, the Lake City, Florida, native wrestled with all sorts of pressing legal issues—from sentencing guidelines to the erosion of the Voting Rights Act to whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But the question of what he would have done had he been at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on that day in May especially gnawed at him.

Though Graham, president of the Black Law Students Association, wasn’t there for Floyd, he took action in another way, organizing a virtual teach-in that explored issues of systemic racism in policing.

His effort was part of a University-wide response to calls for racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s death. From virtual panels that explored the inequities experienced by marginalized groups to a list of student recommendations on how to “address the current state of affairs surrounding the Black student community” to a 15-point action plan initiated by President Julio Frenk to improve and build upon diversity and inclusion at the institution, the University of Miami’s response has been far-reaching and all-encompassing.

“We have been taking a hard look at how we can help heal the pain we see manifest in our communities,” Frenk wrote in a letter to the University community on July 1. “We have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to channel that indignation into urgent and useful action, rather than divisive or destructive behavior.”

If anyone knows about the importance of diversity and inclusion, it is Frenk, who was born in Mexico to a German-Jewish father who at 6 years old escaped the persecution of Nazi Germany.


The following are some of the key measures Frenk outlined in a 15-point action plan.

  • An Office for Faculty Inclusion and Diversity would be created, promising to ramp up efforts to recruit, retain, and develop underrepresented faculty members.
  • Funding for scholars who conduct research on anti-Black racism and bias would be increased, with a new U-LINK (University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge) award being the catalyst for more studies in this area.
  • With a Mellon Foundation grant now in hand, a Center for Global Black Studies would
    be established.
  • A racial and climate survey for students and faculty would be conducted during the 2020-2021 academic year, with data gleaned from the review guiding future measures to improve the University’s on-campus racial climate.
President Frenk kneeling in field
President Julio Frenk joins University athletes, coaches, and administrators in taking a knee at a Hurricanes football practice to mourn the death of George Floyd.


The plan came on the heels of a letter drafted and signed by student leaders from across the University that contained an extensive list of recommendations on how the institution could improve the way it supports Black and other diverse communities. Creating new departments and ramping up support for existing infrastructure that serve marginalized and underrepresented communities; revising hiring and admittance practices to bring in more underrepresented faculty members and staff, as well as increase and retain the number of Black students; and allocating more resources to ensure an inclusive environment were among the proposals.

Meanwhile, University Libraries employed the power of the pen in its efforts to combat racial injustice, creating a Racial Justice Resources online guide of books, e-books, films, websites, archives, reading lists, and more “designed to assist our community in educating themselves in figuring out ways to advocate for improved conditions, especially along the lines of race and ethnicity,” says Roxane Pickens, librarian assistant professor and director of the Learning Commons.

“We are living in a unique moment when people are open to learning about the nature and origins of the racial injustice that plagues our society,” says Charles Eckman, dean of libraries and university librarian. “Learning tools such as this guide are critical resources to those seeking understanding and solutions.”

Freedom buttons
These historic buttons are from the Dr. John O. Brown and Marie Faulkner Brown Papers, a University of Miami Special Collections archive listed on the University Libraries’ Racial Justice Resources online guide.



In addition to letters and action plans, much of the University’s initial response to addressing racial disparities came in the form of virtual panels where faculty members and students, still sheltering in place because of the novel coronavirus that was spreading across the country, discussed everything from systemic racism in policing to the injustices and inequities faced by people of color in every other aspect of life.

During the online teach-in organized by Graham and held less than a week after the George Floyd incident, School of Law Dean Anthony E. Varona intoned the names of several Black people killed by police officers in then-recent controversial shootings, setting the tone for an event in which more than 1,000 virtual attendees debated such issues as the reallocation of police resources, the establishment of civilian review boards, and whether qualified immunity—which shields officers from lawsuits—should be terminated.

“George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Dominique Clayton. Botham Jean. Eric Reason. Stephon Clark. Philando Castile. Atatiana Jefferson. Alton Sterling. Sandra Bland. Jamar Clark. Freddie Gray. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. Laquan McDonald. John Crawford. Michael Brown. Eric Garner,” Varona read.

There were others, to be sure. But Varona just didn’t have enough time to intone them all. “It was important to me that our African-American students be front and center in this event, and that they take a controlling role in its planning and execution,” Varona says. “We do not shy away from convening difficult conversations in which we hold ourselves and each other accountable as we look to the law as a vehicle for social change and reform.”

In an effort to spark action, the Black Student Leadership Caucus, in collaboration with the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, brought students together in early June for a Black State of the Union virtual dialogue, leading a conversation on how the University community can create change. During that event Student Government President Abigail Adeleke proposed several ideas to strengthen morale at the University, including the need for comprehensive diversity and sensitivity training. “Words have so much power,” she says. “They have the power to destroy and, alternatively, the power to build. We all have a part to play in learning how to better interact with one another.”

In July, the Miller School of Medicine hosted a virtual panel that explored how the school could work to create a more inclusive atmosphere for Black students, faculty, staff, and for Black and brown patients in health care settings. “The singular focus of the Miller School of Medicine is to become one of the preeminent research medical schools and academic health systems in the country, if not the world, but if UM is to live up to its goal, we must also confront and denounce racism and uproot it,” Dean Henri R. Ford says. “We must recognize that the problem of racism is multifaceted in nature and reflects a fundamental lack of diversity, especially in terms of Black students, fellows, residents, and faculty.”

Ford convened the Task Force to Champion Racial Justice, charging the initiative with working to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for Black students, faculty, staff, and patients on the medical campus. Seven subcommittees worked to encourage racial justice policies in admissions, student affairs, residents and fellows, curriculum, faculty, research, and community engagement, presenting their suggestions to the Miller School in October.

Words have so much power.



Abigail Adeleke
Student Government President Abigail Adeleke brought students together for the Black State of the Union.


Dean Henri Ford
Miller School of Medicine Dean Henri R. Ford convened a task force to champion racial justice to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for Black students, faculty, staff, and patients.


Later, as the fall semester got underway with strict protocols in place to protect students and faculty from the spread of COVID-19, some researchers reshaped certain aspects of their course content in light of Floyd’s death and the Movement for Black Lives initiative.

For instance, Kate Ramsey, associate professor of history, structured her undergraduate course Modern Caribbean History “to encourage students, more than ever, to think about the legacies and afterlives of the histories we are studying and to make connections to the struggles and movements of our time,” she says. Her students wrote near-weekly reflections, and she urged them in emails “to think about how their work can be understood as a history of the present as well as the past.”

During a series of teach-ins conducted over two days in September as part of a nationwide Scholar Strike initiative, faculty members in several academic departments taught about racial justice. The effort was part of the University’s BIPOC-Social Justice Group (BIPOC stands for Black, indigenous, and people of color) in the UM AAUP-Alliance, a chapter of the national American Association of University Professors.

In lecturer Brian Breed’s English 105 courses, he and his students read aloud Brent Staples’ “Black Men and Public Spaces,” an essay that details how strangers read Staples’ blackness as a threat to them. “The experiences of our BIPOC neighbors—whether they are students or staff, faculty, or friends—must be centered if we are to truly understand the world,” says Breed, M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’15. “I asked my students to read ‘Black Men and Public Spaces’ with me because the essay illustrates how many Black Americans are read as threats simply because they exist and because white Americans are afraid of them.

“We white Americans must stop burdening our BIPOC neighbors with the weight of our own fears, and we can only break that habit by listening to them,” Breed continues. “Then and only then can we build a better world together.”

Sumita Chatterjee, a faculty member in the Department of History and in the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, devoted all of her classes during a two-day period to issues of race, showing her students a portion of the HBO documentary “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” which detailed the work of the acclaimed public interest attorney and his Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

“We reflected on issues raised in the documentary. And students, through written and oral critical reflection exercises, not only highlighted key historical, legal, and social issues raised in the documentary, but also applied it to other problems in contemporary society both in the U.S. and globally,” Chatterjee says. “India and Brazil came up in the discussions, as did the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Osamudia James, dean’s distinguished scholar and professor of law and the newly appointed associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion, moderated the panel “Unequal Treatment: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Miami-Dade Criminal Justice,” in which Nick Petersen, assistant professor of sociology, presented his research on how Blacks and Black Hispanics are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.

As law student Graham puts it, the pursuit for racial equality “is a marathon, not a sprint. As a Black man, I’m just hopeful that something will come of it.”