The editors of Black Westchester:
I am writing with distress and disappointment in my school district, Yorktown Central School District, and an inexcusable keynote speech given at the 2020 High school Graduation commencement. As a parent of a 2019 graduate and a child entering the 11th grade, I did not become aware of the speech until I read about it in the Yorktown News “Regeneron co-founder, YHS superintendent apologize after grad speech,” written by Brian Marschhauser, appeared in the July 2 edition of Yorktown News and the website posted a video clip of the speech preserved by the same journalist.
YHS had as a keynote speaker a local pharmaceutical executive, Dr. George Yancopoulos, CSO of Regeneron. Reportedly, the executive was expected to deliver a positive message on the topic of COVID-19 research, appropriate to the event and the age of its honorees. The video I viewed, posted by Halston Media, hardly mentioned COVID-19. The speech was appalling on many levels. The distress is that the keynote speaker expressed racist opinions at a public-school graduation. The opinions were “supported” by irrelevant/inaccurate information and name-calling, which is not at all scholarly, at a celebration of an academic milestone. The district reports that it is “Committed to valuing diversity, encouraging a moral conscience, and teaching critical, scholarly thinking.” These were certainly not on display in the speech, nor have they been on display in the district’s response since it.
The speaker went on a RANT giving his unsubstantiated reasons that he does not support Black Lives Matter or support defunding the police. Is he entitled to his opinions? Yes! However, not at a public school, not when it was not what he was reportedly invited to do. He is hardly a credible speaker on his alternative topic, his opinions about treatment of “blacks,” and law enforcement, groups he felt are “preaching to us” hyperbolically about law enforcement inequities or being unfairly vilified, respectively, being that he is a white in race and a corporate scientist in vocation.
The speaker characterized police violence on people of color as rare, but as seeming ubiquitous due to media attention. He pretended to use data to support his characterization, as he gave classic anti-racial justice whataboutisms, such as “whataboutalltheblackpeoplekilledbyblackpeople;” – a childishly irrelevant comeback. (Does YHS allow a student caught writing on one desk say, “whataboutallthemessagesonthebathroomwalls?”) The only relevant, yet inaccurate, statistic he gave was that 9 unarmed black people were killed by police last year, although he did not give a source or define where (Yorktown? NYS? USA?) or what is meant by last year (2019? The past 12 months?).In 2019 in the USA, 259 Black victims were killed by police violence in total; 28 undisputedly unarmed. 202 were allegedly armed (mappingpoliceviolence.org.) 2020 is on a worse trend. And the choice to count only “unarmed blacks” is dubious. Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back running away “armed” with a spent taser in an Atlanta parking lot last month. Dylan Roof was taken into custody unharmed on his way from a mass murder with his weapon onboard. The police can and do arrest armed people peaceably. Besides, this is a gun-rights country. An armed person is not automatically considered a threat, in theory.
The speaker did not mention that whites are also killed by police violence–in greater raw numbers than blacks- an important detail to give young adults who could benefit from “the talk.” I wonder why this speaker left out police violence on white people, and if he wanted his audience to draw its own conclusions from his “9 blacks” vs. the implied zero whites.
The speaker was trained in science, so he would know he needed the raw numbers to compare with population numbers to confirm (or disprove) racial disparity. He did not provide any such data, so here are some quick facts: Blacks are 3X more likely to be killed by police than white people, and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed when killed than white people. Black people have been 28% of those killed by police since 2013, despite being only 13% of the population. There are differences in killing rates by police agency, but the differences are not a function of the amount of crime in the district, or the racial makeup of the district. Jurisdictions where police violence is not tolerated and is met with discipline and/or legal action have less police violence. (For these statistics and many more, see mappingpoliceviolence.org).
The speaker emphasized the difficult position law enforcement is in. Law enforcement is a complex and difficult job, juggling conflicting needs of large numbers of constituents. The job can be fatally dangerous or mind-numbingly boring for the exact same call, and thus an officer must always be ready on high-alert yet respond appropriately. No credible group thinks all police officers are murderers. Some of us are more inclined to address what seem to be bad actors in a good system, while others of us are more inclined to think a bad system will ratchet up the violence in all officers. This is a worthy and important discussion, yet no matter where on the spectrum of opinions reformers lie, it is not the same thing as painting all police officers as murderers. It is unfair to accuse reform minded people as feeling that way. It is a way of distracting the public and discouraging reforms.
The struggles of police officers as a group and of blacks as a group are not comparable. An officer has tremendous official power and has access to training in best practices for effective and safe outcomes for the officer and the community. An officer is compensated for taking significant personal risk, often with benefit packages that (rightly) consider the increased possibility of the officer not coming home. It is voluntary to take on a position in law enforcement, and it is possible to resign if it no longer suits the incumbent. When an officer is killed there is near universal, mainstream distress for the officer, his/her family, and the senselessness of the death. A black person, on the other hand, has no official authority by virtue of race, can never “resign” it or take a break from subtle and unsubtle microaggressions, and discrimination in school, employment, housing, health care, trips to the local grocery, and more. There is no “benefit package” to compensate for risks of brown skin. When a person of color is killed, the victim is often viciously blamed for his/her death before a funeral and ahead of evidence. When law enforcement is involved, as an official agency, their reports can be and are reported by the press, because the press is protected from defamation by getting official information. On the other hand, eyewitness or victim reports are not reported unless there is collaboration, especially if there is risk of accusing law enforcement of inappropriate conduct untruthfully. The police are at a tremendous advantage for pre-investigation messaging.
The rant was appropriate for a debate at a tavern. (Although, as he is in a leadership position in a company that is not allowed to discriminate against its employees by race, I am not certain it was an appropriate position for this speaker to take at a tavern.) It did not belong at a public High School graduation. It is heart-breaking that it occurred where my children and neighbors go to school. The speech was racist and factually wrong.
Are my children learning to resist progress on racial justice? Are they afraid of being “cowards” for bravely standing up for justice? Are they afraid they are victimizing police by considering reforms? Could this erode my children’s respect for teachers of color? People of color? For themselves? How can my children reconcile these words that they are taught are hurtful by their parents, with the respect their parents insist they pay their school administrators? The speech was a huge, unsubtle microaggression, but the lessons taught to children were subtle, damaging to character development, and confusing.
It got worse. The speaker decided to silence countering opinions. In the video, the audience is heard giving disagreeing “honks” from their car horns as he gave his outrageous remarks. He claimed they were cowards honking from the safety of their cars. He challenged those who disagreed to come to speak to him, but the school staff and police prevented the willing from doing so. What were those school staff thinking, allowing the speaker to continue AND to call those who disagree names while stopping feedback? What did the students learn from that? Might makes right? Even if the facts are false and/or irrelevant? That their school administrators supported it with the backing of local police?
I read in the press that both the superintendent and the school board apologized for “any” hurt. I read that the school plans to post the entire ceremony including the keynote speech, as well as a video with the hate speech removed. (At my last check, nothing of the ceremony was posted.) When they are, I hope the comments are clearly marked as racist, and attitudes that the public-school district does not tolerate or teach. I hope the lack of academic rigor is also critiqued. I hope that the inaccurate information is corrected, and that false equivalences are identified and explained. I hope the school explains that “you are a coward!” is not an argument; it is bullying.
So far, the responses are insufficient. Apologizing for “any” hurt suggests the person hurt might be too sensitive; that speech SHOULD have hurt and angered anyone who is anti-racist, pro-scholarship, or anti-bullying. The response takes no responsibility for not vetting the speech, not interrupting the speech, and then not forcefully disavowing it. The district must do much more before I can forgive this. I cannot imagine how I would feel if I had member of the class of 2020 and had to see that live. I cannot imagine how I would feel if I were parenting a child of color. I cannot imagine how I would feel parenting a child from ANY disadvantaged group, as the supremacy supported by the school could make me take a second look at past experiences. I am looking for future responses to this by the district. Those responses will tell me how this district really feels about children.
Yorktown Resident and YCSD parent