A Personal Message about Racial Justice

Dear Friends and Partners,

The past several weeks have been a period of profound grief and anger. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Their senseless murders represent the ugly reality of racism and the savage toll it takes on Black Americans.

I think about my own grandfather who died after a farming accident in Arkansas because the one-room clinic for Black patients did not have the necessary equipment for a blood transfusion, and the white hospital turned him away. The hospital was too afraid his blood could get mixed with white people’s blood. After he died, my grandmother moved her five sons and three daughters to Minneapolis, because of its lack of capital punishment. She hoped they’d be safer there—that they’d be able to live free from the very real threat of a racist and predatory criminal justice system.

My grandmother, Sarah Gatlin

Arguably, my father had a better life in Minneapolis than he would have in Arkansas, but racism still ran deep where his family lived and worked. In fact, he lived in the same neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered and was well aware of issues with the police back then. I dare say little else because my family still lives in the area, and frankly, I’m scared for them.

I reflect on my own experiences, living in California. Despite our rich diversity, our systems were built on racist policies that do little to serve today’s communities equitably. The barriers that face Black Californians are often insurmountable.

I was part of the last class admitted to the University of California, Berkeley while affirmative action was in effect. The experience led me to work with sociologist Jerome Karabel studying the impact of the elimination of affirmative action in the UC and assisting in research for his book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. When I went on to graduate school at another elite, private university, I experienced firsthand how institutions perpetuate the social stratification I had researched with Dr. Karabel. When my classmates and I demanded that Stanford University elevate discussions about race in the curriculum, we were told it would just really upset people.

For me, as it is for many of you, the pain of this moment is personal. I’m making the decision to harness that pain and anger and direct it toward the tremendous work that lies ahead. We stand with our partners in racial justice and want you to know we are committed to doing our part to dismantle structures of inequity in higher education and the workforce—two avenues we promote as pathways to opportunity. But if students and workers are entering broken systems, where is the opportunity?

When I joined California Competes as Executive Director, I was energized to be part of an organization where addressing race head-on is central to our mission, in contrast to many of my experiences in academia. For example, as a graduate student, an advisor said California doesn’t care about race anymore and urged me to leave race out of my dissertation. Later, as a professor, when I insisted my department issue a statement after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a colleague said not to rush to judgement and for us to wait for the criminal justice system to run its course. Now, I’m proud to lead a team that confronts racial injustice and takes a hard look at the data, dissects it to reveal the truth, and then advocates for just solutions. We are committed to advancing policies that will position Black Californians for success in higher education and the workforce.

My family and so many millions of others have carried these burdens for generations. I look forward to the results that come from the actions we take today and tomorrow to eradicate the racism at the root of all of our systems.

In partnership,

Su Jin Gatlin Jez, PhD
Executive Director
California Competes

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