‘I am angry. I am frustrated. And I am overwhelmed by our slow progress’


Ron Idoko, the diversity and multi-cultural program manager for Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, began the “I Can’t Breathe” town hall on June 3 with a quote from famed African-American author and intellectual James Baldwin, which captured his emotions at the moment:


The “I Can’t Breathe” town hall was a last-minute addition to the “This is Not Normal: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19” town hall series. Previous sessions are all available on the Office of Diversity and Inclusion website. Topics have included: “Health, Law Enforcement and the Media”; “Xenophobia and Hate Crimes”; and “Faith in an Age of Pandemic.”

Two more town halls are upcoming:

  • “Holes in the Safety Net: The Forgotten Needs of People with Disabilities Under Quarantine,” noon-1:30 p.m. June 24. Register here.
  • “Toxic Recipe: The Historical Ingredients for American Inequity,” noon-1:30 p.m. July 8. Register here.

Diversity Forum

The University also will hold the 2020 Diversity Forum — “Advancing Social Justice: A Call To Action” — from July 28 to 30. It will focus on outlining the key concepts for social justice education and implementation of inclusive policies and practices. Featured speakers include Ibram Kendi, author of the New York Times bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist” and the winner of the National Book Award. Register here by July 21.

“To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a state of rage, almost all the time.”

This rage can be felt across the country, Idoko said, as African-Americans continue to fight systemic oppression “in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.”

And that rage was present among the panel of activists, scholars, mental health experts and African-American leaders at Pitt, who called for immediate action to address equity, inclusion and racial injustice at the University of Pittsburgh and throughout the U.S.

Panelists included Valerie Kinloch, dean of the School of Education; Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey; Jason Lando, commander of the Vice and Narcotics division of the Pittsburgh Police Department; Jamil Bey, the president and CEO of the think tank, UrbanKind Institute; and Jay Darr, director of the University Counseling Center.

The panel was moderated by Paula Davis, assistant vice chancellor for Health Sciences Diversity, and Idoko.

The incident that led to the town hall happened on May 25, when a white Minneapolis police officer dug his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. Floyd died later that day, sparking a wave of ongoing protests throughout the country and world.

Humphrey asked participants to step into Floyd’s shoes for a moment by holding their breath for as long as they could.

“While, you may have felt some discomfort,” she said once the exercise was done. “George Floyd was suffocated for nine minutes. Nine minutes pleading for a chance to live. Since 1619, black folks, African-American folks in this country have been suffocating in this systematic injustice that has been woven into the fabric of our country. And I am angry. And I am frustrated. And I am overwhelmed by our slow progress.”

Bey said the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed the scars” of deeply rooted structural racism against African-Americans — racial disparities in employment, wealth, comorbidities, housing and the legal system. Floyd’s death combined with these long-running issues effectively “ignited a powder keg,” Bey said.

“This was ripe,” Bey said. “The country’s ripe for a change in transformation, and we don’t have leadership that’s ready to help direct us through this conversation.”

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric in response to the protests and the gradual militarization and violent tactics employed by police departments across the country are not addressing the root of the outrage, Bey said.

Police response

Lando called Floyd’s death “heartbreaking,” and said he was “disgusted” with the footage.

He then defended the Pittsburgh Police Department, saying that he and others within the department have been working to prevent similar incidents from happening in the city.

“I was disgusted by what I saw, and I’ve had several sleepless nights over it,” Lando said. “Not only because Mr. Floyd lost his life completely unnecessarily, but because we’ve been doing work here in Pittsburgh for the past several years to combat exactly what happened in Minneapolis.”

Some of that work includes expanding training on procedural justice and implicit bias and having officers connect with youth in disadvantaged communities, he added.

But Floyd’s death resonates with many around the country, Lando said, and could threaten to derail the progress officers have made.

“I think all you need to do is turn the TV on, and you see that everywhere across the country, everyone’s affected,” Lando said. “I almost feel like all the work we’ve done for the past five years — we’ve risked just flushing it down the toilet because of this one incident.

“This was a tremendous backslide for us. And we have a lot of ground to make up for.”

‘You have to name it’

Darr said his experiences as an African-American man in the U.S. have forced him to be hypervigilant to his encounters with law enforcement.

He said he relates to Humphrey’s frustration, and that Floyd’s death and systemic racism have left him feeling “angry, helpless, hopeless and vulnerable,” and worried for his sons and his colleagues.

African-Americans are constantly exposed to the stress of racism, Darr said, which can lead to health complications in the future. Stress increases the levels of cortisol in the human body, making it difficult to function.

Darr offered a series of tips for the Pitt community to cope with the feelings that may arise during this time:

  • Unplug from social media and television, even if it’s just for 30 seconds or a few minutes.

  • Express yourself and your feelings by talking to family and friends or producing art during the time you are unplugged.

  • Get plenty of sleep to allow your body to recharge and recover from stress.

Darr added that it can be helpful to acknowledge and name the root causes of systemic inequality.

“I want us to be unapologetic in that response because that helps us move to action,” Darr said. “As a clinician, when we work with folks to support them, we say ‘hey you have to name it. You have to name it to begin to grow and to deal with it.’”

Kinloch then doubled down on this point, saying that the U.S. is a capitalist, patriarchal society with a legacy of white imperialism and colonialism that perpetuates systemic racism and oppression.

“We can’t move forward as a nation or a country or a world without naming ‘systemic oppression.’ We cannot move forward without naming ‘white supremacy.’ We cannot ever move forward without naming the histories and the legacies of assault that have always been directed toward black and brown bodies in this country and hence in this entire world.”

She added that it will be difficult to address these issues and will take a combined effort from all communities to acknowledge and dismantle them.

“We cannot be anti-racist if we are not asking ourselves, ‘What are we doing? How are we responsible? How are we implicated in this work?’ And then, ‘What are we going to do to ensure that the lives of black people and indigenous people are not just protected, but recognized and valued in everything that we do?’”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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