Commentary by Matthew C. Nelson, National Chair, National Society of Black Engineers
It is with a heavy heart that I offer my first official communication as the national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
I find myself in a difficult situation when responding to recent instances of social injustice. A significant portion of the revenue used by NSBE to fund scholarships and programs for aspiring, young Black minds comes from corporations seeking to increase their diversity through their relationships with our organization. I hope this letter does not estrange them. However, our mutual goal of a diverse engineering workforce is unattainable when Black students are more worried for their lives than about their lectures, and when Black employees lose productivity over concerns of prejudice.
Over the past few days, the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have peeled back the scab that covers the septic state of race relations in America. These incidents are especially concerning given the manner in which they occurred – Sterling shot while being pinned to the ground, Castile while reaching for his wallet at an officer’s command. Although all officers will face investigations to determine legal culpability, the visceral reaction evoked is one of shock, fear and fury. The most frightening notion is that our compliance with law enforcement officers may no longer be sufficient for survival. Recent events have caused individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of science, technology, engineering and math to question the relevance of their education in a society that undervalues their lives.
However, the value of life is not exclusive to one race or one profession. The solution to addressing the concerns of our community certainly does not reside in the assassination of public safety officials. Incidents like the recent shootings of police in Dallas during a peaceful protest make a hazardous atmosphere even more toxic. Just as we are praying for the families of the Black men slain, we pray for the families of the police officers who were struck down while in the line of duty.
The issues plaguing the Black community extend far beyond police brutality. Unemployment, lack of access to services, underfunded educational systems, the prison-industrial complex, Black on Black crime, etc. – all of those concerns need to be addressed. However, we must not avoid confronting the ugly truths around policing in America. We must hold our elected officials responsible for the conduct of the officers who work on their behalf. A sheriff is typically an elected official. A police chief or commissioner is usually appointed by a mayor or city council. Research your candidates for government offices, and continue to voice your concerns once they begin their terms.
In addition, leverage your economic power to influence policy. Choose wisely when deciding where you will live and pay taxes. Make the choice to shop and dine in areas where Black consumers are welcomed and appreciated, not labeled and harassed. Take note of the response from the LGBT community to North Carolina House Bill Two (to enact laws regarding gender assignment and restrooms) and the effect of that response on that state’s economy. Circumstances will not change until the message is made clear … the unjustified use of force against Blacks will be met with swift political and economic repercussions.
Times like these challenge our belief in justice and our faith in humanity, yet we still must march on, carrying the burdens of oppression, discrimination and hatred in a country that often fails to acknowledge our contributions, our place in society and our rights as citizens. Although these events have obviously rocked us to our very core, emotionally and spiritually, this is not the time for us to lose sight of our mission. It is imperative that we continue to expose our people to opportunities and encourage each other to strive for excellence, while engaging in meaningful dialogue about how to navigate today’s world. Cultural responsibility must prevail.
If you take nothing else from this commentary, please understand that as the leader of NSBE, I feel the same pain, anger, confusion and hopelessness you may be feeling. When one of us is hurting, we all feel the effects. I realize that NSBE cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of the Black community. We may not be able to address them all, but we must be cognizant of their impact.
Toward this end, I have activated NSBE’s Cultural Responsibility Task Force for our 2016–2017 program year. The purpose of this entity will be, in part, to respond to issues that affect Black communities; to create a safe space online where our members can express their frustrations about racism without fear of repercussions; and to write reports that capture concerns about racism on college campuses that have active NSBE chapters.
I pray for your understanding of the constraints placed on our society with regard to activism, and I hope for the day when Black Lives Matter is a historical reference and no longer a current cry for justice.