SCHENECTADY — Union College President David Harris said the image of a black man brutalized by police officers has been seared in his mind. That image was of Rodney King, in 1992, being beaten by Los Angeles police.
“I remember Rodney King and I remember all of these others. I’ve seen this cycle,” Harris said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The image of Rodney King with those police is burned into my mind.”
Harris, in a Facebook message posted this weekend and in the phone interview, said it’s tricky for him as the president of a college to speak up on national issues because his comments are so intertwined with the perspective of the college.
But he felt compelled to offer his thoughts this week as the nation is convulsed by the latest round of protests in response to the death of a black person at the hands of police officers – a scene he said he has seen over and over and over during his lifetime.
“While I am president of Union College and extremely proud to be so, I am also a black man,” he said in the message shared on Facebook in which he welcomed others to share their own experiences.
In the message, Harris said he knows firsthand what it’s like to encounter racism or to be seen as a black person before being seen as a person. He said he has seen enough of the country’s history to feel nervous about his own interactions with police.
“I am nervous every time I see a police car in the rear-view mirror or I pass a police car parked on the side of the road,” Harris said in the message. “It’s not that I think all police officers are racist. … it’s that there are enough incidents that occur that it would be hard not to be concerned.”
Harris dropped by Sunday’s protest at Schenectady police headquarters and said he was impressed with how Chief Eric Clifford, a Union alum, took the time to listen to the protesters and their concerns.
As someone who has pursued an academic career and held high-level administrative positions at prestigious colleges, Harris said he is often the only black person in the room. He said that reality serves as a reminder to the institutional racism that prevents so many other people of color from advancing in society.
“I’m often aware that I’m the only person in the room who can’t see a black guy,” he said. “It reminds you that there is something going on systemically that leads some people to be present and some people to be absent, especially in meetings and rooms of power and authority.”
Before Harris turned to academic administration, he was a sociologist who focused on race and inequality. He said he has often see the same cycle of police brutality followed by protests followed by outbreaks of violence and that while he was disgusted to see the video of George Floyd dying while in police custody, he was not surprised by it.
He said it’s important to focus on racial inequality not just in the aftermath of incidents that bring the issue into stark national light but also when that light and attention fades. What will the conversation about these issues be in August or November?
“The question is not what we do when the focus is on it,” he said. “The question is what do we do when no one is watching this… I would be stunned if you didn’t have this kind of outrage now. It’s really important when we move on to something else for everyone to remember, ‘Hey, remember we saw that video?’”
Union College is hosting a virtual panel discussion this week focused on race, giving students and faculty a change to join in the dialogue. And he said it’s important not just for white people to listen to and hear the experiences of people of color but for people of color to listen to the experiences of other people of color or people discriminated against because of their sexuality or gender.
“Action is important but what’s as important as anything else is hearing each other,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s just white folks that need to engage and learn about our experiences; it’s all folks who need to learn about all experiences.”
As Union works to institute its new strategic plan, Harris said, the college is seeking to help students develop core “competencies” that go beyond classic academic practices and the ins and outs of different fields. Students should learn to be more empathetic, more flexible and more caring, he said. He highlighted programs that connect Union students with the broader Schenectady community – like students who volunteer at City Mission or COCOA House – but said the college is still working toward making those experiences a more integral part of a Union education.
“I believe Schenectady needs to get to know us better and Union needs to get to know Schenectady better,” he said.