Seeking a Better Way
Editor’s Note: The nationwide calls for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans have reached Holland and Hope as well. Local events have included a peaceful march and demonstration in the city attended by more than 2,000 people. At Hope, the summer has seen even more faculty, staff and students away from campus than usual because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the college has held a series of online town halls for students, alumni, and faculty and staff to share their experiences — part of an intensified effort to understand, and to improve the college’s culture accordingly. News from Hope College invited Trustee, award-winning journalist and frequent contributor Jim McFarlin ’74 to reflect on the movement, his time at Hope, and what he has learned from students and other alumni of color. It’s not what long-time readers might have come to expect from the magazine, but as Jim says: There can be no change without communication.
The phone call came a half century ago — wait, that can’t possibly be right — but I remember it like it happened last Saturday.
I was watching a Saturday afternoon NFL playoff game between the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings. Now, I’m a West Michigan native and bleed Honolulu blue and silver, but the Vikings played outdoors in those days and it was always fun to watch pretty-boy LA quarterback Roman Gabriel freeze his passes off in the arctic Midwest chill.
I had the house to myself, blissfully engrossed in professional sports. Then the phone rang.
It was a recruiter for some place called Hope College. Though I grew up less than 25 miles from its campus, I had never heard of it before. Didn’t matter. I had applied to Arizona State University, and four years in Tempe sounded infinitely sweeter than four more years of Lake Effect.
I tried to politely brush him off, but the man just would not get off the phone. “We’ve heard so much about you…we would love to have you consider Hope College…we could arrange a campus tour for you….”
Did the Vikings just score a touchdown? “Fine, fine, I’ll do it!” I finally relented. “Make arrangements with my guidance counselor. I’ll come see your college.”
Isn’t God amazing? Assisted by a small vault full of financial aid I ended up attending Hope College, renouncing a major university with “Devils” in its culture.
It was the pivotal decision of my life.
Upon arriving, I immersed myself in the college experience. I ran track, joined the freshman Pull team, worked for The Anchor and WTHS, rushed the Cosmopolitan Fraternity. There could not have been more than 50 of my fellow African Americans at Hope during that era: I knew them all by name. Many were “imported” to Holland through an arrangement with Southern Normal School in Brewton, Alabama.
It didn’t take long before I realized why the college pursued me so aggressively. Because my mother was brought up from Georgia to be maid and nanny for a family that settled in the small resort village of Spring Lake, Michigan, and remained there after she got married and had a son, I grew up as the only Black youth in a village filled with Caucasians. I lived among them. I knew their ways. I would be a sociologist’s dream. And with all U.S. colleges and universities under intense federal pressure to diversify after passage of the Civil Rights Act six years earlier, I was a prized commodity for a school like Hope: pre-assimilated, and from the same area code.
I like to think I made the most of my opportunity. My journalism professor, David Osborne, helped launch my 40-year career as a professional writer. My English professor, Jack Ridl, remains a dear friend to this day. My support of the college led to serving two terms on the Alumni Board of Directors. I was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 2019 — at an affair attended by more than a dozen Cosmo brothers from coast to coast — and was honored to accept an invitation to join Hope’s Board of Trustees this year.
Looking back now, I think a case could be made that I was able to use my race to my advantage. They needed me. You and I both know, however, that in America such storylines are typically either the stuff of Hollywood scripts or wishful thinking.
Because ever since the first unwilling Africans were dragged here aboard the White Lion in 1619 (or by Christopher Columbus in the late 1490s, depending upon which version of history you endorse) to build this country for free, race has been the single most divisive, contentious and suffocating issue afflicting our nation. But now, thanks to a single left knee in Minneapolis, 2020 may provide extraordinary new vision.
The horrifying Memorial Day murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by a quartet of police officers led by Derek Chauvin (what a perfectly ironic surname) has galvanized and inspired this land like no time since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Floyd’s death was no more significant or egregious than that of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner… I could go on, but I would fill the page. However, his killing became a catalytic moment in our society, igniting massive ongoing protests, legitimizing the Black Lives Matter movement, even indirectly setting Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben free.
I have a theory why the killing of George Floyd was the tipping point in this sudden examination of racial equality in America. Want to hear it?
Like everything else in life, it was a matter of timing. The operative word here is disproportionate. Floyd’s murder came just as the nation was first loosening its “stay at home” restrictions prompted by COVID-19. The virus has sickened and killed a disproportionate number of African Americans, meaning Blacks have been the largest segment of our society watching loved ones die without being able to touch or say goodbye to them.
Meanwhile, as our economy bottomed out due to virus-induced closings, Blacks, who hold a disproportionate number of lower-paying jobs, were losing them. Millions filed for unemployment benefits. So you have people confined to their homes day after day, trapped inside their family dynamics, many struggling with unresolved grief and illness. They’re out of work, nearly out of money. It’s a never-before combination of stressors, pressure is building, and there’s no relief in sight.
Then, suddenly, the world witnesses an unspeakable act of brutality: a white police officer, a symbol of authority, with his left knee on the neck of a Black man for eight minutes and 47 seconds. (Many people, including members of Congress, have taken a knee for that exact length of time to see how it feels. You try it. And while new information suggests it may have been seven minutes and 46 seconds — oh, big difference — there’s also evidence Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe” 30 times.) It was oppression personified, and Chauvin appeared so comfortable and nonchalant while cutting off Floyd’s air supply. THAT’S IT! Simmering anger, months in isolation, time on our hands. The long smoldering volcano erupted. We can’t breathe either!
George Floyd’s death was the release valve, the perfect storm. As comedian Jon Stewart suggests, America had time to stop and smell the racism. And the odor is especially putrid when it’s in your own backyard.
I cannot recall anyone hurling the N-word at me during my four years at Hope. And given that the first time I heard it was when I was passing a playground at the age of five and remember it to this day, I think that would have stuck with me. However, another Hope alum of color made me aware of a current African American undergrad for whom Holland has become Hell.
I reached out to him. We spoke on the phone at length and I assured him I would do everything possible to address and champion his concerns from my position on the Board of Trustees. A horrible but isolated experience, I assumed. Then in June I was invited to participate in an “Alumni of Color Town Hall” Zoom meeting co-hosted by Alumni Board representative Toni Gordon ’09 and Hope President Matt Scogin ’02.
The evening began cordially enough. “As alumni your voices are important and will continue to be,” our first-year president offered. “We lean on you for continued advice and wisdom as we at Hope College continue to strive to get better.” Several alums of color had been asked to present remarks, after which the event opened up for questions and answers.
After an hour, I had to log off. I was crying.
It was a visceral, emotional encounter, as speaker after speaker recounted their Hope experience from a place of deep pain years after earning their diplomas. Because the world demands so much, I believe your college years should be the most enjoyable and memorable of your life. These are not the memories I had in mind.
Hope College can’t help being what it is, nor should it apologize for its history or geography. We are in West Michigan. Like that rival school in Grand Rapids, we are an HDCU: Historically Dutch College or University. There aren’t a ton of white kids at Grambling, either.
Having said that, when I attended Hope there was no Center for Diversity and Inclusion, no forerunner of center director and Associate Dean of Students Vanessa Greene, no annual Dr. Martin Luther King Civil Rights Lecture, no Black Student Union. There was no Phelps Scholars Program, which has been hailed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities as an outstanding example of diversity but is described by some African American alums as separate-but-equal isolation.
I don’t recall a single Black faculty member during my time as a student, few if any staffers. (And while continuing efforts are made, it may be as hard to recruit faculty of color to Holland, Michigan, as it is to woo Black students. Harder, maybe.) Significant change has been made, but an undergrad’s time on campus is so relatively brief that it’s hard to appreciate the grand sweep.
And in this most remarkable and pivotal moment in American history, where a rainbow coalition of humanity is marching and protesting coast to coast, where privilege is being acknowledged and social conduct scrutinized, when the great evangelist Bishop T. D. Jakes says we must “move from protest to policy,” the questions are the same for Hope as they are nationwide: ultimately, what does change look like? How will we know when we’ve achieved it? Is the definition of societal change the same for everyone? How much change is enough?
One thing is crystal: there can be no change without communication. I’ve read numerous columnists over the years, Thaddeus Howze and Leonard Pitts among them, who say they’re sick and tired of trying to explain to white people what it’s like to be Black in America. I could not disagree more.
Growing up where I did, I’m certain that for hundreds of people I am the only Black person they know — or at least, know well enough to ask serious, direct questions about race. And while my standard response used to begin, “Well, speaking for all Black people everywhere…,” wisdom has shown me that when someone musters up the courage to ask an uncomfortable question of a friend, sarcasm should not be the immediate response. It’s true: no white person can know what it is to be Black in America. That doesn’t mean we should stop answering their questions if they sincerely wish to understand. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.” We can’t self-isolate, then wonder why we can’t integrate.
Back in Holland, few colleges enjoy a better town-gown relationship with their community than Hope. However, students of all colors need to recognize all bets are off once they hit 8th Street. Given that, the campus should be a haven, a place of shelter from the storm, especially at an institution so proud of its Christian heritage and orientation. No school can legislate the hearts and minds of its students. It can only pray that its environment will elevate each student to a greater appreciation and empathy for their fellow scholar.
Hope, of course, exists in a context. The deep divisions we are experiencing in our country find their way to our campus. As President Scogin has observed, however, such division runs contrary to the vision we find in the Bible. The past few months have energized people nationwide to unite in demanding meaningful change on behalf of racial justice. That’s not just an aspiration but a mandate for a community of faith. I am encouraged that Hope is trying to respond to the current moment by looking into the mirror, listening to the voices of those who are hurting and seeking Angelou’s better way, and I am honored to be a part of the process as both an alumnus and a member of the Board of Trustees.
According to all reports, this fall’s incoming class, if they’re actually allowed to come in, will be one of the most racially diverse in Hope’s history. Heaven, help us: Help us to find the strength, wisdom and courage as a college family to work together in making the academic experience what it should be for all our students. May we become the model that our nation and the world so desperately need.
NOTE: Earlier this summer, the college established the website “Inclusive Excellence” to create a dashboard for understanding and measuring the college’s efforts to prohibit racism on campus and foster a diverse, welcoming community. Crucially, the site includes, and emphasizes, an opportunity for the members of the Hope family to provide input and share their experiences. Please visit, learn and help make Hope the model.