January 13, 2022

Rallies and marches are expressions of shared purpose and community that inspire people to move forward, together, to address the social, economic, and structural problems of our time. They are places to find allies and express solidarity.

They also require us to take the time and understanding to dig beneath slogans and signs. That’s a strength of Westminster, which can be hard to find nowadays, particularly in public spaces. Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of local business owners and politicians who were reviewing soon-to-be-released survey data regarding the legislative priorities of Utahns. The questions were about people’s beliefs about things like air quality, housing, and education, with respondents broken out by age, race, and political affiliation.

One of the questions asked respondents to take a side: did they believe that America was still a land of opportunity, where everybody has equal opportunities to succeed regardless of where they were born, the wealth of their family, or their race? Or, did they believe that opportunities depend entirely on your circumstances at birth, such as family wealth and race? Choose one “truth.”

The question itself is not only problematic; it’s dangerous. It divides an important and complex issue polarizing political extremes. Any novice student of logic recognizes an either/or fallacy, where 2 alternative realities are presented as the only, mutually exclusive ones. For instance, do we really think that race never matters in access to education, or social services, or health care? Do we really think that race determines all opportunities and that individual actions never matter?

I doubt it. But, of course, we can’t even begin to have an informed and complex discussion about when race matters most, informed by history, social science, and legal studies, when we’ve already divided the world into mutually exclusive realities about racism that, in the end, serve only a privileged few. Either race always determines what you can achieve, or it never does. End of discussion.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. deserves nuanced, contextualized, and robust understanding. King spoke about racial inequities in housing, health care, education, and economic and foreign policy. He was controversial in his time, and his ideas deserve more consideration than short quotes appropriated for political gain. To what extent have our laws, policies, and practices become more equitable over the past 60 years? What effects do patterns of discrimination have on access to health care, accumulation of intergenerational wealth, and educational achievement? How can we discuss historical trajectories, develop informed perspectives, and become a more anti-racist world if we can’t even ask the questions?

That’s where we’re headed—to a world where questioning is a threat, books are banned, historical inquiry is off-limits, and debates are constructed to harden rigid worldviews rather than open new possibilities. “The war on science, on expertise, on facts, on journalism, on democracy necessitates a concomitant war on history. And the war on history is the war on education—as history is essentially educational.” (Ibram Kendi). This is a war where, ultimately, everyone loses.

So let me speak to you today as students and teachers, as learners and leaders. My call to you on this day, and every day, is to resist reductionism, dig deeper than labels, seek to understand experiences other than your own, be courageous in your willingness to learn from difference, and lead by example. This is who we are, when we are Westminster.

Beth Dobkin