Black/Hispanic Alumni Association Dinner - Keynote Address by Jonathan Lightfoot

Hofstra University Club, David S. Mack Hall, North Campus

Thank you to Gwendolyn Wade, the BHAA officers and the Dinner Committee for the invitation to speak to you this evening at the annual Black/Hispanic Alumni Association Dinner. It is an honor. Congratulations to all the honorees and scholarship recipients. Let’s give them another round of applause. I’ll tell you like Jennifer Lopez told P Diddy, Cris Judd, Tommy Mottola, Casper, Ben Affleck, and Drake, “I won’t hold you long”. If I were to give my remarks a title, it would be:
Wake Up! Stay Woke! Leadership for Social Justice in the New World Order
I will attempt to make connections between the title of my talk and the theme of this year’s affair, Raising the Bar for Defining Excellence. Now I must be straight up with you. I come from the old school and the Black Church tradition of Call and Response. Black preachers and orators don’t like speaking to a dry, quiet or dead crowd. In fact, there is a story of a Black preacher who delivered a powerful message of truth and hope to a bunch of dead dry bones and brought them back to life. I can’t promise that I will bring your dead spirit back to life but I will try to wake you up if you are sleep and share some words of wisdom to keep your hope alive and impress upon you the need for you to stay woke during these trying times. I like audience participation so don’t be afraid to holla, say amen, I hear you brother or say what? Now in the spirit of audience participation do me a favor, turn to the neighbor on your left, look them in the eye and say, “WAKE UP”! Now turn to the neighbor on your right and say, “STAY WOKE”!

Back in the day, 1975 to be precise, there was a popular song out by the group Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead called “Wake Up Everybody”. The lyrics speak a powerful truth to our world in 2017 as it did 42 years ago (Play 1st verse; stop at 1:49):

Wake up everybody no more sleepin' in bed
No more backward thinkin' time for thinkin' ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be
There is so much hatred war an' poverty
Wake up all the teachers time to teach a new way
Maybe then they'll listen to whatcha have to say
'Cause they're the ones who's coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children teach em the very best you can
The world won't get no better if we just let it be
The world won't get no better we gotta change it yeah, just you and me
The boss only gave me so many minutes to deliver my message so I don’t have time to tell you how I really feel about the new world order we now live in where left is right, up is down, where a lie masquerades as the truth, where facts are spun into alternative facts, where justice becomes an exclusive commodity called ‘just us’, where a so-called president carries out his executive duties on the golf course at his private resort and wakes up at 3 in the morning to tweet his disdain for someone who pissed him off the day before and where moral courage takes a back seat to partisanship and market capitalism. No, I don’t have enough time to talk about how Putin and his Russian spies helped the tangerine machine steal the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Neither do I have time to talk about the neoliberal educational reform movement that seeks to destroy public education in favor of private and parochial schools and headed by an education secretary who embarrassed herself on national TV during her Senate confirmation hearing because did not know the answer to several basic education policy questions such as what is the difference between student ‘proficiency’ and student ‘growth’. Furthermore, I don’t have enough time to talk about transgender bathrooms, wiretapping, Obamacare, Muslim bans, the Mexican border wall to be built to block bad hombres from immigrating to the U.S. I can’t get into what’s going on with the CIA, the FBI, North Korea, China, Syria, Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s clothing line, fake news and the new U.S. Attorney General who wants to take us back to the 1980s with his drug policy by borrowing a line from the Reagan administration’s first lady, Nancy, who told us to ‘Just Say No’ to drugs. Today, April 22, is Earth Day and I don’t have time to further chastise a presidential administration that denies climate change and is rolling back policy put in place to protect our ecosystem. People marched all over the world today in protest of these science bandits. But let’s be clear, scientists are not marching today to condemn scientific racism (natural and social scientist’s efforts to ‘scientifically’ prove white superiority and black inferiority), sexism and heterosexism. They are marching to protest this administration’s budget cuts to their scientific research. Finally, on the lighter pop culture side, I regret we don’t have time to talk about O.J., the Kardashians, Kanye, flat earth conspiracy theorist Kyrie Irving, the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Beyoncé’s twins, Flo-Rida’s baby mama drama, Prince, Janet Jackson’s baby, Mel B., Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Facebook Live, Mariah Carey, etc. etc. etc.

But I do have a minute to talk about Bill O’Reilly who was fired this week while on vacation ostensibly because of the mounting sexual harassment claims against him. How many of you all know that is not the real reason he is being paid over $25 million to walk away from Fox network’s most highly rated show? The evidence is clear that the network knew of his serial sexual harassment of women for more than a decade. They had paid over $13 million to settle several lawsuits with women who accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment yet they continued to contract him season after season for 20 years. So why now? Let’s do the math. Several women get a total of $13 million while Roger Ailes gets $40 million and O’Reilly gets $25 million to get lost, a total of $65 million. That is a pretty compelling case for the benefits of sexual harassment. It pays! O’Reilly, in case you did not know, grew up right up the road in Levittown, Long Island, a town famous for its racially restricted real estate covenants that prevented Black and Brown folks from buying houses there to live alongside white folks. His show on Fox was a bombastic display of the most racist, misogynist and vitriolic drivel imaginable during prime-time TV. He used his white male privilege back in 2002 to get Pepsi to pull their sponsorship of Ludacris because he thought Luda degraded women. Hmm… I think they call that poetic justice. He once told a friend and colleague of mine, Mark Lamont Hill, a professor at Morehouse and one of the most intelligent and articulate (Yes, I can call another black man articulate) scholars of our time that he looked like a drug dealer on national TV. And most recently, last month, O’Reilly and his studio guests were watching Elder congresswoman Maxine Waters on tape deliver a scathing attack on the patriotism of the so-called president’s loyal supporters. His response to her speech was, “I did not hear a word she said because I was (too) focused on her James Brown wig”. He then further disrespected her by saying he loved her and thought she should get her own sitcom. I chose to pause here to discuss Bill O’Reilly because I find him emblematic, along with other media provocateurs like him, who use their media platforms to uphold white supremacy and fuel further oppression and marginalization of people of color. The tangerine machine rode this ship straight to the white house. Essentially, America says if you are a racist, misogynist egomaniacal narcissist you can’t host a cable TV show but you can be president. So, to reiterate my earlier question, why is Fox cutting ties with Bill O’Reilly now after 15 years at the top of the cable ratings? Once the corporate sponsorship abandoned the ship, it no longer became profitable to continue the racist, sexist and xenophobic narrative. Money was the motivator, not the moral imperative!

As Hofstra alums, I assume that you are interested in keeping up with your alma mater and have a vested interest in its growth as an institution. I can share at least one change at Hofstra that I count as a step in the right direction. It is the creation of the new Center for “Race”, Culture and Social Justice. I am the director and am assisted by Drs. Benita Sampedro and Santiago Slabodsky as associate directors. We have convened an impressive array of advisory board members representing all levels of the Hofstra community including administrators, faculty, students, staff and alumni. Our goal is to raise Hofstra’s level of awareness and sensitivity to the insidious and invidious ways in which racism and racial politics can negatively impact the professional working environment and student learning experience on our campus. Additionally, the Center seeks to move Hofstra beyond tolerance of cultural difference to acceptance and realization that difference does not mean deficient and understanding that cultural difference is an indication of institutional strength and a demonstration of progressive pluralistic democratic values. Finally, the Center will work to advocate social justice, a concept often debated and challenged by many factions within a society. Dictionary definitions often fall short in their attempts to define the term. Many describe it in terms of the relative distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. My attempts to contextualize this meaning would ask social advocates to place their plan of action for social justice work in historical, contemporary and futuristic context. You cannot repair the damage of yesterday’s social sins if you won’t acknowledge what they were. Accordingly, you cannot continue to ignore the contemporary vestiges of yesterday’s treatment of marginalized and oppressed people. The trauma of enslavement and racialized segregation has produced post-traumatic stress disorder across a wide spectrum of Black and Brown population groups. Examples of what the legacy of legalized slavery, segregation and oppression looks like include a broken education and school system for Black, Brown and poor students; a system of mass incarceration and criminal injustice that primarily targets Black and Brown boys and men (Did you know that the United States is home to only 5% of the world’s population yet it is home to more than 25% of the world’s prison population, of which more than 60% are Black and Brown men (something is disturbingly wrong with that picture-you must go see the academy award nominated documentary film 13th); When you criminalize and lock up a large number of the most vulnerable community’s members, the result is  a vicious cycle of family dysfunction, self-destructive behavior and chaos. Still we rise…

As Hofstra alumni, I am sure you regularly receive requests for money to support various institutional fund raising campaigns. Hofstra wants you to be successful because it improves their chances of you writing bigger checks as donors. If you write a big enough check, they may even name a building after you. My appeal to you as the director of the new Center for “Race”, Culture and Social Justice is to recognize your power as the Black Hispanic Alumni Association and demand that Hofstra keeps its word to support the vision of the new Center to improve the campus climate and culture with regards to “race” and social justice. Specifically, to increase and retain faculty of color across all disciplines, address these issues at the curricular level for students, provide administration and staff with diversity awareness and sensitivity training and education and look for opportunities to effectively engage the Hofstra community with the larger community. As the BHAA, you can monitor the development and change sought by the new Center. You can earmark your donations to help support these diversity initiatives. The university will get the message when you choose to reward or not to reward their efforts at becoming a more inclusive campus community. Before the evening is over use the index cards we gave you to write down at least one thing you would like the Center to accomplish with regards to “race”, culture and social justice. Think back to your time at Hofstra and what you wished Hofstra could have done to improve your experience as a person of color. You are welcome to include your name and contact information if you want to get involved with the Center. I will take your ideas back to the board.

There are three (3) points I want to make and we can get on with our evening. You will raise the bar and redefine excellence if you:
  1. Learn to love freedom and justice. Wake up and open your eyes, your mind and your heart to the truth. Yes, the truth can be a bitter pill to swallow and the truth can hurt sometimes but trust me, the truth will beat a lie any day of the week.
  2. Accept your role as leaders in your community. As college graduates, some of you have multiple degrees, and as Hofstra alum you are expected to use your talents and gifts to help and serve those who were not as fortunate as you to get a higher education. If leadership is about anything, it is about cultivating a vision and serving humanity. Leadership is service. From personal experience, I can tell you that the highest paying job is not always the most satisfying job for you. Be open to a variety of employment opportunities including working for yourself as an entrepreneur, non-profits and advocacy work.
  3. Despite the crazy world we live in with all the violence, war, rumors of war, political fighting and partisanship, take time to live, laugh and love because life is short. You must tend to your physical, mental and spiritual health. Form coalitions across so-called racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender lines. A wise sage once said: Everyone who is your color is not your kind and everyone who is your kind is not your color. If you want to find the genius that will help you live your best life, try being genuine. When you are first true to yourself and real with others, you will have found your genius.
In the words of the rapper and poetic genius, Kendrick Lamar: We gon’ be alright… We gon’ be alright… We gon’ be alright.

Thanks for listening and enjoy the rest of the evening!

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