A respected member of the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE), a professor of engineering at an R1 institution, and a member of a standards committee I chair, wrote this to me just yesterday. His message below is directed at the leadership of ASCE, a professional organization of which he's a member. He's anonymous in this post. His letter clearly points to the personal threat he feels from our society and a feeling of near despair. He wonders why he's focusing on engineering solutions to improving community resiliency when our social fabric is pulling apart. Is the real threat from society from tornadoes and hurricanes, or is it from our huge social inequality and racism? I think all professional societies need to speak out their positions. This personal threat is affecting careers, work productivity, more stress, less productivity, and a threat of a continued downward cycle.
From my colleague directed at the ASCE
Today’s my birthday and I should be celebrating in whatever way the COVID-inspired lockdown will allow. I’m not feeling very celebratory at the moment.
I feel very much under a PTSD cloud as I saw the headline I Cannot Breathe, wondering whether this was the anniversary of Eric Garner’s murder in NYC years ago. Alas, this was a new murder, a lynching by members of the Justice System, who replaced the swinging ropes in the live oak trees of a hundred years ago with the Knee on Neck Asphyxiation Technique to end the life of Mr. George Floyd with his face flattened into the asphalt.
We continue to witness these overt racists acts of a society in decline, where this perpetrator, this police officer, who we now know from his social media accounts can meet the President of our country at a rally and receive accolades, then to proceed with that calm, smug look, to kill another person on the street in broad daylight. And yet, as we watch the demise of our politics, and the loss of any conscience and empathy from our leaders, we the public are all silent, as individuals and as institutions. Crickets can be heard over the protests from our media or from our other institutions and businesses.
After the rancor of this news cycle, all that will remain will be comments about who looked better wearing their mask or not, and how much points the stock exchange had gained. No one will remember George Floyd, the man who was killed on 26 May 2020. Because our society continues to turn away from accusing white people of their racism, or confronting our past inhumane acts or addressing the pernicious hatred for the black skin that goes unchecked. Yet we are comfortable maintaining different standards for the value of life, for blacks versus whites. If the politics fail us what then? If our societal norms are fading away why worry? What is the point of striving for the best engineering solutions if the society itself is being torn apart at its seams? Can we blissfully go on, wearing blinkers ignoring these atrocities because “they weren’t attacking engineers”? Surely our ethical and moral duties as engineers extend beyond the bricks and mortar of our daily production.
Our institutions are becoming more and more irrelevant as we ignore the inequities in our society and the daily abuses of our human rights. Imagine the black engineers in SGH who carry this millstone every day. Consider that for them every site visit into a client’s home could end badly. They wear this badge that they could be accused, attacked or killed for being black and in the wrong place. The silence of ASCE, its members and all engineering companies is deafening in the face of this outrage. ASCE is not alone of course, we all are to blame, but why are we so afraid to do what is right? Or have we all accepted two standards in fact exist, one white, one black?
Until the outrage at the murder of another black man at the hands of a police officer is universally felt and loudly expressed, these lynchings will continue. They are used for racial intimidation, and they are sanctioned by our society. Black men and women will continue to keep a wary eye on our white counterparts who may speak fondly about equality from a safe liberal enclave but when the time comes to stand up and defend our rights, they slink away. Somebody else’s problem. As I proudly wear my ASCE Fellows badge, I know it will not protect me. I know my PhD, or my years of experience, and academic research will be of no value when I am confronted by a police officer who wants to kill a black man on that day. At such time, that’s all I will become just another black man to be made an example of.
When the story of our times are written, do consider which side of this divide should ASCE be? Should we simply ignore the politics and continue our production until the American kristallnacht? Or is it time for us to take a meaningful stand? One person can change the world. One company must make a start. One profession can decide enough is enough. Let us be that profession, Glenn. I hope you and your ASCE/SEI Board will have the courage and determination to start this movement among civil engineers as we seek to make our society a livable place for all.
To say that we still continue to see great injustice in the US is an understatement. We’re seeing COVID attack disadvantaged communities more than others. Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities are disproportionately hit because their members often have to risk exposure to make ends meet. Now we continue to see black people suffer violence by police and vigilantes at a much greater rate than others.
He's not the only one. Every person of color (POC) I know of feels personally threatened. I heard comments from one that worries every time his son leaves the house. Another woman worries about her father's safety every time he's on the road. These are people that are also well respected in meteorological circles. To paraphrase my colleague below, the unfortunate thing is that their well-deserved degrees, titles, and reputations do nothing to them when they're in a community filled with people that may not know them.
Personally, I'm not immune to my own biases. They're so situational. I'm easily imagining my POC colleagues in a conference, all of whom I'm in awe of their accomplishments and productivity. But put them on a street and in a hoodie and I'm embarrassed to say I might have a different impression. The only thing I can do is to use the part of my intellectual brain to overcome such ill-conceived notions and reset my judgment. I will not be that person who calls the police on a black man filling up his car. And if I see such injustice, I hope to be that other person that can defend someone being wrongly charged. My wife, Daphne, sent these links that point to our rights when stopped by police or to document and report any injustices we see.
"One of the things we can do as his colleagues are to read up on our rights: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/
And as the white person we could find ourselves in a position to take photographs or video of the police:
'Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right—and that includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties. … The right of citizens to record the police is a critical check and balance. It creates an independent record of what took place in a particular incident, free from accusations of bias, lying, or faulty memory. It is no accident that some of the most high-profile cases of police misconduct have involved video and audio records.'"
I wish I could do more but perhaps it's best that we (as whites) just shut up and put ourselves in their shoes. Put ourselves in the twilight zone and see what would happen if our places in society were flipped. Maybe practice a few ideas in this article: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234
But at least I can advocate our professional societies to express their intolerance to intolerance. Thus I support my colleague's letter to ASCE below and to my other friend who wrote a similar letter to the American Meteorological Society. I also write this entry to express my solidarity with my friends and colleagues that feel the threat of racial intolerance.