Newspaper Op-Eds

“Better” Isn’t Good Enough
A reaction to racial profiling and the Zimmerman verdict

Thu, 12 Sep 2013 10:13:00 EDT

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Published by Muhlenberg Weekly
September 12, 2013

If you have seen “The Butler” or read The Warmth of Other Suns by last spring’s commencement speaker Isabel Wilkerson you already know that our country has made progress in its struggle with racism. 

But if you have read about the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, or followed the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, seen the fact-based film “Fruitvale Station,” or watched the HYPE-documentary  “Still Seeking Justice” ( you must realize that we have no excuse for complacency or self-congratulation.

Among the many obstacles racism creates for members of our society, three particular realities of contemporary American life combine to pose an unacceptable threat to the lives of young men of color in the United States:

  • poorly regulated gun ownership;
  • racial profiling; and
  • Pennsylvania’s two-year old expansion of the “Castle Doctrine” -  a “stand-your-ground” statute that has shifted the state’s protection from the rights of alleged criminals to the rights of individuals who feel threatened.

There is no safe haven from this toxic blend, even right here in Pennsylvania.

How would you react if Muhlenberg issued a policy like the following?

Effective immediately, all students, faculty, and staff of color will be required to wear clothing and hairstyles that will not be perceived by other students, faculty, and staff as “threatening”.  Penalties for non-compliance may be severe, up to and including summary execution by any gun owner who feels threatened.

Absurd? Crazy? Paranoid?  Perhaps, if you are white.  But if you are an African American male wearing a black hoodie, carrying a box of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, almost certainly not.

Muhlenberg is a small component of a large and complex society, but even if we can’t solve a national problem that was centuries in the making, we can do our best to confront it on our own doorstep.

  • First, we do not and will not permit guns on our campus.  We cannot dictate gun ownership in the neighborhood beyond our boundaries, but on our own property, we enforce strict regulation of weapons. If you’re unfamiliar with our policy, check it out at online
  • Second, we will not engage in racial profiling.  Dean Green and I have spoken to Muhlenberg’s faculty and staff about this before, and we will continue to do so.  We have provided training to Campus Safety Officers in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Stereotyping people who differ from oneself may be hardwired into human nature, and, yes, it has happened here. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.  Profiling is wrong, and as a campus that aspires to be both tight-knit and inclusive, we must reject it.
  • Third, we must continue to talk about this issue as a community.  A good next step would be to attend the BSA’s Shout Out on Wednesday, September 18th from 6 to 7:30 PM in the Event Space of Seegers Union.  I also invite faculty, students, and staff who are passionate about these topics to organize a teach-in or other programming  so we can learn more about Pennsylvania’s stand-your-ground law, the risks it poses, and how they it be changed.

As long as some members of our community are at risk, none of us should rest.