January 20, 2021

Today is a momentous day. As we begin our Spring semester, the US is at the one-year mark of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have lost 400,000 people to that disease, we are seeing the end of a contentious election cycle, and we are exactly two weeks beyond a violent insurrection in our nation’s capital. Today, as we mark the inauguration of the 46th president of the U.S., our state and national capitals are under military guard.  

Against that backdrop we have another set of realities. When he is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Joe Biden will be the oldest U.S. president and the second Catholic person to take the oath of that office. At the same time, the first Latina Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, will swear in the first African American and Asian American woman Vice-President, Kamala Harris. Sarah McBride, our nation’s first transgender woman State Senator, is poised to take office, and Rachel Levine is poised to become the first transgender woman to help lead the US Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, in the Congress and Senate there are a record number of representatives who identify as Muslim, Jewish, Native American, Asian American, Latinx, and African American. As members of the diverse community of Rutgers Newark and SASN, we know that these are not insignificant articulations of identity. They are signals of our nation’s definitive bend towards excellence and towards its promise.  

Today, as we confront the enormous challenges ahead, we have choices to make. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned in his 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’:  

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.   

… Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity. 

We have the collective privilege of shaping this nation into an audacious space where—despite our differences— every human being gets to enjoy freedom, equality, safety, peace, a high-quality education, and good health. That end is possible, but it requires real work. Whether that outcome is realized depends on the questions we ask and how we enact the answers. As Rev. Dr. King, Jr. remarked: “cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”  

We will all live with questions we ask and the answers we give. We get to choose.