In memory of George Floyd

May 31, 2020

Dear Members of the Yale Community,

I write to you today deeply upset by the killing of George Floyd while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Mr. Floyd’s death follows a pattern of racial injustice that has become too familiar in our country and that amounts to a national emergency.

At a time when the American community must come together more than ever before, George Floyd’s horrifying death shocks our shared conscience and indicts our shared failure. It can and must remind us of other similar killings and of the racism, nativism, and bigotry too pervasive in society today and throughout our country’s history.

Over the past week, I have been thinking about two seemingly incongruous things—our sense of community and one of our most basic emotions: fear.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, legitimate fear has been very much with us, but not just about the virus itself, and not among us equally. From reports of racism against people of Asian descent to the unacceptable disparities in health outcomes and health care, there was every reason for us to fear for the safety of our neighbors and family members, and of some, sadly, more than of others.

At the same time, I saw nurses, doctors, support staff, and volunteers act with courage, selflessness, and compassion in our home city and around the world. We nurtured a growing sense of community, which gave us the optimism and hope that must ever be a cornerstone of our beloved country. It is in the face of that noble expression of solidarity that George Floyd’s death has shaken us and the shared spirit of heroism we have aroused to fight the pandemic.

As I read the news reports of Mr. Floyd’s death and its explosive response, I knew that many members of our community feel fear in their daily lives because of the injustices they have experienced and witnessed, and I thought of how fear so reliably leads to anxiety, depression, health deterioration, and anger, and also to aggression and even violence. Some of the protests have turned destructive, undermining the plea for justice all Americans must share. Fear is powerful, damaging, and unpredictable in its effects.

I believe that all of us at Yale must do what we can to replace fear with hope—and not with anything less than action. Here I have been thinking much of the life of the extraordinary Pauli Murray, a lawyer, civil rights leader, and Yale Law School graduate. She experienced firsthand the cruelties of racial segregation and suffered injustices. She knew fear. However, she wrote in her memoir, “Seeing the relationship between my personal cause and the universal cause of freedom released me from a sense of isolation…I would be no less afraid to challenge the system of racial segregation, but the heightened significance of my cause would impel me to act in spite of my fears.”

I have implored myself—and earnestly invite you to do the same— to make direct use of Pauli Murray’s wisdom. Her words remind us of all that we have been able to accomplish together because of our shared commitment to the common good. Since mid-March, we have saved lives in this pandemic. We have isolated ourselves, changed the way we live, and sacrificed to safeguard the well-being of the most vulnerable among us and prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. It is vital to remember that we have been united in easing suffering, improving lives, and providing hope during a turbulent and challenging period of our history. If we can do this, we are capable, all of us, of creating the America we must insist belongs to us all.

In 1945, Pauli Murray wrote, “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind.” We have so much more to do to foster and sustain an equitable society. Instead of feeling the isolating effects of fear when our sense of community is shaken, we must remember that we are connected in more ways than we are divided. And that where we are divided, we must work, now, in the interest of unity and justice. This is a matter of the highest importance.

So, let us act as Pauli Murray would have us act toward those we know well but also those to whom we are connected simply by a common and powerful dream. I am grateful that you and I share Yale and its mission to improve the world today and for future generations. In looking forward to the work we have ahead of us, I wish you peace and strength.

With best wishes for your health and safety,

Peter Salovey
Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology