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Badi G. Foster
President, National Academy of Engineering
"Legacies for Successor Generations: Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Bunche"
February 8, 2007

I am happy to be here because it is both an honor and an obligation. It’s an honor to be associated with what you are trying to do. It’s an obligation in the sense that those of us who want to claim that we want to advance human understanding, racial harmony and issues of justice, we have an obligation to serve. So in many ways I am here today to try to be of service, or in the spirit of service, so that in effect coming out of this interaction, we may find some common cause that will allow us to advance those values upon which this University is built and those values that we probably incorporate in our personal lives.

I am happy to be here to be able to speak about Ralph Bunche. I was born in Chicago in 1942 so coming out of Chicago as a young Negro boy, the question was, well what are you going to do when you grow up. Well if you were good in athletics, be Jackie Robinson. I was not good in athletics. If you are good in math and science, be the Black Apollo, Dr. Ernest Just. I was not so good in math and science. I was left with, well be like Dr. Bunche. And what is ironic is that if you look at my curriculum vitae, if you look at my life experiences, I really have been prepared to understand the message of Dr. Bunche and in some small respect, being here and talking about Ralphe Bunche and his legacy is an opportunity for me to answer those matriarchal voices of my family who said make us proud and I can now say, well I am doing the work of Dr. Bunche. I should also mention that Dr. Bunche was also a very active board member of Phelps Stokes for over twenty years and he was very, very adamant in using Phelps Stokes as a vehicle to accomplish certain objectives that he couldn’t accomplish as Under Secretary of the United Nations. And much of my work today is in the shadow of the work of Dr. Ralph Bunche so to be able to come and talk about him is both a honor and indeed an obligation.

And the last reason that I happen to be here is to figure out what do we do about successor generations and I do believe that the best of what Thomas Jefferson stood for, the best of what Ralphe Bunch stood for, the best of what the University of Virginia stands for, and the best of what Phelps Stokes claims it to be is that somehow or another we can find ways of sharing those values and that knowledge so that overall result is that successor generations can, in fact, move forward. The relay race for justice and humanity is a relay race. Relay races are won and lost in the exchange zones. If we do not figure out a way to more effectively exchange, not only the knowledge, not only the values, but the demonstration, the application of those values, if we don’t do that to the next generation, than surely we have done a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to the very sort of organizations and writings that we in fact publicly commit ourselves to.

The title of my talk is a daunting one, “Legacies for Successor Generations: Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Bunche”. Now that calls for a conceptual leap in popular minds. How in earth are you going to connect Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Bunche other than maybe Sally Hemings or whatever? Well the truth of the matter, as I want to point out, Jefferson was a complex person. On the one hand, certainly having beliefs about the inferiority of some people, but yet at the same time, wanting to abolish a peculiar institution that really denigrated the very notion of humanity. In any case, the legacy of Jefferson certainly is captured in the architecture of this campus. The principles of change, of invention, of education that just permeate the wonderful things that have been done here by himself and in his name. Well one of the things that caught my attention as I googled Jefferson and the University of Virginia was a quote and he says, “The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practical within the limits of time allotted to me and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. The abolishing of evil is not impossible. It ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted. Every experiment tried which may do something towards the ultimate object.” Of course when I read that quote, I immediately interpreted, reinterpreted, and defined it as his legacy that would fit my talk and so therefore I really understood that as he talked about the ultimate objects, I knew he meant full education and participation in a global community that we are in. Similarly, that the work of another generation will be the Ralph Bunche Society at the University of Virginia and that all will be done in the service of the abolition of evil and evil in the form of racism, blocked access, and inequality.

Jefferson argues for an academical village, which is physically embodied here in the Lawn and the Ranges and the marvelous landscaping of this campus, but I think the notion was that in that academical village, one would acquire certain habits of reflection, certain habits of action that in fact would cause one to rise above the narrow confines of our individual concerns in order to embrace a broader concern for all humanity.

That academical village would encourage people to achieve excellence in all fields and the values of that village certainly would prepare people to understand that they need to enter the new age with more understanding and more good will. Now what is interesting about this day and age and Tom Friedman in his book The World is Flat sort of really makes this point, that through the genius of science and technology we have shrunk the world and so therefore the consequences of our actions, whether they be intended or unintended, often are global. So the reality is that we are increasingly living in a physical neighborhood where whether it be climate or other actions or the environment, it has consequences for us all. While we may live in a neighborhood, we have yet to create a notion of brotherhood and the point is that if we are increasingly dependent on each other and impacted on by our choices, then how is it that we build a consensus of how we should live together in this small confined neighborhood? If in fact we do not come up with better standards of behavior rooted in the finest legacies, if we don’t do that, then in fact, the opportunity of creating a New World Order will be lost. We may end up duplicating the worse of Old World Orders and I say the worse in the sense of those arrangements and those understandings that in fact, have led to greater inequalities, less freedom, and less democracy.

But now very briefly, and I use this particularly with undergraduates, so what is it about this neighborhood that you need to really pay attention to? And most of you have heard these statistics so just bear with me, but they comprise the wonderful rhetoric of thirty-five thousand feet of Jefferson and Bunche. But what can we say about this neighborhood? Let us pretend that there are one hundred people in the neighborhood. In that neighborhood of one hundred people, fifty-seven will be Asian. Twenty-one Europeans, fourteen of whom come from the Western Hemisphere. And there will be eight Africans. Fifty-two will be women. Seventy will be “non-White”. Seventy will be non-Christian. Six people will control almost sixty percent of the wealth of that neighborhood and all of them will be from the United States. Eighty-nine will live in sub-standard housing. Seventy will be unable to read. Fifty will suffer from malnutrition. One will be near-death and one will be near-birth. One will have a college education and one will own a computer.

Now if you live in that village of one hundred people with those characteristics, here are some things that you might consider. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pains of starvation, you are ahead of five hundred million people in this world. If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture or death, you are more blessed than three billion people in the world. If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than seventy percent of the people in the world. If you have money in the bank, in your purse, and in a spare change dish on your dresser, you are among the top eight percent of the world’s wealthy.

Now, if that’s the village, if that’s the neighborhood from which we will prepare successor generations, than how do we make sense and how do we make choices about what we should do for whom and why? And that’s where the legacy of someone like Ralph Bunche is very relevant today. Bunche’s legacy can basically be divided into three responses. The first is the need to improve our understanding of global affairs and advancing human rights so there is a whole section of his life that is focused on that theme. The second involves recognizing the importance of the United Nations and the third focuses on making morally right choices. Let me take each of those three categories to quickly summarize the legacy of Ralphe Bunche and its relevance for successor generations in the neighborhood I just described.

My father once told me that you have to have a straight stick to know what a crooked stick is. Ralphe Bunche devoted his life to try to create straight sticks and so his role in writing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that is a straight stick. Now what a straight stick does in differentiating crooked sticks, it does two things. A - it allows you to differentiate right from wrong and increasingly in this neighborhood I just described, people get confused of what’s right and what’s wrong. But even if you do achieve in teaching people what’s right from what’s wrong, that’s just part of the equation. The next part of the equation is you are then obligated and compelled to respond to what is wrong. And that’s generally where we lack courage. So people are great on ethics and differentiating right from wrong, but in terms of okay you saw the wrong, what are you going to do, well at that point we distance ourselves exceptionally.

So Ralph Bunche, he spent his life trying to come up with these straight sticks along with the demand to act. Unfortunately, that neighborhood I described impacts the choices that we have in our lives, even here in Charlottesville. Now we know that the essence of freedom is choice. The more choices you have, the more freedom you have. How we go about making those choices, particularly collective choices goes to the very heart of democracy. If you did not participate in making those choices, your freedom has been diminished and democracy has been diminished and that is particularly important to drive home to those people who do not experience the lash of poverty and illness, etcetera. Those who are blessed to live in Guilford County, North Carolina or in Alexandria, Virginia where you are buffered by some of these forces, but the point being is that we all in fact suffer the consequences when we fail to participate in making those choices and understanding the consequences. Bunche was about that every single day.

I won’t go into this whole question of pre-emptive war and the amount of money and resources that are being allocated to the War in Iraq. The fact that those choices that were made are going to have an impact for generations and generations, both in terms of the lives directly impacted in Iraq and in the United States, but more importantly for the people right here in the Charlottesville. That when you take a look at the amount of time, energy, and money that will be devoted, it means you will not have that time, money, and other resources to devote to other issues having to do with health, having to do with education, having to do with dying with dignity, having to do with allowing a two-month old child to have an opportunity.

So there is a great deal at stake, Bunche would argue, in an environment where people may easily think that pre-emptive war, preventive war, is the way to respond to the characteristics of that village I described earlier. If you read Ralph Bunche’s address to the Noble Peace Prize Committee when he received the Noble Peace Prize, the ultimate paragraph of his speech describes the folly of pre-emptive war. There is no evidence that pre-emptive war has ever led to justice, to the so-called objectives. And tragically we are seeing today, again why that does not work. We are now beginning to see what Ralph Bunche would say is that as you extricate yourself from this mess, you will be dependent on some kind of collective vehicle called the United Nations or something else, with all of it’s flaws, that living in this village of one hundred people will now call for some collective effort to find the conditions of peace, and stability, democracy and freedom.

Our successor generations must be prepared in fact, to do that. Unfortunately in this village I described, there is another form of illness. And these are the viruses called the “isms”.  Racism, sexism, classism - those ideologies that divide human beings. Those practices and beliefs that destroy the unity of humankind. Now what’s unfortunate is that those viruses are more powerful and more dangerous than HIV/AIDS because these viruses mutate very, very quickly. And by the time you figure out a vaccine, for one variation, the virus is mutated and you hit again. So using that metaphor, we have to find ways of continually developing vaccines. Vaccines against undemocratic behavior. Vaccines against the lost of freedom. Vaccines against the denigration of the human spirit. We must create these vaccines and then we must find ways to quickly distribute them. Bunche would say using that metaphor that is precisely what international institutions based on straight sticks, declarations of human rights, that is the way forward. Prepare your next generation to improve that kind of performance.

Now, Bunche was attacked for being, not quite a Communist, but this notion of supporting the U.N. meant that he wasn’t proud to be an American and Bunche’s response then is as relevant today – what does it mean to be proud to be an American? And why do some believe that supporting the strong U.N. automatically means weakening the United States? Pride, according to Bunche, is based upon, our pride should be based upon those principles and practices enshrined in our current Constitution that promote common welfare, democracy, equality before the law, along with a Bill of Rights that protect such freedoms as speech, assembly, and religion. Bunche was so proud of these promises that he wanted to spread their effects and practices to all corners of the globe. He believed that the United Nations represents an important vehicle for accomplishing that goal. While the U.N. has its flaws and areas for improvement, an alternative arena for spreading freedom and democracy that is truly inclusive and reflective of the diversity of humankind and the village I described, that does not exist. Those who argue that a strong U.N. necessarily leads to a weakened U.S. have their logic wrong. The exact reverse is true. Bunche would say that if you are concerned with Homeland Security in the United States, it has less to do with combating weapons of mass destruction and terrorists. Rather, Homeland Security should be the strengthening of the institutions and practices of freedom and democracy.

The greatest defense of freedom and democracy is its practice. That means removing obstacles to voter participation, eliminating social discrimination and unfair treatment. And you should know that the emergence of domestic terrorists leads to the kind of abuse of the Liberty Seven. Who are the Liberty Seven? These seven young black boys in Liberty City in Florida that the FBI and Homeland Security people overheard them talking about being a revolutionary, being a terrorist and proceeded to entrap them and then arrested them as the latest terrorists and it was so outrageous that eventually they had to drop the case, but what leads to that kind of confusion and logic, what leads us to that is this notion that somehow or another, security is based on force and the ability to compel rather than impel people towards more fair and equitable treatment.

Now, in 1940 Bunche was asked what were his wishes for the Negro, a Harlem newspaper, and his first wish for the Negro, “I wish that the American Negro would become more involved in international affairs instead of just being complacent about his local problem.” We who are African-Americans, obviously we must strive to place our problems in perspective. We must stop dwelling on the unpleasant things of life so that we can focus on what can be and what should be. We must recall that the faces of hundreds of thousands of faceless people who proceeded us and prepared the way for our progress demand that we not wallow and whine. We have an obligation to become role models who will not allow the grievous and slow healing wounds of racial oppression to fester within us and then consume us with self-hatred and self-destruction. Ever mindful of those conditions of cruel and unjust punishment our African ancestors remained hopeful and diligent in the pursuit of freedom and dignity. In their memory we have no excuse for failing to advance the next generation.

Now when Bunche wished that we would become more involved in international affairs he understood something very profound. If you have the capacity to imagine yourself in the place of the other, no matter how strange that person is, if you have the capacity to imagine yourself in that person’s place and you work to alleviate suffering, you will benefit two ways, at least two ways. First, you of all you will feel better about yourself, your dignity and self-respect. You will also begin to fashion alliances with the “stranger” who may become an unexpected ally in your struggle to alleviate your suffering. Indeed, sometimes a prophet has no honor in his own country. Sometimes you must go abroad to validate yourself in your own community. And finally, moving from a focus on self-interests towards one of common interests ennobles us as human beings.

Bunche believed that the lost of self-respect and self-dignity leads to the death of the soul. If our minds and bodies are controlled by the limbic and neocortex systems of the brain, ten what happens to us when those systems go haywire? What happens when our unchecked emotions of hatred, bigotry, and fear lead to acts of violence, lynching, or the killing of innocent women and children? What happens when our unchecked logic leads to so-called rational solutions such as slavery and the World War II Holocaust. These behaviors may be the result of the failure of a master system that regulates both the limbic, the feelings, and the neocortex, the rational thought systems of the brain. Some would call that master system the spiritual dimension of human existence. That master system degenerates when the individual no longer respects himself and therefore no longer respects the other. Equally, the absence of honor and respect for oneself quickly leads to the dishonor and disrespect of the other. When these conditions surface or obtain, the soul dies.

Lastly, Bunche will offer certain prescriptions for living in the global village that I just described. And the first prescription would be consult, consult, consult. And then consult. Then act. Then consult. But it’s a collective action. It begins by saying how do we include others in our discussion? How do we become more inclusive? And then it goes immediately to the question, what are we going to do as opposed to what am I going to do? The issues that we confront today of how do we get along, those are the issues that are embedded in that village of one hundred that I talked about. And how do we prepare ourselves to be able to wrestle with those issues in such a way that we make choices that enhances the human spirit, increases freedom and democracy, that is the challenge and that is what successor generations deserve to be prepared. If we do not do what we have to do to prepare them then it is we who have let them down.
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