Open Letter to Cornell Leadership

Dear Chairman Harrison, President Pollack and members of the University Diversity Council,

We are writing to let you know that the campaign to stop the sale of Confederate flag merchandise at Cornell-supported county fairs continues in 2019, and will not end until these symbols of racial hatred and violence are no longer sold at New York’s county fairs. The Fair for All campaign will shine a bright light on the failure of Cornell University and its local extensions to vigorously oppose the sale of white supremacist merchandise at events Cornell helps make possible.

The presence and sale of this hateful flag creates a climate of hostility and danger for people of color, and it utterly violates Cornell University’s stated commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Cornell University and its extensions should stop participating in county fairs that refuse to add white supremacist paraphernalia to the list of items they already disallow including alcohol and pornography.  

Since the Fair for All campaign was launched two years ago, public awareness and outrage about the true history and meaning of Confederate symbols has spread widely. Confederate monuments and markers have fallen across the country. Major retailers have stopped selling Confederate merchandise. Yet at Cornell-backed county fairs, people can still freely purchase this rallying symbol for violent white supremacists from Charleston to Charlottesville. Young 4H youth supported by Cornell ramble through fairs that are awash in hate symbols.

Cornell cannot continue to insist that it is powerless to act. Cornell extensions cannot opt to remain “neutral” on the question of white supremacist flags, as the Delaware County Extension voted to do last year.

Last August, New York State’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, Richard Ball, took a stand: He  urged all 52 county fairs in New York to stop selling these racist items. In his letter, Commissioner Ball noted that the New York State Fair has instructed vendors not to sell Confederate flag-themed merchandise since 2015. Then he urged fair boards “to join us in this effort and ensure that all of our fairs are a safe gathering place for our families and community members by discouraging vendors at county fairs from selling or displaying items that run counter to our great state’s long history of inclusion for all.”

This fall, New Yorkers elected a new Attorney General, Letitia James. She has already taken an even firmer stand against the sale of Confederate flag merchandise at New York county fairs. On July 25, 2018, James wrote: “Confederate flags are a tribute to a dark, hateful, and painful past and have no place in our society beyond the history books. State-funded fairs and events should not be peddlers and profiters of this, or any other hateful paraphernalia. All state-funded fairs should act immediately to ban the sale of these flags.”

Will Cornell stand with the state attorney general, the state department of agriculture, and all those who value diverse, equitable, and welcoming communities? Or will it continue to collaborate with such local fair officials as Ed Rossley, president of the Delaware County Fair Board? Last summer, Rossley communicated to the Delaware County Extension and to the local NAACP that Confederate flags would not be displayed at the 2018 fair, though they would continue to be sold. He also told extension leaders that the NAACP had signed off on the Fair Board’s plan. Neither of these statements proved to be true.

When the Delaware County Fair opened, just days after Commissioner Ball released his statement, Confederate flag merchandise was on full and defiant display. (See this video.) Further, NAACP leaders described as “calumny” the false assertion that they had signed off on a plan that would allow the sale of this merchandise. Ed Rossley is currently a vice president of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs.

Since we first contacted you almost one year ago, Cornell’s Ithaca campus has been rocked by multiple racist and anti-Semitic incidents, including a racially motivated attack on a student of color, and a swastika marked in the snow outside a residence hall. After every incident, Cornell leaders issue statements decrying discrimination and urging others to speak against it. For example, after the 2017 incident in which Psi Upsilon fraternity members attacked a black student while calling him the n-word, President Pollack issued a statement that ended with this call:

For the vast majority of Cornellians who abhor these recent events, our community needs your help. Please speak out against injustice, racism and bigotry, and reach out to support one another. Ours must be a community grounded in mutual respect and kindness.

And yet, you have steadfastly refused Fair for All’s repeated request to use your power to urge local fair boards (who rely so heavily on CCE for their programming) to bar the sale of Confederate flags at their fairs. Instead, you have hidden behind the specious argument that the First Amendment somehow protects the rights of bigots, but silences you.

President Pollack, it is past time for you to live up to your own words. Your community needs you to speak out against injustice, racism, and bigotry, and to stand in solidarity with those for whom the Confederate flag is a clear, unmistakable symbol of violence and hatred. When you refuse to condemn white supremacy in the larger community, you cannot be surprised when it appears on your campus.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we will reflect on these words from King’s letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

We urge you, once again, to stand for justice.

With continued hope and determination,

Christina Hunt Wood, Laura McClure, Krisy Gashler, and Bonnie Seegmiller Fair for All New York

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