Voices of Northeastern: Ralph C. Martin II

Ralph Martin, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Northeastern University

“We’ve never been a colorblind society and might never reach such an ideal state. But the pursuit of ideals is what forms this country and why it has endured through internal strife and world wars. And the pursuit of ideals is what a modern university is all about.”

If you have a story and want to share your voice, let us know at voices@northeastern.edu.

My name is Ralph Martin, and this is my voice.

As an African-American man and as a university officer, I wanted to share some recent reflections about the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations that are occurring across the country and the world. I’ve had conversations with many friends and colleagues, and we’ve shared our thoughts and feelings about the times that we are in. Many of us are experiencing compounded feelings of outrage, frustration, and other emotions based on coping with the strain of COVID-19—and now the death of Floyd and the aftermath that we are witnessing. It’s important to acknowledge that whatever normality might be, we are living in a time that is quite removed from normal. 

My reflections start from the time that I was a young man, when my early outlook on race was informed by my father. My mother died when I was 18 months. But my father’s experiences as a New York City police officer were substantially informed and limited by the racial culture of the times.

One of those experiences, as he was poised to become a sergeant, led him to retire after 10 years because he could no longer accept working for a department that wanted Black officers, as he put it, to be a man on the streets, but less than a man in the station house. He later told me that leaving the police department was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made.

In making this observation, his point was that I should not allow racism to limit my expectations and decisions about what was achievable. If I did that, I would end up limiting my options; in effect, self-limiting, and allowing racist individuals and institutions, as he put it, to win. And for him, that was unacceptable for any of his children.

It’s important to note that I’ve been the beneficiary of much good fortune, great mentorship, and tremendous trust by people representative of every demographic. These experiences far outweigh any of my racist encounters or experiences—and at a certain point, my career.

I was appointed to the office of Suffolk County district attorney by then Governor Bill Weld to fill the remainder of the previous officeholder’s term. I was among several candidates, but the least prominent among them and the most politically anonymous. In announcing my appointment, Bill Weld affirmed my professional credentials and also pointed out that my race as an African-American was an important factor, given the population of Suffolk County and the historically difficult relationship between communities of color and law enforcement. On the afternoon of my appointment, I was asked by reporters, ‘How are you as a Black man going to get elected in South Boston and Charlestown?’—reflecting a bias that was associated with those communities at that time. My response, which was only partly tongue in cheek, was, ‘Hey, I grew up in Brooklyn. I’m not afraid to go anywhere.’ That produced some laughs and took some tension out of the room. I then said, more seriously: ‘Look, I’m a new person. It’s incumbent upon me to extend my hand. My life’s experience has shown me that whenever I extend my hand, most people receive it well.’ This philosophy is an embrace and actualization of the advice I received from my father early in life.

I’ve had experiences with prejudice and racial hostility, but none as severe as my father’s or his generation. These experiences have led me to believe that perhaps my children face even less severe threats of this kind. All of this witnessed and experienced history by my wife and me has led us to at least hope for a more tolerant and inclusive society for our children and their generation.

That did not lead us to believe that our children would be immune from racism. And we’ve had many discussions about threats particular to Black people, no matter how well educated, how well spoken, or how thoughtful they are in their approach to others. Now we’re having those conversations again. And as many of our friends are, these are with grown children about how to deal with accumulated frustration, pain, anger, and stress that the series of Black American killings by police and others has created. Once again, we are telling our sons what to do if they are stopped by police. Why our son in Chicago cannot go for a run in his mixed but largely white neighborhood until things cool down. And we’re offering other guidance and reflections just to help them persevere. 

As I watched the video of Floyd’s death, I remember many things. But one of the very horrific moments that has stayed with me is the point when Floyd called out for his mother. I remember wondering, what realization of his fate had Floyd arrived at? Did he know he was about to die? For him, a fully grown man, to call out for his mother.

Since then, as we’ve watched the mounting and continuing outrage, I have wondered: Is this finally it? Is this latest act of violence the one that will make Americans collectively do the work that needs to be done, to actually confront and reduce racism? Will white Americans see this as their problem, an American problem?

I had a similar moment several years ago with a different issue. When the mass shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, occurred, there was similar outrage and calls for changes to gun laws. And I remember thinking, is this finally it? Will this cause Americans to see this as their problem? And will we make the changes that are needed in our gun laws? We now know what has not happened. So we all have reason to be cautious and even pessimistic about the country’s will to address something that is not yet accepted as a problem for all Americans. 

I’m offering these observations because I think the responsibility of leaders is to raise difficult subjects that impact their work, lives and society, especially when it is in the room, but understandably very hard to grapple with. My thoughts are a bundle of life experience and learning observations, vicarious lessons, and subjective analysis, which means they are not indelible.

But I invite all of us into Monday’s day of reflection with the hope that we find ways to talk about racism and other isms, because I think Monday’s conversation could be the beginning of an effort to strengthen our institutional efficacy and make a contribution to America’s effectiveness in eliminating racism. We’ve never been a colorblind society and might never reach such an ideal state. But the pursuit of ideals is what formed this country, and why it has endured through internal strife and world wars. And the pursuit of ideals is what a modern university is all about. The pursuit of a modern version of All men are created equal has been iterative, and has served as a foundation for every challenge to inequality. I hope Monday’s discussion is the beginning of meeting that challenge. Thank you.