Yes, you read that headline correctly.
In a new poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on Tuesday, a whopping 43 percent of Americans told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as large a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups. And an even bigger share of Americans — 53 percent — told pollsters American culture and “way of life” have mostly changed for the worse since 1950.
The two would appear to be related. Here’s how.
First, there are some real and large differences in the way that different groups of Americans answered those two questions up above. Half of white Americans — including 60 percent of the white working class — told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Meanwhile, 29 percent of Latinos and 25 percent of black Americans agreed. White Americans feel put-upon and mistreated — and large shares of non-white Americans do not seem to have any knowledge of the challenges that white Americans say they face.
Of course, there are always aspects of other people’s lives that we do not or cannot understand. But the sheer size of the racial/ethnic gap concerning perceived discrimination against white Americans is particularly interesting because there is very little in the way of objective evidence of this discrimination and the disadvantage that typically follows. On just about every measure of social or economic well-being, white Americans fare better than any other group.
That’s true of housing and neighborhood quality and homeownership. That’s true of overall health, health insurance coverage rates, quality of health care received, life expectancy and infant mortality. That’s true when it comes to median household earnings, wealth (assets minus debt), retirement savings and even who has a bank account.
That’s true when one actually looks at who is graduating from college, who holds the bulk of the nation’s high-paying and management jobs and who does not. That last point really has to be made clear. Look closely at the chart below. Notice a pattern? Asian Americans out-earn all other groups, but not by much, despite, as a group, obtaining more education. And black women and Latinas both have more education than their male counterparts. But that doesn’t show up in their earnings.
White Americans are, as a group, born healthier and live longer and get better health care, jobs, education and housing in the years in between. Yet half of white Americans believe that discrimination against them is as big a problem in their lives as it is for those of people of color. But there’s just no evidence to back that up.
What does exist is ample evidence of continued-but-shrinking racial and ethnic inequality in many arenas and utter stagnation and backsliding in others. Basically, what’s changed since the 1950s — outside of technological innovations such as this here Internet — is that white Americans no longer have an exclusive or almost-exclusive hold on the best housing, jobs, schools or the ballot box.
Doubt that those changes are driving the differences of opinion outlined above? Consider this.
A full 60 percent of black Americans and 54 percent of Latinos told PRRI researchers that American culture has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s. In contrast, only 42 percent of white Americans agreed. In fact, 57 percent of white Americans told pollsters that the American way of life has mostly changed for the worse over the past 60 years.
Yes, nearly 60 percent of white Americans believe that life in America before the advent of the cassette tape, the ATM, IVF, the hand-held calculator and the bar code was better than it is today. Apparently life was very good for these Americans, when segregated public facilities were a legal requirement in the South and Southeast and a social norm in many other places. Most people of color could not obtain credit or a loan from most “mainstream” banks. Most women of all races and ethnicities could not do so either. This was a vastly different America, one where life was not at all easy for a whole lot of people. Still, this is the America for which apparently many white Americans long.
That this is understood as a better “way of life” is, to say the least, disturbing.
Those inclined to view all things about America through an optimistic lens will will inevitably start by questioning the validity of the data. That is a nonstarter here. PRRI is a respected research organization that meets rigorous polling standards. The survey gathered the opinions of f 2,695 randomly selected adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. So the sample here also is not small.
Finally, if your explanation for the poll’s findings includes the idea that white Americans might have answered without giving much thought to (or simply don’t know) when legal segregation ended, when and to what degree other gender, racial and ethnic disparities began to shrink and which remain, please think again. To believe the things highlighted in the PRRI poll, one either has to be tragically misinformed, unwilling to accept widely available facts or utterly unconcerned with the conditions that shape many Americans’ lives.
None of those options are good.
College campuses have become fertile ground for the movement, a network of provocative activists who are clamoring for an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system and other social changes aimed at bettering the lives of African Americans.
The movement’s most visible victory on campus came last week, when the president of the University of Missouri System resigned after a group called Concerned Student 1950 launched a chain of protests. But other groups with similar priorities are agitating at campuses from North Carolina to Oregon — and forcing significant changes.
At Columbia University in New York, a Black Lives Matter-aligned group called Students Against Mass Incarceration prompted the university this summer to drop its investments in private prisons.
At Kalamazoo College in Michigan, demonstrations this spring led officials to agree to open an intercultural center where minority students can find support.
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, anger over a September 2014 column viewed as unfairly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement led the student government to cut off funding for the campus newspaper.
And at Georgetown University in the District, student demonstrations led the administration last week to rechristen two buildings that had been named for college presidents who sold slaves.
The shift to academia has expanded the movement’s focus beyond raw anger over young men dying at the hands of police. Campus activists tend to have more nuanced and even symbolic concerns: Groups at nearly two dozen colleges have demanded a more diverse faculty, more ethnic-studies classes, improved mental health services for students of color and policies for dealing with incidents the activists find offensive.
Academic institutions have struggled at times to respond to these demands, particularly when they come into conflict with the free-speech rights of others. Meanwhile, the protests have sparked tension between activists and other groups — such as college journalists — who traditionally have been sympathetic.
Social movements have long found a home at institutions of higher learning, which have historically encouraged the free exchange of ideas among students who have the energy and freedom to pursue new passions. Student groups played a critical role in the civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the 1960s, the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s, and protests over the war in Iraq during the past decade.
Many students in the movement say they were driven to act by the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and Michael Brown in Ferguson last year — two young, unarmed black men whose shooting deaths outraged the nation and crystallized perceptions of racial discrimination in the United States. In interviews, student activists said the deaths of Martin and Brown made clear how far the country has to go to achieve racial justice.
Many also were infuriated by their universities’ responses to Brown’s killing, which sparked massive demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere.
“We just wanted a public acknowledgment of what was going on, because the grief and trauma were real,” said Rian Brown, a senior religion studies major at Kalamazoo College who is now involved with her school’s chapter of #BlackLivesMatter, the national organization whose name became a moniker for the broader movement.
Rian Brown and other students went to Ferguson to demonstrate in the months after Michael Brown’s death, and Rian Brown was arrested. When she returned to school, she said, she found herself distracted and depressed. Her grades plummeted, and she lost her scholarship. Now, she says, she raises money online to pay her tuition.
The issue is personal for many of these students: They have witnessed the election of America’s first black president, but they arrive at college to find an environment surprisingly unwelcoming to minorities, said Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“They’ve been bombarded with a lot of lies and contradictions. But one of the biggest lies was post-racialism, that because of Obama’s election they are going to experience an equality of opportunity,” Joseph said. Then “they come to college and find there are no black professors, the curriculum is not diverse . . . and they become victims of racial oppression.”
While social media is a critical tool for these activists, many students are also looking back to borrow tactics from activists of the 1960s. They have dug deep into their universities’ histories, discovering the unacknowledged role slave labor played in building their colleges and the historically black communities that were wiped out to make room for new dormitories.
At Georgetown, for instance, students demanded the renaming of Mulledy and McSherry halls after discovering the buildings were named for school presidents who orchestrated the sale of slaves to help pay off a campus debt. At Missouri, students named their group in honor of the first black student, who attended the university in 1950.
At the University of Cincinnati, Alexander Shelton began organizing immediately after Michael Brown’s death, founding a group called UC Students Against Injustice. Over time, Shelton said, he and others accumulated a long list of grievances: the dwindling proportion of black students and professors on campus, the number of racially charged incidents that they said went unchallenged by the administration, the barrage of crime alerts that unhelpfully identified the suspect simply as a “black male.”
Then, earlier this year, a white officer with the university police department shot and killed Samuel DuBose, a black local resident, during a traffic stop. The incident — which led to murder charges against the officer — gave rise to the Irate 8, a group named for the percentage of black students in the University of Cincinnati student body last year.
The Irate 8 group has issued a list of demands to the university, aimed at improving diversity and seeking changes at the police department. The university’s chief diversity officer, Bleuzette Marshall, said she has met repeatedly with the group to hear its concerns and to convey the message that changes are afoot. For example, the percentage of students who are black climbed to 10.4 percent during the current school year, a small but significant improvement, she said.
“Our circumstance is different than Missouri,” Marshall said. “The reason theirs escalated the way that it did was a lack of [administration] response. That’s not the case here. . . . My hope is that we would not experience a Missouri in Cincinnati.”
But Shelton said the Irate 8 is “getting weary of the niceties.” In protest of “systemic racism” at the university, Shelton, an international-affairs, French and political-science triple major, has abstained from classes for three semesters.
“After the uprising in Mizzou,” he said, “we are now starting to see the collective power that we have.”
This week, two different conversations about racial sensitivity on two very different college campuses quickly turned into a national debate on free speech and its limits.
But the breakneck speed of how one subject turned into another reveals more about people’s discomfort revisiting racial history than about 1st Amendment technicalities.
Critics of the protesters at Yale and the University of Missouri say that in fighting for their own rights, they’re restricting those of others. But this interpretation misses centuries of historical context, many students and scholars of color are saying.
Talking about cultural appropriation as a free speech issue rather than one in the context of centuries of oppression misses the point, said Daphne Brooks, a Yale African American studies and theater studies professor.
Take blackface, for example: That was established as a form of entertainment in which white people performed stereotypes of black Americans who were not able to vote, buy property or even play the roles that were mocking them. These characterizations still affect the stereotypes that infiltrate perceptions of black Americans today: as hypersexualized, as animalistic, and intellectually deficient, she said.
Instead of allowing students to don offensive costumes in a vacuum with the protection of free speech, Brooks said, students and faculty should be able to talk about why they’re offensive and how they reinforce racist stereotypes.
“It just seems that free speech in this case is being used as a diversion from the issue that students are trying to bring up a conversation about, and that’s how race affects [the campus],” said Ryan Wilson, a student at Yale.
A similar switch happened at the University of Missouri, when protesters and at least one professor barricaded journalists from the protest space in the University of Missouri’s public quad. (By Tuesday morning, media were allowed in again.)
Missouri succeeded in ousting two administrators. The students celebrated on the quad. But what happened next was more complicated. A video showed that as student photojournalist Tim Tai sought to document the action, protesters surrounded him and pushed him, telling him that he could not photograph them.
Many didn’t understand why protesters would want to bar journalists from their site. On Tuesday, a piece in the Atlantic criticized the protesters and the faculty member who kept media out, accusing the protesters of weaponizing “safe spaces.” Missouri’s journalism school dean said in a statement that he is “proud” of Tai for doing his job, and a professor has apologized, saying that she “regrets the language and strategy” she used, and apologizing for drawing attention away from protesters.
The historical context is key — legally, the 1st Amendment does protect journalists. But journalists do not have a great track record of covering civil unrest fairly. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a report to examine media coverage of race riots, which found that “media had sensationalized the disturbances, consistently overplaying violence and giving disproportionate amounts of time to emotional events and ‘militant’ leaders.” The Times had trouble covering the Watts riots. In covering protests in Baltimore earlier this year, many outlets gravitated first toward images of violence and fire.
“We were having some difficult dialogues there, talking about race,” said Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who went on a hunger strike. “That’s a very sensitive space to be in and be vulnerable in. It was necessary to keep that space very healthy, a very open space for dialogue, versus it being a space where people are going to cover a story, exoticize people who are going through pain and struggle.”
At Yale, before emails about Halloween became a national news story, Wilson was relieved to see an email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Commission encouraging students to avoid “culturally unaware or insensitive” costumes. A black student in a school where 47% of undergraduates are white, he was used to seeing racist costumes and hearing racist comments.
Like other students, Wilson was shocked when he saw another email from his residential college’s associate master, Erika Christakis. Her email questioned whether faculty had the right to “exercise implied control over college students” and went on to question which level of cultural appropriation is ok. She encouraged students to either ignore or talk about these issues when they arise, and lamented a change in colleges:
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
It’s also dangerous when people shine a nostalgic light on academia of the past, Brooks said. Colleges may have been “safe spaces” for regressive behavior because they were much more monochromatic: Students now are more diverse, and that diversity brings up social issues that Ivy students in the past have not had to contend with, Brooks said.
White students accounted for 84.3% of U.S. residents enrolled in postsecondary institutions in fall 1976, compared with 59.3% in 2013.
Yale students of color are angry about the email, and a viral video has made the rounds that shows a student confronting the master of Yale’s Silliman College, whose wife sent the email. Hundreds have signed an open letter that Wilson wrote to the school decrying the email, and more than a thousand students marched on Monday.
Video of a confrontation between a news photographer and protesters at the University of Missouri on Monday led to a dispute between journalists and the activists’ sympathizers beyond the campus walls. In response to a series of racial issues at the university, a circle of arm-linked students sought to designate a “safe space” around an encampment on the campus quad. When they blocked journalist Tim Tai from photographing the encampment, reporters complained that media were denied access to a public space.
Certainly, Tai – like any journalist – had a legal right to enter the space, given that it was in a public area. But that shouldn’t be the end of this story. We in the media have something important to learn from this unfortunate exchange. The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.
As a journalist, I understand how frustrating it is to be denied access to a person or place that’s essential to my story. I appeared with other journalistson local media in New York City to discuss our frustration over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sometimes standoffish attitude towards the press. He is a public figure whose salary is paid with tax dollars. He is obligated to be accessible to us.
That was not the dynamic Tai encountered on Monday. These student protesters were not a government entity stonewalling access to public information or a public official hiding from media questions. They were young people trying to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media. In the outsized conversation that erupted about First-Amendment rights, journalists drowned out the very message of the students Tai was covering.
As journalists, we should strive to understand the motivations of the people we cover. In this case, black students at the University of Missouri have had a string of racist encounters on campus: The president of the students’ association has been called the N-word and other black students have been racially harassed while participating in campus activities. A Missouri journalism professor wrote in the Huffington Post that she has been called the n-word “too many times to count” during her 18 years at the university. In February 2010, black students woke up to cotton balls strewn over on the campus yard. The crime, carried out by white students, was designed to invoke the image of plantation slavery. University president Tim Wolfe resigned Monday after graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to protest the very public racism he and many black students believe the school did little to address.
Establishing a “safe space” was about much more than denying the media access; it was about securing a rare space where their blackness could not be violated. Yes, the hunger strike, the safe space and other student demonstrations were protests, and protests should be covered. But what was fueling those protests was black pain. In most circumstances, when covering people who are in pain, journalists offer extra space and empathy. But that didn’t happen in this case; these young people weren’t treated as hurting victims.
To be clear, my objective is not to impugn Tai’s character or journalistic integrity. I agree that Tai was doing his job and his past outstanding work speaks for itself. But in this conversation over “public space,” we’ve overlooked the protesters’ message — that conditions on campus make it an unbearable environment for black students to live and learn. Their approach to creating a safe space probably could have been better thought out, but the media should feel a responsibility to understand their motivations and respect their pain.
Further, as reporters, we have to drop our sense of entitlement and understand that not everyone wants to be subjects of our journalism. Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated.
In many communities that historically have been marginalized and unfairly portrayed by the media, there’s good reason why people do not trust journalists. There’s a tendency in news media to criminalize black people’s pain and resistance to racial oppression. We saw it in coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore, when news stations provided more coverage of broken windows in their communities than of black pain.
The unfair portrayal of black people in the news media is well documented. In one study analyzing news coverage by 26 local television stations, black people were rarely portrayed unless they had committed a crime. A 2015 University of Houston study found that this imbalanced coverage may lead viewers to develop racial bias against black people because it often over-represents them in crime rates. Recognizing this kind of bias in news media, black Twitter users started the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag to call out news images of Mike Brown that many felt criminalized him in his death.
That black students would be skeptical of media is understandable. We’ve already seen the kind of headlines they undoubtedly feared. In an Atlantic piece headlined “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’,” Conor Friedersdorf calls the protesters a mob and insists they are “twisting the concept of ‘safe space.’” Again, a journalist criminalizes black people for expressing their pain. It was another piece centering the reporter’s privilege over the students’ trauma. Friederdorf’s piece completely ignores the intolerable racial climate that forced the students to establish a safe space in the first place.
There were other ways to cover these students’ protest without breaching their safe space and without criminalizing them.The human chain students formed provided ample b-roll and still photos. Students could have been interviewed outside of that space. I would have pitched a story to my editors with the headline, “Why Black Students Were Forced To Secure A Safe Space On A Public Campus.” But to do that requires self-reflection and not a condescending, self-absorbed soliloquy about the First Amendment.
For journalists, the Missouri protests are a big news story. For the black students we’re covering, however, it’s a fight for their humanity and liberation. Tai is correct: he was doing his job. But in that stressful moment he may have failed to realize that the space he wanted to enter was a healing one that black people had worked to secure.
Black pain is not an easy subject to cover, but the lesson we can take from this encounter at Missouri is that our presence as journalists, with the long legacy of criminalizing blackness that comes with it, may trigger the same harmful emotions that led to the students’ protests in the first place.
Of the many concerns unearthed by the protests at two major universities this week, the velocity at which we now move from racial recrimination to self-righteous backlash is possibly the most revealing. The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus—important but largely separate subjects—is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point. Two weeks ago, we saw a school security officer in South Carolina violently subdue a teen-age girl for simple noncompliance, and we actually countenanced discussion of the student’s culpability for “being disruptive in class.” The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights. This is victim-blaming with a software update, with less interest in the kind of character assassination we saw deployed against Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown than in creating a seemingly right-minded position that serves the same effect.
Here is the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf on the free speech issues at play in the Yale protests:
In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that too many college students engage in “catastrophizing,” which is to say, turning common events into nightmarish trials or claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear. After citing examples, they concluded, “smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable.” What Yale students did next vividly illustrates that phenomenon.
David French strikes a similar note of democratic indignation about the Missouri protesters in the National Review:
The entire notion that these students need a “safe space” is a lie. They aren’t weak. They don’t need protection. They’re engaged in a classic struggle for power—for now against weak, ineffectual, and cowardly opposition. Why would they debate when they’ve proven they can dictate terms? Why would they answer tough questions when they have no satisfactory answers? So they simply push the press away, and the press meekly complies. Pathetic.
At issue are a black student’s angry denunciation of a Yale professor and the Missouri protesters’ daft media strategy of blockading reporters from a public demonstration. The conflict between the Yale student and Nicholas Christakis, the master of the university’s Silliman College—whose wife, Erika, the associate master of the college, wrote an e-mail encouraging students to treat Halloween costumes that they find racially offensive as a free-speech issue, in response to a campus-wide e-mail encouraging students to consider whether their costumes could offend—was recorded on a cell phone and posted on the Internet. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national campus free-speech organization, posted the video to their Web site. Since then, a young woman who argues with Christakis in the footage has been called the “shrieking woman” by the National Review and subjected to online harassment and death threats. Surely these threats constitute an infringement upon her free speech—a position that has scarcely been noted amid the outraged First Amendment fundamentalism. This rhetorical victory recalls the successful defense in the George Zimmerman trial, which relied upon the tacit presumption that the right to self-defense was afforded to only one party that night—coincidentally, the non-black one. The broader issue is that the student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not. The fault line here is between those who find intolerance objectionable and those who oppose intolerance of the intolerant.
The upheaval at Yale and the protests that forced the resignation of University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe and of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin are both a product of and distinct from the Black Lives Matter moment we currently inhabit. Students from the University of Missouri participated in protests in Ferguson last year; as the climate on campus became more fraught, activists from Ferguson visited and advised the students. Six weeks ago, I participated in a forum at Yale on the massacre in Charleston. When the historian Edward Ball pointed out that the shootings had occurred on Calhoun Street, named for the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy, students immediately pointed out that Calhoun was an alumnus and that a college is still named for him. One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun’s name from the college. (Holloway, who previously served as the master of Calhoun College, indicated that he had not yet decided how he would handle the matter.) To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors. That this issue has arisen on the rarified grounds of an Ivy League campus doesn’t diminish the example; it makes it a more pointed illustration that no amount of talent or resources or advantage can shield you entirely from the minimizing sentiments so pervasive in this country. (It’s a lesson that has been vividly illustrated in Barack Obama’s two terms.)
These are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.
During the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Senator J. Lister Hill, of Alabama, stood up and declared his opposition to the bill by arguing that the protection of black rights would necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites. This is the left-footed logic of a career Negrophobe, which should be immediately dismissed. Yet some variation of Hill’s thinking animates the contemporary political climate. Right-to-offend advocates are, willingly or not, trafficking in the same sort of argument for the right to maintain subordination. They are, however, correct in one key respect: there are no safe spaces. Nor, from the look of things, will there be any time soon.
A noose hanging from a tree on Duke’s campus. Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers from Oklahoma singing on video about lynching black people. A swastika, made of human feces, drawn in a residential dorm on the Missouri campus. The Yale University president apologizing to minority students last week, saying “we failed you” when it came to the university’s response to campus racism. Yes, the protests at Missouri over campus racism, and the demands by black students for the resignation of university president Timothy Wolfe, should come as no surprise. Black college students have protested for years that the country’s institutions of higher learning have become hostile spaces for minorities.
But what makes the Missouri protests different is that the black students leading it have joined forces with black Mizzou football players, who are taking the rare step of boycotting football activities after Wolfe’s tepid response in the wake of increasing racial tensions at the school. And, after Wolfe’s resignation Monday morning, this coalition could have long-reaching effects that affect black students well beyond the Missouri campus, as black college students begin to realize that, by leveraging the power of their sports teams, they can create systemic change in higher education.
The players came to us because they wanted to take the initiative and give their community a better platform to fight injustices.Ayanna Poole, Concerned Student 1950 member
The drivers of the Missouri protests have been black female students who helped formed Concerned Student 1950, an activist group that refers to the first year black students were admitted to the university. Students Ayanna Poole and Danielle Walker have been out in front demanding change, and Wolfe’s ouster.
Walker, leading a “Racism Lives Here” protest on Mizzou’s campus Oct. 1, shouted, “Let us be clear that until the administration takes a serious stance on racism on our campus, we will be marching until we are guaranteed justice.
“They say they are for the students. Well, we are the students.”
Mizzou graduate student Jonathan Butler took his protest one step further by going on a hunger strikeuntil Wolfe resigned. It was that hunger strike that moved the Mizzou football players to act.
“The players came to us because they wanted to take the initiative and give their community a better platform to fight injustices,” Poole told me Monday. “They were first made aware [of the protests] by the hunger strike of Jonathan Butler and didn’t want to see another black man suffer.”
But even in his resignation, Wolfe appeared clueless as to how systemic change is made. In his news conference, he lamented the fact that black students had turned to hunger strikes and demonstrations, saying, “This is not how change should come about,” not understanding that, to be heard, Missouri’s black students needed to shout.
On campuses such as Missouri, where the black student population is close to 8 percent, it’s natural that black female students should lead the protests. Nationwide, black women lead black men in college attendance, and, according to Think Progress, in 2010, they were 66 percent of all black people who finished a bachelor’s degree, 71 percent with a master’s and 65 percent with a doctorate.
In contrast, black male students’ attendance at flagship universities has slipped to historical lows. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black men represent 7.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in America but only 2.8 percent of undergraduates at public flagship universities.
However, the one place where black men overrepresent on college campuses is on the football team — at Missouri, 50 percent of the 120 men on the team are black. Yet scholarship agreements that contain warnings about behavior that can show the university in a bad light can also work to silence players’ voices.
For my upcoming book on campus racism, I interviewed All-American Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker about being a black football player at a school where campus racism existed. Striker had been one of the prominent voices of protest from the Oklahoma football team when that video surfaced this past March of students singing about lynching African-Americans.
A lot of black athletes are afraid to speak out [about racism on campus] because they think that the university, and their team, will think they’re against them,” Striker said. “We’re not against them, we just want to put the truth out there. … I’m sure there were people who didn’t want me to speak up, but this is bigger than my school, bigger than my sport.”
Indeed, coach Bob Stoops quickly backed Striker, and the football team stood in unity behind the black students, just as Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has done with his boycotting players. Over the weekend, Pinkel tweeted a picture of himself with his players, with the statement, “The Mizzou family stands as one.” Although that statement was challenged after an anonymous football player told ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy, “As much as we want to say everyone is united, half the team and coaches — black and white — are pissed. If we were 9-0, this wouldn’t be happening.”
A potential cancellation of this week’s game against BYU could have cost the university more than $1 million, so Pinkel has a good reason to back the black football players over the white university president. According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, football at Missouri is valued at being worth over $56 million to the university.
And it’s in these valuations that students and athletes may have found an invaluable strategy for creating change on college campuses. If an activation that started with black female students, along with the boycott threat of black football players, can topple a university president at Missouri, what could happen if football players and other students at bigger schools such as Texas or Michigan, where football is valued at being worth about $762 million and $732 million, respectively, formed a coalition? If the universities are serious about attacking campus racism, they’ll quickly realize this possibility and proactively work to rid their campuses of racism. And that would be a touchdown for black college students everywhere who are tired of dealing with this issue at their schools.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller, “The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities.” His upcoming book, “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses,” will be published by St. Martin’s Press on Feb. 2.
Go here for more information: http://uproxx.com/sports/2015/11/missouri-protests-tim-wolfe-resigns/
(CNN)The student protests that led to Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe’s resignation Monday have a long history, but began to boil over in earnest this fall.
Here’s a timeline of major events that led up to Wolfe’s resignation:
2010 — Two white students scatter cotton balls outside the campus Black Culture Center. The school’s student newspaper, The Maneater, quoted a school official as saying, “This incident was much more, in our view, than a childish prank.”
August 9, 2014 — A police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, about 120 miles from Columbia, shoots and kills unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, launching the Black Lives Matter movement and sparking heightened discussion of racial issues on campuses across the nation, including Missouri.
September 12 — Student Government President Payton Head uses Facebook to broadcast his frustration with bigotry, anti-homosexual and anti-transgender attitudes at the school after people riding in the back of a pickup truck screamed racial slurs at him. “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here,” he wrote in the widely shared post.
September 17 — Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, the top resident official on the Missouri campus, issues a statement deploring “recent incidents of bias and discrimination.” He calls them “totally unacceptable.”
September 24 — Students protest, saying university officials had done nothing to address to Head’s concerns.
October 1 — A second “Racism Lives Here rally” is held on campus. “White silence is violence, no justice no peace,” protesters chanted, according to a report by the Columbia Missourian newspaper.
October 4 — A drunken white student disrupts an African American student group, the Legion of Black Collegians, preparing for homecoming activities and uses a racial slur when they asked him to leave. “Not only did this individual disrupt our rehearsal, but we were also made victims of blatant racism in a space that we should be made to feel safe,” the group said. Loftin issues a statement the next day, saying “racism is clearly alive at Mizzou.” “What we have done is not enough. Every member of our community must help us change our culture,” he said.
October 8 — Loftin orders diversity and inclusion training for students and faculty in 2016. “This training will inform all of us about the diversity of our campus and the organizations present on campus and make us conscious of how to be inclusive in our words and behaviors,” he wrote. In an open letter to Loftin in the campus newspaper, student leader Jonathan Butler welcomes the announcement as “a step in the right direction,” but criticizes the chancellor for not acknowledging the work of African American students in developing diversity programs and for failing to acknowledge the breadth of racial issues on the campus.
October 10 — In a pivotal incident, protesters block Wolfe’s car during the Missouri homecoming parade to voice their concerns. Wolfe doesn’t respond to their complaints, something he later apologizes for, and his car taps a protester — inflaming passions. No one was hurt, but protesters later accused police of using excessive force to clear the street. Head, the student body president, later posted that Wolfe “smiled and laughed” during the protest. “He laughed,” Head wrote. “In our faces. This is your president. This is America. 2015.”
October 20 — The student group Concerned Student 1950 — named for the year African-American students were first admitted to the university — issues a list of demands. Among them: an apology from Wolfe, his removal from office and a more comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum overseen by minority students and faculty. There is no immediate response from administrators.
October 24 — Another incident roils the campus. Someone uses feces to draw a swastika on the wall of a residence hall. A similar incident had occurred in April, but with ashes, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.
October 26 — Wolfe meets privately with Concerned Student 1950 members, but doesn’t agree to meet their demands, according to the Missourian.
November 3 — Butler launches a hunger strike, saying “Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction but in each scenario he failed to do so.”
November 4 — A student boycott in support of Butler begins.
November 6 — Wolfe issues an apology to Concerned Student 1950. “Racism does exist at our university and it is unacceptable. It is a long-standing, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students, faculty and staff,” he says. But that night, in Kansas City, he angers protesters who ask him if he knows what “systematic oppression” is. “It’s — systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success,” he said, prompting disbelief from protesters. “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?”
November 8 — Black football players announce they won’t practice or play until Wolfe is removed. The Athletic Department, Coach Gary Pinkel and many white players quickly announce their support for the protest.
November 9 — The Missouri Students Association’s executive cabinet calls for Wolfe’s ouster, saying the system’s administration “has undeniably failed us.” Hours later, Wolfe announces his resignation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: UPDATE, 11/9: University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned Monday morning at a board of curators meeting in the wake of campus protests calling for him to step down.
On Saturday night, the black players on the University of Missouri’s football team—a team in the national-title hunt just two years ago—went on strike against racism. The strike has the potential to cost the Southeastern Conference football program millions of dollars, because the conditions for black students on campus have become simply unendurable.
The power of this action cannot be overstated. These football players have forced people to educate themselves about a campus environment that has been on fire for months, if not years. (Here is a timeline.) This year activists on campus have protested over the rights of adjunct professors, the cutting of healthcare benefits, the rolling back reproductive rights for women, and a hostile climate for students of color. And a recent series of ugly racist incidentsled the football players to take collective action. For a team that two years ago stood in solidarity with teammate Michael Sam when he told the world he was gay, they again made the lionhearted decision to rise to the moment.
I spoke with Dr. Rebecca Martinez, an assistant professor in women’s and gender studies. She said, “The football program here at Mizzou is a central part of the university culture. The collective athletes of color who made the decision to go on strike do so with conviction for social justice for marginalized students on our campus. Given the importance of football here, they are taking a significant stand. They are not thinking of themselves, their play, and their careers at this moment. It is not an easy thing to do on a football-centered campus like ours, especially around the issue of racism. There will likely be no shortage of those who put football above humanity and who are convinced that racism doesn’t live here. And they are wrong.”
The roots of racism at Mizzou run deep and reach back a hell of lot farther than the last year. But this wave of struggle was sparked by what has been seen as the absence of response from the administration over the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, located just two hours from campus. As grad student Jonathan Butler said to The Washington Post, “There was national coverage, so for the school to not cover that or really address that, and we are only two hours away, I think was a huge mistake on their part and contributed to the current cultural environment that we have. It just shows that there are racially motivated things—murders, assaults, other things—that happen and we are just going to sweep them under the rug.”
Students collectively gathered in great numbers on campus grounds to ask why black lives didn’t seem to matter to the administration. These demands were met with apathy by Tim Wolfe and a series of incidents of racial harassment of black students. It reached a breaking point on October 24 when a swastika was smeared in feces on the wall of a dorm bathroom. For Butler, that was the last straw, and he announced on November 2 that he was going on a hunger strike. Butler’s demand was that Wolfe steps down. He said, “I already feel like campus is an unlivable space it’s worth sacrificing something of this grave amount, because I’m already not wanted here. I’m already not treated like I’m a human.”
Now the football players have taken up that demand—and in our sports-obsessed culture, that matters. As Dr. Martinez said to me, “It’s sad that a student starving himself doesn’t get attention like a football strike does. But they know their power and am proud of them for using it. It’s not easy to stand up, especially here.”
But the strike does more than raise the visibility of the struggle. It has the very real potential of actually forcing the removal of Tim Wolfe from his position and getting someone in the seat of authority capable of addressing this poisonous campus climate. That’s because the Missouri football players—like all big-time college football players—hold a deep social power. The student body is just 7 percent black, yet 58 of the school’s 84 scholarship football players are African-American. There is no football team without black labor. That means there aren’t million-dollar coaching salaries without black labor. There isn’t a nucleus of campus social life without black labor. There isn’t the weekly economic boon to Columbia, Missouri, bringing in millions in revenue to hotels, restaurants, and other assorted businesses without black labor. The power brokers of Columbia need these games to be played. Yet if the young black men and those willing to stand with them—and there are white teammates publicly standing with them—aren’t happy with the grind of unpaid labor on a campus openly hostile to black students, they can take it it all down, just by putting down their helmets, hanging up their spikes, and folding their arms.
If Wolfe goes, it will show how university power really works in a country where football coaches are often the most highly paid people on campus and universities are like a company town whose primary business is football. The actions of these players is best understood as a rumble of the sleeping giant. We have felt similar stirrings in recent years when Northwestern football players pushed for union recognition and the players at Grambling struck against their unsafe working conditions. When players take these kinds of direct actions, they show what they really are: a labor force. And like all labor forces they are concerned with issues like union rights, safe working conditions, and some form of redress if they are in a hostile work environment. Based upon what’s been happening at MU, it is certainly that.
For Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, who makes $4 million a year, and his staff, they apparently decided immediately to throw their support behind the players and the athletic department released a statement saying, “We all must come together with leaders from across our campus to tackle these challenging issues and we support our student-athletes right to do so.”
Tim Wolfe is on the clock and it is difficult to imagine him surviving this. It recalls the comments of former Ohio State President Gordon Gee, who said when asked whether he would fire head football coach Jim Tressel, “I just hope he doesn’t fire me.” But make no mistake, if “Pinkel fires Wolfe,” so to speak, it will be because his players made their coach choose a side—risking their scholarships and security to do so.
Their response, and the response of so many at Mizzou, should give hope to everyone disgusted by the racism flaring up on campuses around the country. I spoke to Missouri associate professor Sam Cohen who said to me, “I have a student in class right now who is part of [the anti-racist struggle on campus], and so I’ve seen the effects this climate and this struggle can have, and I’ve also seen the fierceness with which these students have responded. There’s a sense here that the Missouri community as a whole—students, staff, and faculty—aren’t going to wait for the men at the top to lead and are instead asserting their right to protest. The bravery and intelligence of our students is an inspiration to all of us here: if they can stand up for what they believe, we all can.… The kids are all right.… I’m not a big fan of football here, but I have just become a big fan of those players.”
He’s not alone. Give the last word to player Russell Hansborough, who took to social media and said, “Never thought I would be in place or time like this to actually make a difference.”
A group of students, football players, coaches and educators at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus forced the resignation this week of their president, Tim Wolfe.
When news broke that Wolfe would resign, hundreds of students were gathered with about a hundred professors. Cheers erupted, tears flowed and dancing broke out.
Within seconds, the questions were being spoken aloud: what next? What do we do now? Do we stop camping? The answer to the last question was no. “This is a movement, not a moment,” the assembled kept repeating. They knew Wolfe’s departure was just one step. (The chancellor wasn’t far behind.)
How did they get this far? At Mizzou, a confluence of circumstances converged to propel campus outrage – and activism – whose lessons are likely to be absorbed by national movements.
The Mizzou campus is about 120 miles from Ferguson, where the Black Lives Matter movement kicked into high gear in August 2014, after the death of Michael Brown. Many students have traveled to Ferguson to take part in the protests, and Ferguson demonstrators have shown up at Mizzou. When explicitly racist trouble happened on campus this year – as when student body president Payton Head was repeatedly called “nigger” and a swastika made of feces turned up in a bathroom – the response was steeped in the newly urgent milieu of Black Lives Matter. When Wolfe reacted poorly to students bringing their concerns to him at the homecoming parade in October, Mizzou students were ready for the fight.
In August, Mizzou informed graduate student workers that it was suspending all subsidies for their health insurance, reportedly with only 14 hours notice. The university proposed giving cash payments instead of subsidies, which would have fallen short. The university eventually backpedaled, and has now said it will offer health insurance next year, but Chancellor Loftin earned the wrath of the well-organized graduate student workers. Deans of nine departments called for his resignation just hours after Wolfe fell.
In September, the university “announced it will no longer grant hospital privileges to the only doctor providing abortion services at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia”, thus blocking the only path to legal abortion in the community. The same month, Mizzou terminated 10 decades-old contracts with Planned Parenthood, taking away “birth control and abortion training rotations” for its medical and nursing students. This enraged feminists and students of medicine. Mizzou history professor Keona Ervin said that beneath the fights about race, economic justice for grad students and reproductive rights was an “undercurrent of black activism that’s been on campus since the 50s, really”. That was the decade when Mizzou first admitted black students, more than a century after its founding.
Like the Black Lives Matter movement at large, black activism at Mizzou is intertwined with queer liberation. Such protesters refer to Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, and speak of wanting to dismantle patriarchy as well as racism. When hunger striking student Jonathan Butler spoke at a press conference after Wolfe was gone, his shout-out to “three black queer women” who had made his actions possible drew raucous and enthusiastic applause from the audience. Mizzou is also home to football player Michael Sam, who was embraced by the Mizzou community when he came out as gay before becoming the first out player to be drafted by the NFL. Sam came back to campus on Monday to stand with his fellow Tigers.
Black students are under-represented at Mizzou. The school’s undergraduate population is 79% white and 8% black, while the state is about 83% white and nearly 12% black. But the shortfalls don’t stop there: as one member of Concerned Student 1950 said in a press conference, the group demands a black faculty presence of more than a few percent and “black psychologists in mental health spaces”. It was taking their grievances about being called racist names to Wolfe during October’s homecoming game that drove students to seek redress from Wolfe in the first place, according to Jonathan Butler. As Guardian sports writer Les Carpenter wrote, one need look no further than the comments section of the main Mizzou fan football site, Tigerboard.com, to find “threads of rage and hate and overt racism”.
Missouri was the last slave state admitted to the union, in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The state, founded more than three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, has been a site of battles over racial inequality ever since. It’s the state that passed “one of the harshest laws” regarding slavery for “teaching reading and writing to any Negro or mulatto” in 1847. It saw some of the most blatant examples of white flight and the most vehement resistance to school desegregation well into the 1990s. It has been exposed since Michael Brown’s death for the way it jails its poor in debtors’ prisons, segregates its students, allows a crisis of payday lenders, disproportionately arrests its black drivers, and imprisons its black men. The University of Missouri didn’t admit its first black student until more than a century after it was founded, in 1839. The group at the center of recent protests, Concerned Student 1950, derives its name from the year when the first black student was admitted.
One of the most fascinating things about the Mizzou hunger strike was its nearly complete rejection of traditional and corporate media. Signs abounded outside of their encampment, banning media and declaring a “safe space”, while chants of “back off” usually used against cops were deployed against journalists who were kept out by students and linked arm in arm (and one faculty member reportedly calling for “muscle”). The Concerned Student 1950 group repeatedly told students not to talk to any media but to email them. “We will decided if and when we answer any questions,” one student who wouldn’t give his name said, “and we will decide the terms.”
After a year of organizing protests in response to black beatings, shootings, chokings, “suicides”, mass slaughter and death, the spectre of violence loomed over Butler’s hunger strike, but it was kept at bay with his survival and victory.
Instead, images emerging from this demonstration were of young people dancing and singing as they learned of Wolfe’s resignation.
Like much of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Mizzou students weren’t asking for equality – they were making demands for liberation. And they’re not happy or satisfied with where they are. Butler said it was “disgusting” that he had to go through what he went through just to get a shot at what he deserves. Even Wolfe admitted as much.
And the protesters have more demands, including a hand in picking Wolfe’s successor and a meeting the governor. They are also demanding shared governance of their university as black students – something even white, tenured faculties at colleges across the country have abandoned.
If you were to make a word cloud of overheard speech from Mizzou protesters, the words “love” and “justice” would probably be the biggest. Asked what they had learned about love and justice this week, one of the Concerned Student 1950 members answered: “If you’re marginalized, fight. Fight! Because you will get what you want.”
“To the extent that police in schools may contribute to the disproportionate arrest of African-American students, the use and/or role of police in schools should require careful reexamination,” an overview of the study provided to TPM said.
The study was conducted by Tim Servoss, a professor of pyschology at Canisius College in New York, and Jeremy Finn, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The results of the study are scheduled to be presented in full at April’s American Educational Research Association conference in Washington, DC.
Servoss and Finn relied on a sample of about 700 high schools, drawing from the data of three national surveys. Three-quarters of those schools employed at least one part-time police officer. Fifty-seven percent of the schools with an officer present had no student arrests, a point Servoss highlighted to show that the “results don’t support the notion that all police in schools are bad.”
He and Finn found that crime and misconduct within a school played a role in predicting if a school would take security measures, including drug testing, metal detectors, drug surveillance dogs, and the presence of security guards or police.
“However, the proportion of African-American students was a significant predictor of security even when controlling for the same background characteristics and crime and misconduct within the school,” the researchers said in their overview. “These results suggest that the implementation of security measures are at least partially based on the perceived threat of the African-American student population rather than any objective dangers within (crime or misconduct), or in the neighborhood (neighborhood crime) surrounding the school.”
These security measures, in turn, increased the likelihood that a black student would be suspended when compared to a white student, particularly when a school uses drug surveillance measures, (i.e., drug testing, dog sniffs, random contraband searches). In a school without these measures, black students were twice as likely to be suspended than their white peers. With these measures, black students were three times as likely. This disparity exists after controlling for school size, racial composition, socioeconomic status, urbanicity, and school indiscipline.
Finally the study looked at arrests rates, with the researchers noting in their overview, “Unlike other school personnel, police have the authority to arrest students.”
There, it found racial disparities were also greater.
“In the average school without police, the black-white disparity in arrests was negligible,” the authors wrote, with black students being 1.3 times more likely than white students. But with police present, African-American students were 2.2 times more likely to be arrested than white students, they concluded.
A separate but related study conducted by Finn and Servoss using the same data set found, “When one or more police officers are in a school, the odds are three times as likely that the school will have a high number of arrests (among similar size schools), even when indiscipline and the composition of the student body are controlled statistically,” according to an overview sent to TPM.
Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This country’s prestigious colleges and universities have a serious race problem.
At the University of Missouri, student athletes have walked off the sports field in solidarity with other students of colour protesting numerous racially intolerant incidents, including Black students enduring racial slurs on the streets and a residence hall being defaced with feces in the shape of a swastika. At UCLA, a student was photographed attending a Halloween party in Blackface, only the latest of such incidents that occur annually. Multiple lawsuits alleging North Carolina Central University, University of Illinois, and St. Mary’s College created racially discriminatory environments for faculty and students of colour. University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members were videotaped in Marchsinging one of the frat’s traditional songs that describes a lynching, and SAE frat members reportedly subjected a Black student to racist slurs at Duke University.
At Yale University, SAE members threw a “Whites Only” party last week with students reporting on social media that a person posted at the door of the party turned away visibly minority Black and Latino students, as well as someone rejected as “gay”, and openly said the party was only admitting “White girls”. Just days later, Professor Erika Christakis (Master of Silliman College) emailed Silliman residents with a jaw-droppingly tone deafdefense of offensive Halloween costumes. In her digital screed, Christakis lamented university “censure” of racist behavior, and argued that Halloween should be a time when offensive transgressions should be celebrated. She questioned if it was really “appropriative” for a White child to engage in racial cross-dressing as Mulan (yes), and if she was engaging in fetishism when she purchased a sari — because it was “beautiful” — on her last trip to Bangladesh (also, yes).
In a head-spinning display of White privilege, Christakis wrote: “Am I fetishizing and appropriating other people’s cultural experiences? Probably. But I really like them, too.”
Quoting her husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a faculty member at Yale, Erika Christakis wrote:
Christakis’ email propelled Yale into mainstream news headlines as students took to the streets to confront Nicholas Christakis over the email. They also staged a mass demonstration before Yale’s first Black Dean of Students, Jonathan Holloway, issuing an emotional plea for him to do something, anything, about on-campus racial hostility.
It’s tempting for those of us on the outside of the Ivory Tower to conclude that the simmering racial debate at Yale is all about a frat party and an insensitive faculty email. It’s not. The protests at Yale, University of Missouri, and other schools are pulling back the veil that has obscured for far too long how our institutions of higher education are openly hostile to today’s students of colour.
Most of our nation’s most prestigious schools can trace their roots to a time of unabashed exclusion, when only White, male, upper-income students were permitted entry. Time has seen an unbearably slow march towards racial and gender integration. Princeton University did not graduate its first Black undergraduate student until 1947, more than two centuries after the school’s founding. Yale did not enroll its first female students until 1969.
The protests making headlines at Yale University right now are about the continuing project of racial integration in higher education. More specifically, they highlight a lasting problem for colleges and universities: that racial tolerance requires more than the mere presence of a non-White student. After centuries of inaccess, our most prestigious schools have now opened their doors to students of colour, but they have extended those invitations without having entertained the far more difficult conversation about how to make those students feel truly welcome at institutions built upon a foundation of racism.
Today, students of colour live on campuses, and attend classes, surrounded by the scars of our schools’ more intolerant past, which now only serve to remind students that we do not truly belong. I remember being struck at Cornell by the campus’ historic Willard Straight Hall Student Union building – the center of non-academic student life – which was originally built with a segregated entrance for female students. The Union also contains a bank in the foyer that was installed following the landmark 36-hour takeover of the building by Black students in 1969 to protest an act of racial terrorism committed against a Black female co-op the night before. The bank’s presence at Willard Straight Hall is a silent condemnation of the struggle for Black liberation: it exists less than two hundred feet from another bank branch found in the campus store, and on-campus legend says that the bank was installed to discourage any future takeovers of the building by ensuring the act would be a federal crime. Cornell’s extensive gardens still bear the name Cornell Plantations, with nary a thought given to how this might impact the school’s Black students.
Most of the founders of our Ivy League schools benefacted from chattel slavery, but rarely do schools challenge how preservation of that history can be painful for the school’s contemporary Black students. At Yale, a portrait of Elihu Yale that hung in Woodbridge Hall until 2007 included the school’s founder being waited on by a collared Black slave (see Snoopy for more exposition on how images of Black slavery are used to create visual power dynamics in early and contemporary art). One of Yale’s 12 residential colleges is named for James C. Calhoun, a vocal proponent of chattel slavery during the abolition movement.
These structural reminders of racism (and sexism) persist (and are often vocally defended in the name of “preserving history”) while initiatives aimed towards helping students of colour combat the psychological impacts of campus intolerance are undercut. Affirmative action programs – necessary for higher education access for students of colour – face a new hearing before the Supreme Court this year, and some believe the conservative leaning of the Court’s current justices may lead to the dismantling of these diversity programs. Few campuses offer a community or cultural centre that creates a “safe space” for students of colour; those that do exist are profoundly underfunded. I wrote last week about the pending demise of Asian American Studies Programs at the University of Michigan, and how it’s time to step the fuck up in support of Asian American Studies and all other ethnic studies programs.
Our colleges and universities are supposed to be institutions of higher learning, yet for students of colour, we expect learning to take place for students adrift within an undercurrent of hostility. Stories of alarming racial intolerance and outright hate crimes filter out of the Ivory Tower on an almost weekly basis, and they have for decades; yet, as a nation, we treat these stories as isolated incidents, and turn a blind eye to the larger trend of racial intolerance that has plagued students of colour since the moment of our entry through the gates of these campuses.
Erika Christakis’ email last week reveals why: our most prestigious colleges and universities remain fortresses of White privilege where the most difficult racial conversations have failed to permeate into these schools’ upper echelons of leadership. Christakis’ email is telling with regard to the attitude schools take towards its students of colour. Christakis prioritizes the right to free speech over how that speech might be used to commit acts of overt racism towards students of colour; she urges the victims of such hatespeech to simply “ignore it”. This is, indeed, the traditional approach that colleges and universities have taken towards acts of racial intolerance on their campuses: whether a burning cross, or a noose, or a fecal swastika, or racist Halloween “play”, or structural celebrations of chattel slavery. Schools tell us to ignore these dehumanizing incidents, while they simultaneously embrace the delusion that respectful academic discourse can occur in a space where students of colour experience daily dehumanization and disrespect.
We endure campuses where the right of students to commit acts of heinous racism is valued more by school leadership than the hurt we feel because of it. We endure such a campus climate, because our schools were built upon a foundation of intolerance towards non-White students, and because we have undertaken few of the efforts needed to challenge that tradition of hatred.
Our institutions of higher education, indeed, have a race problem: they have imported the bodies of students of colour in pursuit of campus diversity, but they have not done the much more difficult and radical work of inviting in our hearts, our minds, or our souls.