From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters
The last quarter of 2015 has been marked by a national campaign against racism at campuses across the U.S. It began at the University of Missouri, where students—including the football team’s Black and white players—denounced the school administration’s handling of several racist incidents that occurred this fall and demanded radical changes in campus life.
In September Payton Head, president of Missouri’s Students Association, was walking near campus when people in a truck screamed racial slurs at him. Frustrated with bigotry, anti-homosexual and anti-Transgender attitudes at the school he wrote in a widely shared post: “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of…respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at this university, making me not feel included here,”
On Oct. 1, a second “Racism Lives Here” rally was held on campus. “White silence is violence, no justice no peace,” protesters chanted. On Oct. 5, members of the Legion of Black Collegians were called the n-word. On Oct. 24, a swastika was drawn with human feces at a university residence hall.
On Oct. 10 members of Concerned Student 1950—named for the year the first Black graduate student was admitted to the university—blocked the University president’s car.
The President did not respond and his driver bumped into Jonathan Butler, a member of Concerned Student 1950. On Nov. 3, Butler began a hunger strike saying “Mr. Wolfe (the University President) 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.” A day later, a student boycott in support of Butler began. Then the President finally issued an apology to Concerned Student 1950.
It was too late and Wolfe finally resigned, but Concerned Student 1950 persisted and set up a tent city on campus, now demanding the elimination of the culture of on-campus racism and addressing the inclusion of students of color more fully in the life of the University.
By then the movement had expanded. Protests were held at Yale, Ithaca, Smith, the University of Michigan, Stanford, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Sacramento State in California, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Penn/Drexel University and Claremont-McKenna College, where the junior class president resigned after students discovered a Facebook photograph showing her with two women wearing sombreros, ponchos and mustaches for Halloween. A campus demonstration followed.
At Ithaca, one issue was an on-campus panel on Oct. 8, in which Tatiana Sy, a 2009 graduate, said she had a “savage hunger” to do everything in college. Panelist J. Christopher Burch, chief executive of Burch Creative Capital, also an alumnus, responded, “I love what the savage here said.” The moderator, pointing to Burch, said, “You are driven,” and pointing to Sy said, “You’re the savage.” The men are both white, and Ms. Sy is Afro-Cuban. On Nov. 11 hundreds of students and faculty members walked out of class to a rally calling for the removal of the president, Tom Rochon.
There are no signs the protests are abating. At Occidental College, students took over parts of an administration building to demand the creation of a Black Studies major and the hiring of more minority faculty. At Iowa State University, students and faculty held a rally to support Black students at the University of Missouri, and to draw attention to racism on their campus. At Niagara University, students walked out of classes to a rally on racism and inequality.
At the University of South Carolina, about 150 students walked out of class to demand that the university do more to promote diversity. In Boston, students from 17 colleges held a march against racial injustice, sometimes blocking traffic. A major movement began at Princeton, where students, denouncing Woodrow Wilson as a notorious racist, have demanded that his name be removed from every part of campus. That inspired students to demand that any buildings or schools or whatever named after slaveholders or racists have those names removed, including Thomas Jefferson’s.
Black, Latino and even some white students feel that the time has come to end the culture of racism on so many campuses. Students of color, decades after the introduction of affirmative action and cultural sensitivity programs, are still excluded from the life of the schools they attend. The U.S. educational system stinks of racism. These institutions exist in the midst of a profoundly racist culture, which is clear not only in the wave of police murders of Blacks and other people of color, but in the whole history of racism and slavery that the U.S. was founded on.
Students know their protests are making a difference. Through their actions they are laying a new standard as to how they expect their schools to respond when confronted with racism. Whether this movement can deepen through the months of winter is an open issue. But the movement has put the U.S. on notice that racism will be fought, wherever and whenever it rears its head.