How anger at campus racism boiled over

December 1, 2015

Students around the U.S. followed the Mizzou example and took action in protest of racist harassment and institutional racism, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

MONTHS OF accumulated racist incidents and administrators' inaction came to a head in November at the University of Missouri (MU or Mizzou) after one student's hunger strike, a campus encampment and a strike by football players forced the president and chancellor to resign.

But the protests, like the racism that sparked them, weren't limited to Mizzou. Thousands of students on dozens of campuses around the country protested, both in solidarity with the Missouri students and to make demands of their own to address campus racism.

Within days of the Mizzou protests reaching a tipping point last month and driving out two despised administrators, students around the country had responded with speak-outs, protests, walkouts and occupations.

At Claremont McKenna College in California, demonstrations and a hunger strike forced the dean of students to resign. At Ithaca College in upstate New York, students walked out of classes in a call for the college president to resign over his mishandling of racism on campus. In Madison, Wisconsin, some 1,500 people marched from the University of Wisconsin to the state Capitol building, linking campus racism to police brutality in the city.

Iowa State University students stand up to racism on their campus
Iowa State University students stand up to racism on their campus (Max Goldberg)

But while the protests erupted suddenly and spread quickly, the depth of anger over racism on campus was no more a surprise to most Black students as last year's police murder of Black teenager Mike Brown was the first instance of police brutality.

OPPOSITION TO racism at Mizzou was brewing long before football players announced they would refuse to play until the president resigned--including protests in response to Brown's murder in Ferguson, just two hours away from the campus and part of the St. Louis metropolitan area that is home to many Black students.

With their actions, Black students at Mizzou exposed to the world the everyday racism they faced--the student body president being called the n-word as he walked through campus and racist graffiti written off by administrators as "littering."

Similar stories came from other campuses, where students organized speak-outs to describe the everyday harassment often dismissed by administrators--and the institutional racism built into the fabric of colleges and universities.

At Yale University, protests erupted after a faculty member received a university e-mail urging students not to wear racist "culturally unaware and insensitive" Halloween costumes, and responded with an e-mail to students in her residency hall that said, "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?"

There was much more to Black students' protest at Yale than anger at the e-mail, however. Not long afterward, a woman reported that she and her friends had been barred from a fraternity party because it was for "white girls only," she was told. Meanwhile, one Yale residential college still bears the name of John C. Calhoun, a supporter of slavery and white supremacist who graduated from the university in 1804.

During their weeks of protest, Yale students organized their own discussions about what it would take to make Yale a more diverse campus--such as devoting more of the school's $25 billion endowment to financial aid, employing and retaining professors of color, and hiring New Haven residents for living-wage jobs on campus.

University of San Diego Professor Victor Fleischer, who spoke at one of the Yale protesters' events, pointed out in the New York Times: "Last year, Yale paid about $480 million to private equity fund managers as compensation--about $137 million in annual management fees, and another $343 million in performance fees, also known as carried interest--to manage about $8 billion, one-third of Yale's endowment." Of the $1 billion the endowment contributed to the university's operating budget, only $170 million was earmarked for tuition assistance, fellowships and prizes.

Students are shining a light on the warped priorities of their universities, where acceptance of racism goes hand in hand with putting profit over that other thing colleges are supposed to do: educate. It's no coincidence that Tim Wolfe, the University of Missouri system president who was protested for downplaying racism was also all about the bottom line--freezing faculty salaries and attempting to block a graduate employees' organizing drive.

THE STUDENTS activated around this upsurge of protest are demanding more than apologies from their administrations--and refusing to take no for an answer.

On November 14, two days after several hundred Brown University students turned out for protests in solidarity with Mizzou, a Dartmouth student visiting the campus as part of the Latinx Ivy League Conference was assaulted by a campus security officer. Geovanni Cuevas was slammed against a wall, thrown to the ground, threatened with pepper spray and told that "the badge never loses."

Brown President Christina Paxson apologized for the incident, but students continued to raise their voices.

In response, administrators at Brown unveiled a 19-page plan to devote $100 million in resources over the next 10 years to "creating a just and inclusive campus community." The plan calls for doubling the number of faculty from historically underrepresented groups by 2024-25--the addition some 60 positions--while doubling the number of underrepresented graduate students and working to attract Black, Latinx, Native American and first-generation undergraduates.

At the same time, though, the right has tried to organize a backlash, claiming--with the help of the media--that the protesters' demands were unserious or were infringing on "free speech" rights. In reality, these claims aren't just about undermining the protests, but diverting attention from racism entirely.

Just a day after Tim Wolfe resigned at Mizzou, Black students received death threats via phone and social media. "I'm going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see," read a Yik Yak post. Similar threats were made against students at the historically Black college Howard University.

At the University of Illinois, an "Illini White Student Union" Facebook page was started on November 18, hours after a campus Black Lives Matter protest--in order to "to organize against the terrorism we have been facing from Black Lives Matter activists on campus," the page claimed. Followers were encouraged to identify "anti-whites" and expose Black Lives Matter's "hatred for white people and police officers."

THE QUESTION of racism goes deeper than the ideas and actions of individual racists. Its roots lie in institutional discrimination. Despite all the rhetoric about living in a "post-racial" society, racial discrimination and inequality are alive and well on college campuses.

The situation at Mizzou is typical. Just 8.2 percent of undergraduates at MU are Black, even though Blacks make up to 15 percent of the state's college-age residents. According to an analysis of four-year universities by the FiveThirtyEight website, this pattern was clear again and again at comparable four-year colleges.

The statistics about students leaving with a degree are even more revealing--while admissions rates are narrowing between Black and white students, graduation rates are not. According to data provided to FiveThirtyEight, Black students are less likely than students of other races or ethnicities to stay enrolled in the university after one year, and less likely to graduate.

In 2013, about 40 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 29 had a bachelor's degree or more, compared to about 20 percent of Blacks. Studies also show that while there's an income gap behind differing graduation rates, the racial gap is larger. According to Education Department data, 47 percent of students who receive Pell grants, a federal student aid program for low-income students, graduate within six years, a higher graduation rate than that of both Blacks and Latinos.

This flies in the face of affirmative action critics who argue that income alone should determine whether someone needs extra help getting to college, ignoring the negative historic impact of racism that continues today.

Income and race are, of course, linked--minority students make up a disproportionate number of those who need financial help to attend school.

Research from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana found that family debt hurts Black students' chances of graduating much more than it hurts white students' chances of graduating. "The overall debt-to-assets ratio was much higher--nearly 50 percent higher--among Black families than white families, which may explain why debt had a stronger negative impact on Black students," explained researchers.

Faculty and staff are another part of the picture, as protesters demand greater diversity. At Mizzou, just 3.2 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty are Black, compared to the paltry national number of 5.2 percent. If Mizzou were to meet protesters' demand of increasing Black representation among the staff and faculty to 10 percent by the 2017-18 academic year, the university would have to hire 400 African Americans.

According to a 2007 Journal of Blacks in Higher Education report among top-tier state and private universities, the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa had the highest percentage of Black faculty--with 6.8 percent.

IN AN interview with the Guardian, Boston University student Jailyn Gladney described the contempt she feels from officials who refuse to see the racism at the heart of the university system and see only color-blindness:

For Black students, every day on campus is a reminder that we aren't welcome. When "I support Dylann Roof" posters were hung up in high traffic areas near our campus chapel and student union the night after Roof sat and prayed with nine Black people for an hour in Charleston, South Carolina, before allegedly murdering them in cold blood, we knew that we weren't welcome. Our school isn't in the South, and nooses aren't being hung from our trees, but the message is the same: We don't belong in their hallowed halls or on their finely manicured lawns.

The administration spits in our faces when they use the messages of Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Thurman as little more than pull quotes and figureheads for a university that's only 3 percent Black and shows few signs of working to increase that percentage. They've sent us our acceptance letters and conjured up financial aid packages that have put us in crippling amounts of debt.

No amount of sensitivity training can do away with the effects of gross racial inequality on campus, where Black students are treated like a powerless minority that college administrators don't need to listen to.

But with the wave of protests that erupted in November--and the solidarity and support won from fellow students and faculty, Black and white--anti-racists gave everyone, including the racists, an example of what it looks like to be a force that cannot be ignored.

Recent articles

Tuesday, December 18th

Monday, December 17th

Friday, December 14th

Thursday, December 13th

Wednesday, December 12th

Tuesday, December 11th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives