with Janee Woods
The University of Missouri, nicknamed Mizzou by alumni, reached a state of civil unrest on campus this week. Black students had reason to fear for their lives after receiving repeated threats of violence from angry white students in reaction to the resignations of President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. White men in pick-up trucks without license plates taunted black students with racial slurs and chants of “White Power.” A white student posted on Yik Yak that he would commit a school shooting targeting black students.
For the most part, Mizzou’s initial administrative response to hundreds of complaints from frightened students was dismissive at best.
The university administration must have been operating under high levels of willful ignorance if they couldn’t understand or wouldn’t immediately acknowledge the danger escalating on the quads right outside their office windows. Perhaps they don’t know how to surf the internet like many of us, who found example after example of threats that were shared widely by scared students before campus officials and local police began to take them seriously. There has been a real, palpable danger of physical and emotional harm facing black students on Mizzou’s campus for days now.
These threats are the white supremacist backlash to the protests organized by Concerned Student 1950, which have grown larger and more public in the past several weeks. One of the original protesters—a black grad student who went on a hunger strike to draw attention to the unjustifiable inaction of school officials in the face of previous instances of racial intimidation—vowed that he was willing to die if the president refused to step down. However, when the president did ultimately resign, more likely than not he did so because the football team’s solidarity strike presented an economic problem worth millions of dollars and generated huge amounts of negative publicity, not because a black man’s life was at stake or as an admission that the university had long ignored systemic racism on campus. Ousting the president is still momentous, but the victory feels hollow, considering it was largely predicated on valuing money over black life, on bowing down to the belief held by the broader community that the continuation of the football season was more urgent than ensuring that students of color be treated with dignity and respect.
What’s happening at Mizzou is not unique to Columbia, Missouri and is not happening in isolation. Racism in all its forms, from the most subtle microaggression to the most overtly discriminatory policy, is commonplace and everyday. A school culture steeped in racism does not simply spring into being overnight, spontaneously and without careful cultivation. A community culture that places higher value on economic profit than the the preservation of black life is not a matter of happenstance. Systems of white supremacy remain in control and support the discriminatory behavior of individuals even when institutions, like universities, claim to be welcoming to people of all backgrounds or identities. Most black students who’ve attended predominantly white schools across the country likely have a similar story to the ones we’ve been hearing out of Mizzou.
Today, the national conversation about race and education is often focused on how racism on campus impacts access and participation in campus culture for students of color. But we can’t forget that the white students participating in the harassment of black students didn’t suddenly develop a sense of white entitlement the moment they stepped onto campus as first year students. Rather, they learned those behaviors and attitudes in the communities where they grew up, in a million conscious and unconscious ways. Our society provides reinforcement for that false sense of superiority in an additional million ways through media, pop culture and the whitewashing of almost everything, from history to holidays to religion. And lest those of us in big cities and so-called liberal states hide behind the misconception that what’s going down at Mizzou is strictly Southern tradition or Midwestern provincialism, let’s tell the truth and be vocal that it’s not.
Even with all eyes focused on Columbia, Missouri and the growing demands from the black community and allies for change and accountability, racial hostility continues to manifest at Mizzou.The sign outside the Black Culture Center was vandalized last night. Though the system of white supremacy on campus has started to crumble a little bit around the edges, we are still waiting on concrete plans for next steps from those in power. The racial healing process will be long and painful, to be sure. For Mizzou to truly change, the dismantling of racism must happen everywhere else, too.
This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a contributor. Scenarios USA is where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.