The issue of race relations on college campuses reemerged last week following highly publicized incidents at Yale and the University of Missouri that triggered protests at schools across the country. Much of the reaction and commentary included patronizing remarks that minimized and trivialized the plight of African-American and other minority students navigating life on majority-white campuses.
At Missouri, students protested a string of racist incidents that were largely ignored by administrators, leading to the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. They stepped down only after the football team threatened a boycott, jeopardizing lucrative sports revenue for the school. The athletes’ brave act of defiance should be a template for students elsewhere looking for creative and effective ways to fight back against apathetic administrators.
Meanwhile, at Yale, a black undergraduate student claimed that she was barred from a fraternity’s “white girls only” party. Sigma Alpha Epsilon denied the report. In another incident, a faculty member was accused of racial insensitivity after defending students’ right to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes. The seemingly isolated incidents at Yale and Mizzou have proven anything but, with solidarity protests being staged across the country.
Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump predictably sided with the status quo. “I think the two people that resigned are weak, ineffective people,” he told Fox News. Ben Carson assailed the “politically correct police” for the resignations.
Numerous publications and commentators have weighed in, belittling the students and ignoring the larger issues. This isn’t about Halloween costumes or the coddling of spoiled elites who miss their helicopter parents. It’s about the disparate treatment of minority students everywhere who face real obstacles to obtaining their education and degrees that are mostly unknown to their white counterparts.
The recent incidents call to mind my own eye-opening experience with race issues as a student at Penn State University in 1992, where I served as editorial page editor for the Daily Collegian student newspaper.
Back then, Penn State saw protests led by black students decrying low minority enrollment and inadequate efforts by the university to retain minority students. There were sit-ins and street demonstrations. One of my regular columnists, a black student, penned a column titled, “African Americans should not trust devilish white people.” It contained some harsh language and warnings to fellow black students to bear arms to defend themselves. “White people are irredeemable racists, who have never loved or cared about black people,” he wrote.
The column wasn’t the most profound or original take on race, but it certainly reflected the genuine fear and isolation that many black students felt on campus. One black friend told me that when traveling to campus from home, he gassed up his car in New York City and didn’t stop again until he pulled into his dorm four and a half hours later, ever fearful of having to make an unexpected stop in rural Pennsylvania along the way to State College.
The university was overwhelmingly white, with just 3.1 percent black enrollment. Many students were from small towns with zero black population. I had a roommate who had never met a black person before arriving on campus. When he saw a photo of me with my black prom date from high school, he said, “You took a black girl to prom?! What did your parents say?”
Such was the atmosphere for minority students. And so when I edited the column, I knew it would get a lot of attention on campus but I was young and naïve and had no idea the maelstrom that it would trigger. On the day it was published, I received an early morning phone call at my apartment from the newspaper office. “Kevin, you need to get down here. There are protesters picketing the office.”
When I arrived, there were two white students pacing in front of my office carrying signs bearing crosshairs that read, “White Man, Shoot Here.” It was startling but hardly a mass protest. I dismissed it as minor and went about my day. Later, I got a call from an Associated Press reporter in Harrisburg who’d heard about the protest. I explained that it was a brief demonstration by just two people. He wrote a story that moved across the AP state wire that night while I was still in the office. Our news editor flagged it for me. It read that our offices were besieged by a “wave of protests” following publication of the column. I was disappointed by the irresponsible sensationalism of the AP writer but it was only the state wire. Not a huge deal. Later that night, the story moved across the national AP wire and appeared in every major newspaper in the country the next morning. All hell broke loose.
The office phones rang incessantly. Penn State administrators denounced us in the media as a “hate publication.” Student organizations yanked their advertising. Oprah, Donahue, Sally Jesse and Geraldo called seeking interviews with the author and me. The story was covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and every media critic and major news outlet. Death threats began arriving to our offices. The author’s life was threatened in a flier distributed across campus with a rifle’s crosshairs superimposed across his photo. I received a death threat at my apartment from the Ku Klux Klan, which operated in a nearby town. The police visited my office offering protection. Alumni canceled donations to the university and administrators searched for ways to retaliate against the newspaper, which is an independent corporation unaffiliated with Penn State. Professors denounced our actions openly in classes. Collegian staffers were harassed on the streets.
Despite all the fear mongering in the media about us instigating a “race war at Penn State,” the only violence we saw came in the form of death threats against newspaper staff. It’s surreal to turn on the radio or TV and hear your name being trashed by commentators. I was labeled a “drug addict,” “racist,” “crazy” and worse. I lost a job offer because of the uproar.
All this because I’d defended a black staff member who’d written a column from a place of fear and isolation. Yes, he wrote some inflammatory things. But on a college campus, students deserve a wide berth when exploring complicated and emotional issues for the first time on their own. As former Yale University President Benno Schmidt once said, “A university ought to be the last place where people are inhibited by fear of punishment from expressing ignorance or even hate, so long as others are left free to answer.”
It was a life-changing experience and I wish every practicing journalist could walk for a day in the shoes of someone being castigated by the national media. It taught me the importance of fairness. Words matter and they can hurt when applied recklessly.
Fast-forward nearly a quarter century, and to my dismay students are still grappling with the same issues of racism and low minority enrollment and retention. Indeed, the list of grievances from University of Missouri students is strikingly similar to a list compiled by students in the 1960s. As the Huffington Post reported last week, “The 1969 list expressed concern about the ‘nonchalant attitude on the part of the university,’ saying it made it ‘a haven for comprehensive institutionalized racist and political repression.’ Those feelings were echoed by many protesters this week.”
Instead of dismissing these students’ concerns, we should listen and help. The condescending response from Trump, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and others ignores the genuine fears of students who face threats of violence and racist epithets — one of which was scrawled in human excrement at Missouri.
Often it’s the covert manifestations of racism that sting most, like the indifferent response of administrators and media critics. Or the persistent problems with retaining minority students and faculty at major universities that are instead focused on building multi-billion dollar endowments while neglecting needs of current students.
There are no easy solutions to these entrenched problems, but we’ve seen the result of propagating the status quo, from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond. At the very least, we can listen to these students respectfully and engage with them. Football players don’t boycott games and students don’t initiate hunger strikes for kicks or attention. The problems are real. As Spike Lee implored us in his 1988 film “School Daze,” “Wake up!”
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.