LBC incident reopens campus race dialogue
Freshman Autumn Clemons: “We’re not just yelling, we’re not just ranting, we’re not just going on about that type of stuff. We’re actually trying to get out a message, and I feel like that’s what people are actually missing.”
Oct. 05, 2016
Hands interlocked, eyes closed, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle of prayer, weaving themselves in between the tables and chairs.
As a few black students led the prayer in the center of the circle, the students surrounding them listened quietly. Some bowed their heads; others rested their heads on the shoulders beside them.
“We shall overcome,” shouted the black student from the center of the circle, ending the prayer.
“We shall overcome,” the circle of students responded.
The Legion of Black Collegians held a gathering of black students and supporters at the Student Center on the afternoon of Sept. 28 and a town hall in the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center later that evening. Both events were in response to an incident Sept. 27 in which two LBC members reported being harassed and called racial slurs near the Delta Upsilon fraternity house, according to a statement from LBC.
The situation was all too familiar.
LBC’s statement came just over a year after former Missouri Students Association President Payton Head recounted his own experience with being called a racial slur on campus in a viral Facebook post on Sept. 12, 2015, bringing issues of race relations at MU into the national spotlight for the first time that semester.
And it was one year ago Wednesday — on Oct. 5, 2015 — that LBC’s Homecoming royalty court was harassed and called a racial slur during their rehearsal on Traditions Plaza.
Weeks of rallies, protests and activism from multiple campus communities resulted in the resignations of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and UM System President Tim Wolfe. Students spoke up and started a conversation at MU and other college campuses across the country. For perhaps the first time all semester, there was hope that the campus climate could change.
One year later, history has started to repeat itself.
It was six days until Loftin responded to Head’s post. Last week, interim Chancellor Hank Foley responded to LBC’s statement the same day, and he was there with black students at the Student Center that afternoon.
The short-term administrative response to racism at MU changed. But on a campus struggling to heal, finding long-term solutions for institutional problems is still a work in progress.
MU’s first black English professor, Clenora Hudson-Weems, was one of 10 black faculty members hired in 1990, and she has been at MU for over 26 years. She said she was disappointed that despite the protests last year, no substantial changes have been made by the administration. But she was not surprised by what happened to the LBC members last week.
Hudson-Weems has written multiple books, including four about Emmett Till, a black teenager who was lynched in 1955 because he whistled at a 21-year-old white woman. She said despite her focus on topics like racism, she has not been approached by administration for input in the race dialogue at MU.
“You would think they would start by dealing with the ones who have been here, like myself, long enough to have experienced enough to know from past experiences, past initiatives to say, ‘Why don’t we do this, why don’t we do that, why don’t we try that,’” Hudson-Weems said.
Hudson-Weems said the immediate step that administration needs to take is to sit down and hear the concerns from black faculty members like herself who have been in the MU community for a long time and can give insight on what needs to change. She said it is important that administrators look to older faculty to understand the reality of the situation.
“It’s not always what you want to hear; it’s what you need to hear,” Hudson-Weems said.
Freshman Sania White, who is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, also said she was expecting administration to be more direct in its response due to the protests last year.
White said those who harassed the LBC members should be treated based on the zero-tolerance policy. Although White said the first step should be suspension, freshman Autumn Clemons said hate speech should always result in expulsion.
Black Studies faculty member Stephen Graves also said part of the problem is that the university keeps these students’ identities hidden, and they are not forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.
"They have to be exposed in public, and they have to be confronted publicly,” Graves said. “They should apologize publicly and visibly, and they should be forced to explain themselves.”
When these students are allowed to leave campus without any repercussions, he said they will take their racist mindsets somewhere else and assume that there is nothing problematic about their behavior. Graves said it is necessary that a system is created at MU in which students are held accountable for their actions.
Hudson-Weems said it is also essential to diversify faculty because those of different backgrounds provide an “endemic” perspective. She said it also gives students of unique backgrounds an opportunity to have representation and a sense of connection within the academic community.
“They’re going to give you that inside perspective that you wouldn’t get outside,” Hudson-Weems said. “And certainly when you talk about enhancing the student enrollment, you can’t do that successfully and maintain them if they have no faculty they can relate to who can serve as mentors.”
She said there is an attitude of avoiding dialogues about the past, which she finds concerning.
“They’re saying, ‘We’re moving forward,’ without any moves in correcting the past mistakes as if we are going to forget past mistakes,” Hudson-Weems said in an email. “This is needed before we can realistically move forward.”
"You cannot forget the past,” she said. “You cannot. You’ve got to look at the past and learn the lessons of the past so you do not repeat the mistakes of the past. You have to correct the past.”
Both the Student Center prayer circle and the GOBCC town hall meeting gave an opportunity for students and the community to address the issues they saw and to begin to heal. At the town hall, representatives from the MU Police Department and Greek Life were in attendance. The room was overflowing.
White said the dialogue was necessary, and similar meetings need to continue to happen.
"I think it was a productive, an emotional, a very surreal meeting,” White said. "Walking out, I didn’t think it was going to hit me as hard as it did. Just realizing the stuff that’s happening right now is very thought-provoking and in some cases heart-wrenching.”
Clemons said having police and Greek Life representatives present was an important part of the process and a good start to creating change. Although the meeting was open to everyone, most people at the meeting were black students.
“The people that needed to be there weren’t there — the kids that did the actions,” Clemons said. “They were the ones that actually need to hear what we’re going through.”
"I feel like every person who is not sure how they feel about this situation or in opposition to us, I want to challenge them to actually try talking to us,” Clemons added. "I want them to open their minds, open their eyes, open their ears, and actually listen to what people are saying. We’re not just yelling, we’re not just ranting, we’re not just going on about that type of stuff, we’re actually trying to get out a message, and I feel like that’s what people are actually missing.”
Like Clemons, Graves said these conversations should be geared toward individuals who do not understand the black experience.
Graves and Hudson-Weems said dialogues regarding race need to be held in the open. They both want a forum created where students can come out and express their opinions, no matter how controversial, so they can be addressed. Hudson-Weems said it is worse if students possess certain race-related misconceptions without voicing them because those views are then perpetuated. Graves said the dialogue is necessary to get to the root of the problem.
“The dialogue, the discussion, has to take place between people who really feel that black people are a problem on campus or are inferior or who hold these racial attitudes,” Hudson-Weems said. “Those people need to be made publically available, and they need to express these attitudes and why and explain themselves to the people they’re offending.”
“Only with putting out front these racist misconceptions can those ideas and attitudes be corrected, with the needed information about the absurdity and unfairness of racism, now exposed as a valuable corrective,” Hudson-Weems added in an email.
But with racism not as rampant as it was in the past, Graves said some people make the assumption that current race relations are satisfactory.
"I know the pervading attitude is that we’ve come so far and that things have gotten so much better and the country’s progressing and we’re better off,” Graves said. "But I don’t think that we’re really seeing that play out, and I think that’s some of the frustration people are facing, especially black kids on college campuses and black people everywhere nationwide. I think you’re seeing that built-up frustration.”
Graves said often those outside the black community do not realize racism is not just like the incident that occurred last week.
“People have a misperception that racism is just calling people the N-word or cops shooting black people or that it’s always hangings and explicit discrimination that you see,” Graves said. “In this day and age of social media and everything else there is, there’s a lot of subtle racism and a lot of institutional racism.”
Hudson-Weems said a person can partake in racism by being a bystander.
"If you see this stuff and don’t participate directly to correct the problem, but you say nothing and turn your head,” Hudson-Weems said. “... You’re just as guilty because you did nothing to stop it."
“You are guilty by omission, which is just as bad as guilty by commission," she added in an email.
Even as members of faculty, Graves and Hudson-Weems said they continue to experience racism on a daily basis. Graves said his experience is similar to many black students.
"People tend to notice us on campus because we’re black and that’s it,” Graves said. "We don’t have any intellectual or academic contribution to make, that we’re here to fill a quota because of the racial tension that happened last year, and that the university wants to make more blacks visible.”
White said there is a different pressure for those that are black, especially women. White, who is in the Honors College, said she sees relatively little representation of the black community within her classes.
"Being a black woman, you are at the bottom of the totem pole the way our society is set up,” White said. "I feel like I have to prove myself because I already have this target on my back because I’m stereotypically not supposed to be able to open my mouth and articulate the same words and have the same kind of intelligence when I speak.”
Edited by Kyra Haas and Nancy Coleman | firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com