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UPDATE: Heartfelt views aired as MU addresses cotton ball incident

Monday, March 1, 2010 | 9:25 p.m. CST; updated 8:07 a.m. CST, Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Students listen to comments from MU faculty and administrators during a Town Hall Meeting on Monday at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Students and community members heard comments about the event that had taken place outside the Black Culture Center and about diversity education on campus.

COLUMBIA — The reaction coming out of a town hall meeting at MU's Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center was to not let a revived conversation about campus racism die. The two-hour meeting was a response to an incident on Friday in which cotton balls were scattered in front of the center, read by many as a hurtful, hateful gesture.

"We can no longer let these little acts of racism go on because it doesn't threaten anyone's life," said Anthony Martin, president of the Legion of Black Collegians, a student group at MU that hosted the meeting.

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A crowd of what appeared to be more than 100 people stretched from a conference room into the hallways. Many people stood, and news cameras recorded the meeting from the sides of the room.

Martin explained the significance of the cotton ball incident when he detailed the history of cotton for African Americans. The act was important, he said, even if it was nonviolent. The center's director Nathan Stephens agreed, calling it symbolic violence.

Regardless of the intent of the people behind the act, Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton said they “made a very serious mistake.”

Police think the cotton balls were scattered between 1:30 and 2 a.m. Friday. MU Police Chief Jack Watring told the gathering he thinks the two people who did it ran between Wolpers and Johnston residential halls toward the MU Student Recreation Complex. The Black Culture Center, 813 Virginia Ave., is near the dorms.

MU Police Department officers have reviewed footage from video cameras in the area, but none of the footage is focused directly on the center. Potential leads could come from looking at cotton ball purchases in the area and the use of cards to enter residence halls at about the same time as the incident.

Watring said the department was doing everything it could but needs help from the community. The department can be reached at 882-7201.

Questioning the MU administration

Friday’s incident was the reason for the meeting, but during a question-and-answer session, participants raised other concerns: the lack of cameras at the Black Culture Center; not making the center a stop on campus tours; hate crimes not being defined in the university’s code of conduct; and a perception that top administrators responded slowly to the incident. 

Some criticized the mass e-mail sent at about 5 p.m. Friday by Chancellor Brady Deaton as too slow in coming and too soft in language.

“We were just trying to make a responsible statement at the time,” Deaton said after the meeting. He said the administration had to deal with explaining an issue about which they had no confirmed information to a broad range of people in a few hours.

Repeatedly, speakers and questioners broached the need for a diversity course general education requirement. The first mention of it by MU Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington sparked applause.

In the Q & A, Yantezia Patrick, co-chairwoman of Four Front Minority Presidents Council, expressed the frustration she felt when trying to go to an MU Faculty Council task force with a proposal for a diversity course.

“When we came to y’all three weeks ago, y’all shot us down,” Patrick said, adding that she thinks it’s sad the incident had to happen for the proposal to get public attention.

After the meeting, Patrick, a journalism student, said the administration has given promises year after year with no progress.

“I understand it’s a bureaucratic system, but I feel oftentimes the views of minority students are low on the totem pole,” she said.

The Legion of Black Collegians submitted a list of demands to Deaton in March 2005, which included academic demands such as turning black studies into a major and the addition of a diversity course to the general education requirement.

Importance of diversity

Many people at the meeting were African Americans, and, at one point, an audience member noted the absence of other races there even though the meeting was publicized over the past couple of days as open to everyone.

Yve Solbrekken, a science education doctoral student, said via a telephone interview that as a past member of Difficult Dialogues, a program designed to help educators facilitate open-minded discussion, she believes it is important for those from different races and cultures to interact more often.

“We need to become friends with one another,” said Solbrekken, who sent a letter to the editor at the Missourian on Monday afternoon. “I don’t see how we can understand each other if we don’t hang out more.”

Lakeisha Williams, a sophomore senator in the Missouri Students Association, said many were in disbelief of the cotton ball incident because they thought things were different after the election of Barack Obama.

“So many people feel we live in a post-racial society, and we don’t,” Williams said at the meeting.

Discussions of this nature require everyone, Williams said.

“How are you going to have these conversations on diversity and only include diverse individuals?” she asked.

Josh Travis, former MSA operations committee chairman, said it is time for a “yes, we will” attitude and encouraged the audience not to let the conversation die when the meeting ended.

“We have to redefine diversity,” Travis said. “Diversity is more than numbers — it lies in each and every one of us.”

Taking the initiative

Martin said the issues brought up during the forum were far from over.

“It’s our job to take the initiative,” he said. “Any organization you’re a part of can have an impact.”

Deaton said the university will stand strong. “We’ll never allow a situation like this to divide us,” he said.

Solbrekken said the next steps won't be easy.

“We shouldn’t lay it at the feet of the chancellor, the people at university or the organizers of the town hall meeting,” Solbrekken said. “The responsibility rests within each of us.”

Missourian reporter Katy Bergen contributed to this article.


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Comments

Nick Sugitani March 2, 2010 | 12:29 p.m.

I think this was a stupid prank that should not have happened. There are plenty of organizations at MU and each one has a say. The Black Culture Center is one of the more prominent ones and is probably a peaceful one. I have a high opinion of MU and I'm sure this center follows peaceful and positive working messages such as Obama and Dr. King.

(Report Comment)
Simin Wang March 2, 2010 | 11:38 p.m.

Hi, my friends from Singapore read this article, but they have no idea what the significance of the cotton ball was. Maybe you could add links on "cotton balls and racism" to help international readers understand your story better? Thanks!

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