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How MU has come face-to-face with racism on campus

  • 7 min to read
Maxwell Little walks through the Student Center

Maxwell Little walks with students protesting that Racism Lives Here on Oct. 1 in the MU Student Center. The group urged listeners to no longer be silent on the issues of racism and sexism.

COLUMBIA — The pressure to address racism at MU has been building since last fall, but it is proving to be an enormous, complicated undertaking.

Students and administrators admit that even those who understand many of the issues don't understand all of them.

Activists on the front lines can't understand what other students are feeling. Students on the outside who want to help can't put themselves in activists' shoes.

Administrators don't understand their own shortcomings, while students don’t understand administrative limits. Even community members who dedicate their time have to spend hours trying to wrap their minds around the problem. 

"I admit there is racism, but I am at a loss as to how to make things better beyond calling out myself and others when I see something racist," explained Dianna Borsi O'Brien in a recent post on the Columbia Missourian Facebook site. "Perhaps we all feel frustrated."

Recent conversations with activists invested in the cause highlighted these platforms as places to start:

  • Openly acknowledge the distress of students on campus who feel targeted, uncomfortable, unwelcome and unsafe.
  • Publicly admit the racial problem on campus and admit to the university's racist past.
  • Understand the dynamic of a privileged race that has the luxury of disregarding the black experience.
  • Make university administrators accountable, particularly Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
  • Work hard to understand perspectives and cultures in order to make decisions that are best for all students.

Acknowledging students

Protests began after Michael Brown's death on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, less than 120 miles down Interstate 70 from Columbia. Demonstrations in the community initially coalesced around the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Unrest across the country as well as in Ferguson inspired MU students to vocally denounce injustices in their own lives. 

In December, they united around @MU4MikeBrown with vigils and rallies throughout the spring. Members stood firmly against hatred and violence toward people of color. They also challenged the university and the administration.

Dissent on campus hit its stride during the Homecoming parade this month when protesters, police and bystanders exchanged angry words. On Oct. 10, the tension reached the intersection of Ninth Street and University Avenue as protesters blocked UM System President Tim Wolfe's car and temporarily halted the annual parade.

"We disrupted the parade specifically in front of Tim Wolfe because we need him to get our message," MU graduate student Jonathan Butler, one of the protesters, told the Missourian. "We’ve sent emails, we’ve sent tweets, we’ve messaged, but we’ve gotten no response back from the upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus. And so we directed it to him personally."

"I applaud their courage," Wolfe said in an interview Friday about the students protesting. 

Admitting problems and racist history

Racism is rooted deep within American culture and, in turn, the university, said Reuben Faloughi, a graduate student and vocal activist at MU. It is not a trivial problem to students of color because they endure it every day, he said. They feel unequal, targeted and defeated because of the environment they live in.

It's an environment that wasn't designed to accommodate them, Faloughi said. Historically, it has tended to support one race at the expense of another.

Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1821, part of a compromise that admitted Maine as a free state at about the same time to balance the number of free and slave states. It was a border state during the Civil War, with Missouri soldiers fighting on both sides.

In 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the university must admit its first African-American student, Lloyd Gaines, who challenged the separate but equal education policy. The second African-American student, *Lucile Bluford won a court ruling in 1941 after she sued for admission, but did not attend the university. MU students were polled in 1949 to see whether they would support the open admission of black students. Affirmative votes by 70 percent of the 6,000 who voted led nine black students to enroll in 1950.

By contrast, Harvard graduated its first black student in 1870, according to Harvard Magazine. Much of America's higher education system was segregated around the turn of the 20th century, but the University of Iowa granted a law degree to an African-American student in 1879 and put a black student on a varsity athletic team in 1895.

The University of Michigan admitted a black medical student in 1853, and Ohio State University enrolled its first black student in 1889. The universities of Texas and Virginia, Louisiana State University and several other Southern schools admitted their first black students at around the same time MU did.

"People don’t understand how history has systemically shaped the way we respond to issues of race," said Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, *community activist and member of Race Matters, a community-based group that supports minority students on campus.

People don’t realize the implicit bias in their unconscious beliefs, she said.

Understanding privilege

The luxury of ignoring the effects of that history is called privilege, Faloughi said, and it has become a glaring obstacle in the fight for equity. When someone with privilege becomes uncomfortable, it's easy to turn away from the problem.

“Privilege allows people to ignore the problem,” he said. "If someone gets to choose whether or not to deal with race, it means they don’t have to live with it every day."

An Oct. 11 editorial in the Kansas City Star noted that "most of the 35,000 mostly white students attending MU come from largely segregated communities throughout the state, the U.S. and abroad." More than three out of every four students enrolled last year were white, according to numbers from the MU registrar's office.

"There are people who are actively racist and a part of the problem, but a lot of people just have no clue that there’s an issue on campus because it doesn’t affect them," Faloughi said.

Wilson-Kleekamp added that standing up for marginalized students is everyone's responsibility.

"If you are white and you don't recognize that there is oppression and you don't do anything about it, you are part of the problem," she said.

Challenging administration

In recent months, students have been consistently critical of the university administration, particularly Loftin, the highest-ranking administrator on the MU campus. Students have complained on social media about insincerity, inability to understand the complexities of the problems on campus and a purely reactive approach to a perilous situation. 

"I don't think these issues get tended to on any level," Faloughi said. "Administrators are in positions of power to affect a lot of change on campus."

On Oct. 8, the day before Homecoming weekend, Loftin announced that online diversity training will be mandatory for all faculty, in addition to staff and incoming students. The mandate was met in many corners with a range of skepticism, from moderate suspicion about motives to outright disdain. 

Some called it purely a public relations approach.

"All of those demands made by concerned students, faculty and staff need to be tackled in a way that is not a 'knee-jerk' reaction to external/internal pressures," Butler wrote in letter to the chancellor, published Oct. 16 in the Columbia Missourian.

"They react, react, react," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "The culture is in denial."

The administration has dysfunctional leadership, she said, but leaders would be capable of understanding if they "could walk in other worlds."  

"They must have the capacity to understand what the world is like for different types of people and what challenges different identities bring."

Butler pointed out in his letter to the chancellor that incidents involving student organizations and high-profile students with social platforms, like Missouri Students Association President Payton Head, diminish the rest of the minority population.

"Acknowledging their experiences is very important, but by only highlighting those experiences you implicitly erase the hundreds, if not thousands, of marginalized students at Mizzou who face incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and every other 'ism' and 'phobia' you can think about every day at Mizzou," Butler wrote.

Administrators say they're working hard to figure out what students want. 

"We can't provide solutions unless we listen, learn and try to understand," said UM System President Tim Wolfe in an interview last week about his lack of response and from the university. "It's a never-ending journey."

University administrators have said they're trying to listen through forums and conversations with students. In one forum on racism held on the MU campus last spring, administrators said they were upset to hear about students feeling unsafe on campus but they can't fix racism overnight.

After a series of reports about racial insults this fall, Loftin issued a statement on Oct. 5 saying that "all prejudice is heinous, insidious and damaging to Mizzou. It hurts students’ education and experience, including their mental health and academic achievement. That is why all of us must commit to changing the culture at this university.”

Loftin has displayed strong leadership in requiring diversity training, wrote columnist Carl Kenney earlier this month in a commentary for the Columbia Missourian. Kenney is an adjunct professor in the School of Journalism and co-pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Columbia. He is also a leader in Race Matters.

Although Kenney readily describes himself as a critical observer, he said he trusts Loftin to make thoughtful decisions.

The chancellor is making a deliberate and sincere effort to make all students feel welcome at the university, Kenney said. The reason that message isn't getting through is because most people can't see what's going on behind the scenes. 

Craig Roberts, a member of the Interfaculty Council, said some of that tension comes from members of the faculty who essentially don't see a problem or a need for change. That denial is taking shape in resistance to new efforts, he said.

For example, many were unwilling to participate in the addition of a diversity course requirement for all MU students, an idea that emerged after cotton balls were found in front of the Gaines-Oldham Black Culture Center in 2010.

Tension on the back end presents itself as silence in the public sphere, Roberts said. Kenney added that frustrated students are often forced to wait for solutions while these negotiations are waged behind closed doors. 

Seeing perspectives

What marginalized students say they need is for other students and administrators to understand what challenges they face. 

Faloughi knows how tough that can be. 

"It’s difficult to change your world view; these are things you’ve been taught forever," he said. 

But he says it's necessary to changing the way marginalized students feel on campus. The challenge of understanding for one person doesn't warrant the consequence of suffering for another. 

That's why he and other active students are pushing those around them to see their side. For many of them, that's more than enough. 

When white students ask what they're supposed to do about racism embedded deep within the culture and individual attitudes, that's the answer: try to understand the experience of those who are oppressed by it. 

If that understanding spreads and becomes a collective attitude, the campus will have achieved what black students are begging for. 

"Racism might be permanent in our society, but we have to address it," Faloughi said. 

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

  • Public Safety & Health Reporter, Fall 2014 Community Reporter, Fall 2015 Copy Editor, Spring 2016

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