The protests against discrimination in the United States have arrived on campuses.
A group of African-American students interrupted a procession and stood in the way of the president of the University of Missouri in Columbia. Armed with megaphones, they counted every year in which, since it was founded, there have been racist incidents at the institution. Written on their T-shirts was the slogan “1839. Built on my black back,” in reference to the slave labor that built the university. They formed a barrier by linking arms, some of them with tears on their faces. When the police arrived to move them on, the other mainly white students applauded. The president, Tim Wolfe, admitted this week that if he had gotten out of his car to listen to them, the protests would not have progressed, and he would still be in his position.
Wolfe, a white man, resigned without once taking a stance on the racist acts denounced by the institution’s black students. His brief altercation with the students, which definitively ignited the flame of the protests a month ago, was the perfect example of the distance yet to be covered in the debate on racism in the United States and in its universities, the greatest symbols of the country’s cultural and social progress.
“The most severe recent incidents [at the Universities of Yale and Missouri] will sound familiar to anyone who works at or even has substantial contact with an institution of higher education,” wrote Jelani Cobb this week, one of the relevant voices in the debate that has divided the United States for over a year.
The protests that exploded in Ferguson in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown have arrived on university campuses. In Yale (Connecticut), numerous students claim that they could not enter a party because it was “only for white girls.” In Missouri, the student body president revealed on Facebook that he had been insulted, being called a “nigger” — such an offensive word that it is never written out in full; it’s the “N-word.”*
In one of the spaces where the minorities civil rights struggle was born in the 1960s, the conversation on racism and inequality has exploded once again, but with new rules. The protesters organize themselves on social networks, they are supported by the power of omnipresent video cameras, and they have the media to spread their messages. Their demands have taken by surprise a sector of society — including universities — which had considered discrimination to have been overcome already.
On one side of the conversation, there are those who accuse the Missouri protesters of breaching the right to information for excluding the media from their protests. On the other, references to slaves condemn the influence of two centuries of slavery on the social and economic inequality suffered by minorities in the United States today. And in the middle exists a range of arguments, from the supposed irrelevance of freedom of speech in a debate on racial discrimination to a lack of comprehension regarding the institutional silence from universities like Missouri after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson — barely an hour away — or when faced with acts of racism in their own buildings.
“To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors,” says Cobb. The journalist, one of the few who can be counted on to gather up the loose threads of this bitter conversation, also celebrates that it has arisen at a college like Yale because “it makes it a more pointed illustration that no amount of talent or resources or advantage can shield you entirely from the minimizing sentiments so pervasive in this country.”
Cobb makes reference to the socio-economic inequalities between blacks and whites in the country of the American dream, and also to one of those factors that usually remain buried in the various shades of gray of a conversation that the United States has not managed to resolve nearly two centuries after liberating the slaves. The writer reminds readers that one of the Yale student residences is Calhoun, in honor of a Southern politician from the 19th century who defended slavery.
“The legacy of racism is not just carved into the facades of university buildings; it is found in the persistence of inherited privilege that shapes the composition of the curriculum, the student body and the faculty,” adds Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, in The Atlantic. At Columbia, 7 percent of students and 3 percent of the faculty are black. At Yale, an Asian professor announced her move this week to Berkeley, “a public institution where that [social justice and inclusion] is a fundamental part of its DNA.”
Like at these two universities, where students have condemned the lack of institutional support in challenging racist acts, the tension has expanded to other cities. This Thursday, the Black Culture Center sign on the Columbia campus was vandalized, the police detained a student who had published various threats to black students on an anonymous social network, and majority Afro-American institutions like Howard, in the capital, are tightening security. Meanwhile, the debate continues, with no solution.
*Editor’s Note: Watching America recognizes that this is an offensive term, but believes it is relevant to the content of this article.