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​KHAN: Race, universities and enacting concrete change

Racial tensions cannot be boiled down to one root cause, but rather require collaboration between students and administrators to address

When I arrive at the Garrett Hall bus stop, there are roughly a hundred students, mostly black, standing and conversing on the steps adjacent to the road. It's 8 p.m. and the sky is dark; a single spotlight stands at the base of the steps, illuminating the crowd from below. Under the organization of the Black Student Alliance and the local NAACP chapter, students have gathered here to stand in solidarity with fellow activists at Yale and the University of Missouri following occurrences of racist incidents there. A representative from the NAACP makes opening remarks, two students sing and another recites the poem “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay. Then, BSA President Aryn Frazier walks down from the steps and begins talking.

“I don't know how many times now in the last year, we have been out on the Lawn, or out on these steps, or out on the amphitheatre, or out on the corner or out in some libraries telling people that our experiences matter; that our lives matter.”

She stresses that black students must continue to remind themselves and those around them that racism is not over, no matter how hard the rest of America tries to convince them otherwise.

“One of the reasons we have to gather is to remind each other... The world will remind us over and over again that you're making it [racism] up. That this [racism] is over. That 50 years ago, you got the right to vote, and that you got civil rights, and that you should be happy.”

Others at the event speak about black people combating racism by attaining influential positions or emphasizing the importance of allies. Still, the primary message of the speakers remains clear: racism is alive at American colleges, and the University's African-American students will not sit quietly by.

2015 has been a tumultuous year for race relations at colleges across the nation, including this University. The first shock came in March, when a video was leaked online showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing racist chants. At Ole Miss, a noose was hung around the neck of a famous Civil Rights leader’s statue. Just a few weeks ago at Yale, a firestorm of debate erupted around the topic of cultural appropriation. Then, at Mizzou, the president of the university resigned under pressure from demonstrating students and football players who claimed his administration had done nothing to combat escalating racial tensions. Following the events at Mizzou, protests of all kinds broke out at multiple colleges. And while the University hasn't seen too many public incidents of racism since the arrest of Martese Johnson, that doesn't mean racism isn't occurring on grounds. In September, Frazier penned an article describing how black students throwing a Lawn party were over-policed by cops, even as students in other Lawn rooms drank openly. Over the past few years, the n-word has been spotted on Beta Bridge by multiple students; some have even heard it shouted at them as they walk on grounds.

In the background of all these racially charged events and the student responses to them lie complicated questions about freedom of speech and political correctness. A growing number of publications have begun to pick up on the trend of millennial college students’ oversensitivity to social issues, especially race relations. In the push toward utopian standards of equality, they argue students are stomping on American ideals of free speech and using internalized emotions to censor any opinions that go against their own set of values.

Thus, as we evaluate the status of race relations at American colleges, we see two fundamental problems that have hindered progress: hypersensitive students who are too eager to protest every minor offense, and University administrations who are too eager to voice empty anti-racist rhetoric. Both impede the establishment of concrete solutions to institutional racism present at colleges. The essential question then becomes: how can students and administrations implement real, achievable reforms that address racial discrimination at its roots?

The Problem of Acknowledgment

A prerequisite to the enacting effective policies on racial issues is to first acknowledge the existence of racism. In university administrations across the country, there remain people in positions of power — like the former president of Mizzou — who have failed to take racial issues seriously. The immediate effect of this failure of acknowledgment was clear to me at Garrett Hall, where multiple students voiced sentiments that the greater student body was ignorant to the problems faced by African-Americans and that the acknowledgment of racism was a problem needing to be continually addressed. Jenné Nurse, president of the local NAACP, talked to me about the frustration of keeping the acknowledgment of racism alive. “[When] you've argued about something for so long, you stop talking about it,” she said. “And then they [the people you have been arguing with] believe that they are right, because you stopped confronting them about it. It becomes a silenced dialogue.”

While the degree of racism has definitely subsided over the past 50 years, it has by no means faded away enough to justify shuttering discussions on race relations. From the shootings in Charleston to the violent clashes between African-Americans and police and the recent racist incidents happening at universities, we are constantly reminded that varying forms of racial tensions, weather displayed publicly or privately, still exist. To the credit of the University, both the student body and the administration have improved their acknowledgment of racial issues over the past year. After Johnson's bloody arrest this past spring, the BSA publicly released “Towards a Better University,” a 27-page proposal to the administration on how best to improve racial diversity and inclusion at the University. President Teresa Sullivan gave a quick and detailed response to the proposal, and has since worked with the BSA to set up a "Dialogue on Community" Dec. 1. The student body has also shown greater responsiveness; multiple events concerning race have taken place this past semester, from the Asian Student Union’s “Not a Model Minority” campaign to the ASU and Latino Student Alliance’s debate on affirmative action, held between the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society and the Burke Society. And just last week, hundreds of students filled up Helms Theater to maximum capacity to view the “Black Monologues,” a series of short theatrical performances about the black experience at the University.

While acknowledgment from the student body and administration is important, African-American and other minority students need to be wary of demanding constant emotional attention from college administrations. For example, Nurse recalls the administration's response to Johnson’s arrest earlier this year in a negative light. “I was fearful… I felt like nobody at this University reached out to us... This is something that was huge in the black community,” she said. “It affected my psyche, I couldn’t study, it was all I thought about for two weeks, but nobody acknowledged that.”

Yet looking back at the records, we can see that both the vice president for diversity and equity and the dean of African-American affairs emailed statements regarding the incident to students, both of which were authorized by Sullivan. Sullivan even attended the rally held by Black Dot the day after Johnson’s arrest. Seeking explicit acknowledgment for every incident unintentionally makes the black community look weak and vulnerable. Additionally, it's important that students refrain from putting unvoiced words in the administration’s mouth. Speaking at Garrett Hall, Frazier used a vague straw man argument to give an unfair portrayal of the sentiments held by non-black students and administrations. In her words, “They say, ‘Why do you need more black students? And why can't you go join the other 900 organizations? Why do you have to have your own? Why should you have your own anything?’” With over 20 African-American student organizations on Grounds, how can Frazier be serious in claiming the administration doesn't want any black organizations? If black student organizations and the University's administration are to work together to solve issues of racial discrimination, it is essential that both sides do not misconstrue the stances of the other.

Concrete Changes

This is not to say the administration is faultless or that acknowledgment of the problem is itself enough. Regardless of numerous well-intentioned dialogues on race, few top-down initiatives or tangible programs to promote racial diversity and combat surreptitious systemic racism have been implemented. Frazier keenly notes that “It is more problematic to have administrators who can say that they understand your concerns, that they are working as hard as they can, saying that publicly and privately, but who aren't actually making the desired changes.” While Sullivan has started to tackle a few of the issues outlined by the BSA, she has been criticized for not implementing enough new reform to precipitate actual change. What are some tangible changes the University can implement?

Required readings for incoming first-years could be one effective way of reaching out to all incoming students about difficult topics like race relations. At Brown University, a “first readings” program exists to do just that. This year, incoming freshmen at Brown read and discussed “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, a book about the mass incarceration of blacks in the American prison system. At the University, implementing such a program — even if it had a rotating list of books — would help expose students to key social issues on Grounds. Such required readings could even be tied into the University's already well-established COLA courses. Currently, there is only one COLA class that offers a look into the history of slavery at the University. Instead of offering courses like “Game of Thrones” or “Photography in the Age of Instagram,” the University should prioritize offering students classes on controversial University-related topics, like race relations or sexual assault, or heed advice from the BSA and add courses that are designed to examine the history and culture of the University from varying social and economic viewpoints.

Numerous others policies have been proposed to precipitate racial progress. Hiring black staff and retaining them has been a crucial demand from many black groups, and while Sullivan has said she is working on the issue, it is dismaying to see a steady decrease of black faculty and staff at the University over the past five years. Renovations and expansions of the Office of African-American Affairs building have been pending for 40 years now; the administration could look into providing funding for its growth. The BSA’s document provides a whole host of other changes the administration could work toward implementing.

All that being said, administrations should be wary of setting impossible goals or overcorrecting on account of racial injustices. For example, following the protest at Mizzou, the administration sent out an email telling students to report any “hurtful” speech to university police, even though the email itself noted that “cases of hateful speech are not crimes.” Such a policy is similar to the recent push for increased classroom trigger warnings; while well intentioned, they end up hurting the openness of debate on race-related issues since every individual has his own subjective perception of what is and isn't hurtful. Nor should students seriously expect for racist incidents to completely stop. John McWhorter at The Daily Beast discusses how the incessant need for some liberals to push for an idealistic discrimination-free society rests “on the faulty assumption that black Americans are the world’s first group who can only excel under ideal conditions.” He goes on to say “the claim that America must ‘wake up’ and eliminate structural racism has become more of a religious incantation than a true call to action. We must forge solutions to black America’s problems that are feasible within reality." McWhorter takes a nuanced stance here — he isn't saying we shouldn't push for change, but instead noting that it's important for us to support achievable and meaningful change. Many students have done the opposite, demanding reforms that would either have little effect on racial discrimination (like the students at Princeton protesting over building names) or would be impossible to feasibly implement (like the students at Mizzou demanding 10 percent black faculty).

And finally, it's essential that the black community recognize the role it plays in helping to solve racial conflict. Andre Sanabia, a third-year College student at the Garrett Hall gathering posed a difficult question, pointing out that “all those leadership positions [in UJC, Honor] that we complain about being too white... How many of us are actually applying for those positions?” For all the talk of unity and harmony at Garrett Hall, how many black students have spoken on the recent spat between BSA and OAAA? Black groups should demand change from the administration and student body — but they also have to be self-critical in order to achieve true reform.


For me, the most memorable moments at the night of the Garrett Hall gathering came not from any speeches, but from the duet performance of the old Reconstruction era song “Oh, Freedom.” Listening to the song’s achingly bittersweet lyrics on slavery and liberation, I began to sense both the the immense historical pains of the black community but also the great hope for freedom and equality possible in the future.

The road to achieving a more diverse and accepting University is riddled with challenges. The University administration needs to take a serious look at the demands set out by the BSA and other policies that would help curtail institutional racism on Grounds. At the same time, the student body and the black community need to be wary of supporting impossible or idealistic policies that could hinder rather than help the push for racial equality. If these goals can be met to even some degree, the University would become a more accepting and open environment for the everyone in the student body.

Hasan Khan is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at


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