Higher Education

Commentary: The University of Mississippi’s latest “incident” brings both pain and opportunity

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So it goes.

Another day, another “incident” at the University of Mississippi.

This one, as you’ve no doubt heard, involved a noose and Confederate flag draped over the statue of James Meredith, the man who desegregated the University in 1962 by the force of will, courage, and 30,000 federal troops deployed by President Kennedy.

Statue of James Meredith (Photo: Wikipedia)

Perhaps it’s a Southern thing, but we euphemize these acts of campus hatred so quaintly — an “incident” — as if they were some sort of verbal faux pas. ”Incident” implies something accidental, unpredictable, a one-off occurrence. The type of thing that might become funny after the statute of limitations for embarrassment has passed.

I can remember back to my sophomore year when we had the Deke incident. Next came the Michael Hudec/YouTube incident. Then the KKK incident. The Election Night incident. The Laramie Project incident…

At a certain frequency, incidents cease to be incidental. They become habits. And in Mississippi — no less the rest of America — racism is a habit so ingrained, so systemic, that it often takes a disruptive incident to bring it to our attention.

Racism is like the phosphoric coating on the head of a match that waits to release a furious burst of energy. Incidents occur when the match is rubbed the wrong way, against the wrong surface. It sparks an instant combustion that burns hot and fast.

We dread the match’s ability to burn us. It can be painful. The reaction to incidents inevitably involve the shame and scorn heaped on the University by the national media. As I write these words, news of the incident is no doubt spreading to The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and other online outlets. In a few days time, the New York Times will publish a piece about the incident’s aftermath and the University’s struggle to shed its racist image.

More importantly, these incidents cause deep emotional pain for members of the University community. Only 50 years after federal marshals were required to escort Meredith around campus, black students and faculty at the University must wonder whether the noose was meant as a warning. A community whose members fear for their safety — physical, intellectual, or otherwise — fails to perform its most basic function.

But before we seek to extinguish the flame that burns us, we should recognize it also has the power to illuminate. The light from the incident should show us that while Meredith desegregated the University, the work of integration remains unfinished.

The campus that has elected multiple recent black student body presidents and a black homecoming queen is still socially and politically centered around the all-white Greek houses, dutifully managed by their black “help.” In the state with the country’s largest black population, nearly all of the University’s most prominent faculty and administrative positions are held by whites. Touchdowns by black football players are still celebrated with strains of “Dixie.”

Just as good health is not merely the absence of illness, integration cannot be defined merely as the absence of racial incidents. Integration means equality, measured in positive, practical ways: Shared spaces, organizations, symbols, and experiences for all students. A student body and staff representative of state and national diversity. Opportunities for career advancement among faculty, administrators, and coaches of color.

In all of these areas, the University has made progress — no small feat for a school founded on the seminal academic purpose of preserving the Southern “way of life.” By far the clearest sign of that progress is how many of Mississippi’s brightest minds now leave the University with the skills and desire to critically analyze the institutions around them. As for those who still stand in darkness, let’s hope the light from this incident helps them see their surroundings for the first time.

Jake McGraw, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, is editor of the Rethink Mississippi blog for The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

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