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Lourdes Torrey was only a few weeks into her first year at the University of Missouri in 2018 when she heard a white student in the dorm room next to hers use the N-word. She reported it through official channels, she said, but never got so much as an apology — and the white student continued to say the word.
Torrey enrolled at the university fully aware that the student body president had been called the same epithet in 2015; she hoped things had changed. But, she said, the demands made by students back then have mostly gone unmet.
So when the university chancellor eventually released a public statement condemning the killing of George Floyd, after being repeatedly called out on social media for remaining silent, Torrey saw it as performative.
“I felt like it was very disingenuous,” said the 20-year-old rising junior. “We had a list of things we wanted the school to do. I don’t think they’ve done anything from that list.”
In the aftermath of Floyd’s brutal killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis, university administrators across the country have released statements in the past several weeks condemning racism. But many Black students say the statements are empty rhetoric; what they want is action.
They say white students still go unpunished for racial taunts and insults. They say that, despite endless commissions and study groups, the monuments of Confederate and pro-segregation leaders remain lodged on their campuses. After countless demonstrations and despite numerous pledges, the numbers of Black faculty members stay stagnant and Black student enrollments haven’t increased.
A University of Missouri spokesperson said that since 2015 it had increased faculty diversity and raised graduation rates “among underrepresented minorities.”
The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rebecca Blank, released a statement that read, in part, “To our Black and Brown students, staff and faculty, I want to say unambiguously: You belong here, you are important to this campus, your lives matter and I am committed to your safety.”
It didn’t sit well with many members of the university’s Black Student Union.
“I feel like it’s completely lip service, with no actions and no specific next steps,” said Nalah McWhorter, president of the Black Student Union at the flagship campus, where in 2018 just 2 percent of students were Black. “These statements are just like the exact statements they’ve put out after past incidents; it’s to relieve the weight off of them and just shut everybody up.”
A University of Wisconsin-Madison spokesperson said that Black student enrollment had increased to 3 percent last year, and that the university is working to recruit and retain a more diverse student body and faculty and implement reforms within the campus police force.
Many Black students at North Carolina State University were angered by a statement put out by Chancellor Randy Woodson, which made no mention of police brutality. That campus has been hit many times in the past several years by racist graffiti and flyers as well as the use of the N-word, all of which went unpunished by the administration, students said. In the first week of June alone, three social media posts with racial slurs by two current students and one incoming student were made public.
“We’ve had town halls and meetings, but no actual consequences for the students who committed racist acts,” said Brandon Lewis, a master’s degree student in atmospheric science at N.C. State.
The university has a hashtag it uses on social media, #ThinkAndDo, he noted with a chuckle.
“There were a lot of sighs and eye rolls,” said Lewis, who never had a Black professor when he was an undergraduate at the university. “They do a lot of thinking and reflecting, but not a lot of doing.”
After public criticism of Woodson’s statement, the chancellor put out a second statement, announcing that the university would require all students and staff to “complete diversity and inclusion learning modules.”
A coalition of Black student organizations is demanding reforms to the campus police, including student input on police budgets, a public database of racial bias incidents and officers’ use of excessive force and the cutting of ties with the Raleigh Police Department. In response, the N.C. State police issued a statement calling for “an end of police violence against Black people” and pledged to set up a town hall to discuss student concerns.
“They think they’re going to pacify the movement, but I don’t think current students will allow it,” said Elikem Dodor, who will be a junior at N.C. State in the fall and is the editor-in-chief of Nubian Message, a campus newspaper that highlights the voices of Black and other marginalized students.
Her first year as one of two Black physics majors on the campus was riddled with covert and overt racist incidents, she said. When a student announced during a physics lab that the reason there weren’t more Black physicists was that Black people had naturally lower IQs, Dodor reported it. She said she was told that was “just physics culture,” and no action was taken to discipline the student.
“It was the last straw,” she said. “I changed majors.”
“I don’t condemn them for their statements, but I do condemn them for not taking action. It’s bigger than police brutality, it’s about systemic racism. It’s about the fact that we are thought of and treated as less than.”Alex English, president, University of Georgia NAACP chapter
Troy Alim, who has been a social justice activist for the past several years, said he is inspired by the leadership of young Black students and agrees that most of the university statements are window dressing.
“I think there is optimism based on this worldwide movement and the fact that there’s worldwide attention on the way Black folks have been treated in this country for hundreds of years now,” said Alim, who is the Midwest engagement manager for the Young Invincibles youth advocacy group. “The question I would ask is, ‘What is being done?’ The institutional racism is so deep, there are so many things that can be done to address it. … I think it’s a really important time for institutions to show who they are.”
On May 31, during a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in downtown Athens, Georgia, protesters were teargassed when they walked to the University of Georgia Arch. President Jere Morehead released a statement that mentioned neither racism nor police brutality. After swift criticism, he released a more pointed statement, via email, but some students felt it was too little too late.
“You do these small things to make people satisfied and shut up for a little bit, but it’s never really true action,” said Kaela Yamini, who graduated from the University of Georgia in May.
Many students want the university to act on long-standing demands to change the names of buildings honoring unrepentant segregationists, such as Richard Russell. They have repeatedly asked the administration to hire more Black faculty members and increase the number of Black students on campus. In a state where almost one-third of residents are Black, in 2018, only 8 percent of students at the flagship university were Black and only 3 percent were Black men.
Some students say that the content of the president’s statement is, in certain ways, beside the point.
“I don’t condemn them for their statements, but I do condemn them for not taking action,” said Alex English, the president of the University of Georgia NAACP chapter. “It’s bigger than police brutality, it’s about systemic racism. It’s about the fact that we are thought of and treated as less than.”
A spokesperson said the University of Georgia had devoted resources to increasing the diversity of the student population and supporting Black students on campus.
Students at a flagship university on the other side of the country — the University of California at Berkeley — also want their president to go beyond words and gestures.
“People don’t have faith in the rhetoric,” said Nicole Anyanwu, a rising senior who is the student government vice president for academic affairs.
The percentage of Black students at Berkeley has plummeted since the state prohibited affirmative action in 1996 — it stood at 2 percent in 2018 (the last year for which federal data is available).
Berkeley students argue that millions of dollars are allocated to the university police, while resources that would help recruit and retain Black students are lacking.
“The institutional racism is so deep, there are so many things that can be done to address it. … I think it’s a really important time for institutions to show who they are.”Troy Alim, Midwest engagement manager for the Young Invincibles youth advocacy group
On Thursday, the university announced it would ban its police officers from using chokeholds, relocate the police department out of a building at the center of campus and use mental health professionals to respond to relevant emergencies.
“Why do we have to spend so much time fighting for these things when we should be focusing on our education?” said Anyanwu, who is a pre-med major.
And at elite colleges in the Northeast, which often pride themselves on their progressive policies, many students say they, too, are sick of words without deeds.
Some students criticized Boston College president William Leahy for sending campus police to an off-campus protest against police brutality the same day he issued a statement that read, in part, “I particularly ask how we at Boston College, members of an academic and faith community, can and should respond” to the killing of George Floyd.
“If you’re sending B.C. police to a peaceful protest, there’s a conflict with the statement,” said Tonie Chase, who is a rising senior at Boston College, where 4 percent of the students were Black in 2018. “It feels like a slap in the face.”
A Boston College spokesperson said they sent the police officers as part of a cooperation agreement with the city of Boston and noted that the college had launched a forum on racial justice to address inequality on the campus.
Students from Harvard University, which also sent campus police to the rally in Franklin Park, spoke out against the decision and demanded that the university abolish the campus police force. In February, several groups called for the resignation of Harvard’s chief of police after The Harvard Crimson published an investigation that found patterns of racism and sexism within the police force.
The University of Mississippi, commonly known as Ole Miss, has a long, well-documented history of racism. That includes an incident last summer in which three white students took a photo of themselves posing with guns next to a bullet-riddled sign commemorating the place where Emmett Till’s body was dumped in 1955 after he was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
So when Chancellor Glenn Boyce put out a statement on May 31 that read, in part, “We all recognize that this University has a difficult history with these issues that oftentimes places us at the forefront of complex and emotional discussions,” many Black students were angered, but not surprised, at his delicate choice of words.
“This is stuff that we have all heard before,” said Leah Davis, who graduated from Ole Miss in May and for two years was the student government’s director of inclusion and cross-cultural engagement.
Ole Miss did not respond to requests for comment.
There have already been several incidents this spring of incoming students using racist epithets on social media. “These students are already causing harm before they’ve even taken their first class, but the university says its hands are tied,” she said.
She says students in residence halls who report being called the N-word never find out whether disciplinary action has been taken. Enrollment of Black students dropped to 12 percent in 2018, from 16 percent in 2010, in a state where half of public high school graduates are Black.
“I would like to be optimistic, but I’ve seen time and time again where they make these statements and say these things, and they don’t actually take action,” said Davis. “Are you giving the African American Studies Department more money? Are you hiring more Black faculty and staff? Are you giving African American students more scholarships and more equity? Because if not, these are all just empty words.”
This story about racism on college campuses was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.