All-night sit-in at the Ugli addresses the campus racial climate

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By Caroline Baron, For the Daily
Published February 19, 2014

The United Coalition for Racial Justice’s “Speak Out” sit-in event continued the campus discussion on the University’s racial climate as speakers, alumni and students converged on the Shapiro Undergraduate Library Tuesday night.

The sit-in was hosted by the UCRJ, which ran from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., featured free food, speeches, student-organized teach-in sessions, hip-hop performances, film screenings and action planning. It concluded Wednesday morning with coffee and breakfast.

The evening opened with an introduction by former University President James Duderstadt and a keynote speech from University alum Barbara Ransby, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Chicago. Ransby, a scholar and activist, led several movements on campus while earning her doctorate in History at the University, including a 12-demand reform package advancing racial diversity and inclusiveness. These demands are echoed in the Black Student Union’s recent set of seven demands to the University.

Ransby’s speech set the tone and mission for the event, addressing what she said is the institutionalized racism at the University. Ransby said it has seeped into the structure of the school as well as the lives of its students.

She said addressing the issue requires the University to rethink its definitions of diversity and challenge its notion of excellence and standards when considering which applicants to admit.

“If we’re going to embrace the notion of diversity, it has to be one that is contextualized and that is unapologetically political,” she said. “We can have a Baskin-Robbins, pick your favorite flavor of diversity, which is cosmetic and decorative, or we can have a version of diversity that says inclusion is based on the history of exclusion and oppression.”

Rackham student Austin McCoy, UCRJ co-chair, said in his speech that movements such as the #BBUM campaign have raised awareness among people on campus and have inspired events like Speak Out. He said this systematic approach is an important aspect of the event.

McCoy said despite any current plans in place, there needs to be a new system in regard to how the University operates overall. He said the Speak Out approach is to include a wide range of participants to gain a variety of voices.

“This event has a mass base — there’s a lot of people from different backgrounds, and I think that’s one thing that sets this apart from, say, the Freeze Out Follow Up,” he said.

In her speech, Ransby emphasized the importance of events like this are for the University climate. She responded to Duderstadt’s remarks about the campus’s improvements to diversity, adding that the school should not celebrate how far it has have come in the name of racial justice because it can be dangerous and misleading.

Ahmad Rahman, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, who was a graduate student in Ann Arbor, said he feels that progress through diversity at the University is hardly advancing at all.

“I come here now because we do research in this library, and last year when I came here I was shocked — on two floors of the library I never saw a Black student,” he said. “Everyone was studying for midterms and there was not a single Black student on either floor of the library, and I had never seen that when I was a student here.”

Students each had a turn to speak up about their experiences as students at the University and how they were affected by the lack of diversity. Rackham student Leslie Upton, a volunteer at the event and president of Students of Color of Rackham, said she too sees a lack of diversity on campus.

“There’s this idea of being a bit isolated, and really trying to find a community,” she said. “That’s what I think is cool about this event is that it’s bringing together so many different types of people and works against that feeling of isolation.”