Recognition and healing: how the University can move past racist incidents
Over the past year, members of the University of Michigan have both seen and responded to countless acts of hate directed at communities of color and other marginalized groups. Though the administration and campus organizations have reacted with activism and messages of support, students — along with some faculty and staff — continue to call for more action.
On Sunday, an incident of racist vandalism occurred in West Quad Residence Hall: Racial slurs were found on the dormitory doors of three Black students in the Michigan Community Scholars Program. University President Mark Schlissel tweeted to condemn the incident, but Black students still called on the president to take a more prominent stand against hate. That same day, racial slurs were spray-painted onto East Liberty and South State Street buildings.
These hateful incidents are not new. In September 2016, racist flyers featuring white supremacist messages were found on campus posting walls. In February, engineering students received anti-Black and anti-Semitic emails bolstering hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. Earlier this September, anti-Latino and pro-Trump graffiti was found scrawled on the Rock, a University landmark.
On Wednesday night, the Black Student Union and Students4Justice led a protest, calling on Schlissel to respond to the racially charged incidents of the past week. Afterward, a man, unaffiliated with the University, was arrested during a fight that broke out, in which he called students “n------.”
On Thursday evening, Schlissel released a statement expressing sadness for the hateful acts, but pride for how the University has come together to respond.
“The Black Student Union issued a strong statement regarding the racist graffiti in a residence hall and that message was amplified by university leaders,” he wrote. “Outreach to affected communities took place through LSA, the Dean of Students Office, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and many others. The U-M faculty leadership has issued strong statements regarding these incidents.”
Schlissel also pointed to specific actions taken by the University in response to the racist vandalism.
Student leaders discuss activism and support in their communities
Rackham student Rosalyn Kent, president of Students of Color of Rackham — an organization aiming to create spaces where students of color can feel safe and improve their experience as graduate students — wrote in an email interview she expects there to be more hate crimes on campus this year.
“This year, we really expected that we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with issues of hate and racism that are here on campus,” she said. “That’s because it appears that white supremacists and nationalists were kind of testing out their campaign on our campus last year and we’re expecting that we will be targeted a lot more this year.”
Kent added that within the organization, there is a particular emphasis on students’ mental health and plans to facilitate conversations between different campus communities. She said awareness among students from multicultural and different religious backgrounds is important and understanding the experiences of other students fosters power on campus.
“I don’t want to narrow the student body into two types, but from what I’ve experienced on campus there are students who are frustrated with the attacks and there are students who are completely oblivious,” she said. “For the students who actually want to have a conversation about their frustration, they know that a SCOR event is a safe place where they can have that conversation and not be attacked.”
Rackham student Richard Nunn, who also attended the University as an undergrad, is one of the advisers for Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy. Also known as La Casa, the alliance is the umbrella organization for the Latinx community on campus and, according to the organization page, aims to “be an inclusive and welcoming environment for all those who value the Latinx community, culture, and identity.”
Nunn said he believes it is not so much that incidents such as racist vandalism are becoming more frequent, but that they are receiving more attention.
“I think if you look at the history of campus alone, series of racist instances have happened,” he said. “I think (since) Trump’s election — and maybe people would argue — maybe people feel more entitled or more able to express messages of hate, but I don’t think it’s happening more.”
LSA sophomore Mayah Wheeler echoed Nunn and said she believes these incidents have become commonplace because people are more comfortable spouting their hateful beliefs.
“I think it’s expected because people have gotten comfortable in expressing derogatory and racist statements towards people that are different than them,” she said. “It’s a scare tactic, because they don’t want you to be here and they continue to do things that make Black students feel unsafe.”
Public Policy junior Yvonne Navarrete is the lead director of La Casa and Assisting Latin@ to Maximize Achievement, an orientation and community-building program to welcome Latino students to the University prior to the start of their freshman year.
Navarrete also agreed with Nunn that the racist attacks are nothing new; she said what is shocking is the confidence with which they have been presented. Like Kent, she said as a student leader of a minority group she is often thinking about what she can do to help make her community stronger.
“While there is always concern for how your community will be targeted, I think the main concern is always how you will support each other and what infrastructure you’re creating to make that easier,” she said.
Navarrete said introducing students — many of whom are first-generation and coming from a low socioeconomic status — to Latino-focused resources and organizations on campus is central to ALMA. She said she feels the organization is able to educate and empower students, to teach them their voices are vital to campus.
Others, like LSA sophomore J’laina Harvey, are still processing the events from the past week.
“Honestly, I’ve been taking it day by day, and I wouldn’t be really surprised if something else happened, so I’m kind of looking out for it but it’s hard to say that it didn’t affect me because it does. But I’m trying to not let it distract me from where I want to go, which is be successful in school,” she said. “So, I’m trying not to let it deter me off my plan, however, emotionally it is something to be concerned about.”
In an email to the Daily, Angella Dillard, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, noted racist events on campus are not a new phenomenon; structures of racism have always been a part of U.S. society and at play on campus.
“We need to be careful to separate out these ‘pre-existing’ and structural forms of racism and discrimination from what seems potentially new, or at least distinctive, about the present moment,” she wrote. “This can be difficult. Some of what seems new, especially to younger people, is actually quite old.”
Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion, echoed Dillard’s sentiments regarding the prevalence of racism throughout history. During his time as a graduate student at the University, he participated in campus protests in response to issues similar to those raised today.
Sellers said though the fact students have to experience painful incidents angers him, he, too, is not surprised by the incidents.
“It bothers me to the core that there are people who feel it’s okay to spew hatred to students in general, members of communities of color and African-American students in particular,” Sellers said. “At the same point in time, I must also say I’m not surprised, and I am not surprised for reasons that are also in some ways generational, so I’m a little bit older, and as such, grew up with the idea of understanding that discrimination existed, and in some cases and some spaces, expect discrimination until proven otherwise.”
Dillard added the incidents with racist flyers in Mason Hall last fall, however, were surprising for several reasons: first, they appealed to “scientific racism” — an old, discredited belief that asserts certain races are biologically inferior to others; second, the flyers were very blatant, as opposed to “subtle ‘dog whistle’” racism-without-race; third, they were clearly aligned with white supremacy.
“I think undergraduates — who are part of the Obama generation — had an especially steep learning curve to understand what the ‘Alt-Right’ represents and what the realities of racist trolling really look like,” Dillard wrote. “And let me just add that the fact that a handful of these people can essentially troll an ENTIRE campus is just beyond frustrating.”
Going into the school year, Dillard wrote, the LSA administration had given a lot of thought to how it will respond to incidents on campus in which students’ social identities are targeted.
She also wrote the administration wants to create dialogue with a range of students and utilize faculty and staff as a resource in this communication. She explained another goal is to act in solidarity with student organizations, highlighting their support in response to the racist vandalism over the weekend.
Within the last few days, the University’s Office of Public Affairs and Internal Communications released a document highlighting all of the specific actions taken by the administration over the weekend in order to both comfort and act as an ally to students: Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones met with Black students who reached out to her directly, LSA Dean Andrew Martin invited all MCSP students to his office hours in West Quad and the Division of Public Safety and Security has increased security patrols in the area of West Quad and continues to search for the perpetrators.
Sellers emphasized that in his over two decades at the University, the administration is more committed to promoting inclusion on campus than ever before.
“What I can say, having been here for 20-plus years, the administration — I would also include the Board of Regents in this — is more committed to issues of diversity, equality and inclusion than any other time that I’ve seen,” he said.
Despite increased administrative response, Sellers said it is impossible to completely stop these racist incidents from occurring, especially in a society where a small group of hateful people can disrupt so many.
“I want it to be very clear: In any society, it only takes a small number of people who want to disrupt that society to potentially disrupt that society,” he said. “There is no way that there is anything we can do that can prevent any one of 80-plus thousand people in our community, not to mention all the other folks outside of the University of Michigan community, to at one point or another attack members of our community.”
However, Sellers explained the University can strive to create an environment where such incidents are not tolerated.
He equated the racist incidents to terrorism, stating the importance of not giving the perpetrators too much attention while also providing the victims the comfort they deserve.
“So, we have to find a way that both acknowledges the pain, but does not allow them to win,” Sellers said. “In that context, I would say, we’re doing everything we can to try to make sure that this doesn’t happen, but the reality is that I cannot promise that tomorrow some idiot doesn't do this again.”
In a January-February 2017 article in Solidarity US entitled “When the Alt-Right Hits Campus,” Dillard noted the importance of action at “all levels of the University.”
Reflecting on this assertion now, Dillard wrote the University has made strides but there is still more to be done.
“I think we're moving in the right direction but (we’re) not there yet,” she wrote. “Real action and meaningful involvement has to take place on every level and has to be about achieving critical mass.”
Students call on administration to do more
Nunn explained La Casa tends to see 130 to 150 Latino students at their meetings; this high attendance rate and “needs” of students highlight ways in which the University is not properly supporting students of color or marginalized communities.
“The University does not have a comprehensive program that addresses the needs of these communities, so communities need to organize to address their own needs, and that needs to be supplemented by the University, because it’s a service that in reality should be provided,” he said.
Nunn said he believes when addressing racial and ethnic diversity on campus, it is essential the University understands there are multiple communities of color, and it must meet the distinct needs of each.
Furthermore, Nunn said he believes the University needs to be move outside of a reactionary model and be more proactive. He noted the importance of the dialogue, which took place in West Quad this weekend after the incident of racist vandalism; however, he said dialogue without action afterward is limited.
When addressing racist incidents on campus, Navarrete said the administration needs to understand what was highlighted by the incident and how it is going to respond, not just immediately after the event but continuously.
“It dying down emphasizes that the administration is almost exclusively worried about how it makes the University look and then they react while the topic is hot, and if there is no follow-through, then it just emphasizes the University’s true intentions and motivations, in my opinion,” Navarrete said.
Kent said there are allies who immediately show solidarity after racist incidents occur on campus, but such support does not persist.
“In the heat of the moment, there is support there,” she said. “But as time moves on — and I mean time as in three to five days — I feel like the campus gets amnesia. … The students who have been attacked are left without support, and I feel like that support should carry through.”
On a larger scale, Kent said she believes the University is in a good place regarding the national conversation surrounding hate crimes.
“Our administration recognizes that racism and hate exist, and that is something that I think I would commend the University for, because other campuses hide it,” she said. “The University does do a good job of bringing it into the spotlight, saying, ‘Hey, this is an issue, we know about it.’ ”
However, Kent said she would criticize the University for not being transparent in its actions to address such situations.
“The DEI plan that has been institutionalized on our campus — that’s a great start,” she said. “However, it takes many years to see the scope of this plan.”
Aside from supportive student groups and the University’s efforts to diversity the campus through its DEI strategic plan, Kent brought up the idea of safe spaces, something that might also be difficult on a campus of this magnitude.
“It’s hard to say whether or not we can create — collectively, over the whole campus — a safe space, because we are a public institution,” she said. “I think it needs to be at the very foundation — intolerance of acts of hate — at the very core of the University, and maybe that could propagate throughout campus, to push out these people who are white supremacists, push out their supporters.”
Nunn said he is proud the University champions diversity and that it tries to take a national lead on issues of diversity, but he acknowledged parts of the plan that is lacking.
Though Nunn echoed Kent, saying it is good the University acknowledges these issues, he still urges the administration to act more aggressively — to use its resources in handling lawsuits and racist crimes and to provide more resources to students.
“Let’s deal with the outside issues, but internally, talk to students, engage students, ‘What do you need?’ and let’s find ways to address those needs,” he said.
For example, Nunn said he is frustrated from hearing the administration claim that Proposal 2 — the Michigan statute that prohibits affirmative action by public institutions — stops it from taking certain actions related to race.
“I would rather the University proudly say: ‘We are going to proudly be a home for Latinx students as a national institution. We’re going to find the best, brightest, most talented Latinx students from across the country — from across the world — and bring them to our campus, and and this is the way we’re doing that,’ ” he said.
With regard to inclusion on campus, Navarrete suggested some people may never feel fully included, but that the University can do more in the way of supporting marginalized groups.
“The University has a choice to take it upon themselves and they should do that,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the burden placed upon the students who are here to study and develop themselves professionally and personally, to also create spaces for their entire community.”
At the Wednesday night protest, LSA senior Isaiah Land, president of the University’s chapter of the NAACP, questioned a lack of resolve on behalf of the University in terms of identifying the perpetrators.
“I had a meeting earlier with Schlissel in the (president’s) house, and he basically told me all of the things that I didn’t want to hear,” Land said. “I asked him how many people have been caught in these investigations when racial incidents pop up, and he told me that there were zero people caught in the last four years. They couldn’t even find the people who were doing this stuff over the internet, and we have a hackathon at the University every year? That’s just ridiculous.”
LSA sophomore Kaitlyn Brown shared Land’s frustration with the administration’s apparent lack of results and called for the University to ensure racist actions are met with repercussions.
“They need to be more proactive,” Brown said. “Just sending an email doesn’t give the people who do this consequences, so I feel like there needs to be a form of consequence and some kind of way that the University comes out and strictly says, ‘We do not condone this and if you do this then there will be consequences,’” Brown said.
Harvey said the lack of significant resolutions to these racist incidents made her feel undervalued by the University.
“I think they need to try harder to figure out who did what because I feel like if a Black person were to have done something like this to a white person, they’d be doing a lot more to catch the person, or may have already caught the person,” she said. “I just feel like they’re not doing enough, which shows me that they don’t have our best interests at heart.”
E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, acknowledged the pain of students whose identities are continually attacked through racist incidents such as the flyers, emails and chalkings.
“Sometimes a little time will pass and a little scab will get over it, but it hasn't healed underneath, and I don't know what that healing will take,” she said.
Linh Nguyen, interim associate director of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, described the immense psychological impact recent events have had on both staff and students of color — particularly because their experiences and identities are challenged every day.
“These incidences of hate and violence targeted at marginalized communities on campus have a profound and often damaging cumulative impact on our emotional, mental and physical well-being as staff — especially staff of color,” she wrote in an email. “This notion that the noise dies down after racist incidents occur is a myth, because the impact of these events live on and can be felt on a daily basis by many staff, faculty and students whose experiences and identities continue to be challenged by a difficult and unwelcoming campus climate.”
Harper believes the most painful aspect of the current campus climate is that students come to college expecting everyone to respect inclusion and equality, because that’s what the University promotes; however, she said, the University is not there yet.
“Students don’t come here in a vacuum, so they’ve been watching and listening to the national narrative, all the divisiveness and the vileness, and they've seen it on television, they've seen it on social media, and you think ‘I’m going off to school, and I’m all excited about that, and I’ve got to come here?’” she said. “Particularly when we promote and advertise something different. So we talk about our aspirations, the kind of community we want to be — it's not the community we are yet, but it's the kind of community we want to be.”
Harper continued to express her pride in the fact that students are refusing to stand for such racist behavior, and supported students’ right to protest.
“This is a healthy response, whether I like it or not, to unhealthy behavior,” she said. “So for any of us to think that you can have it happen to you, or be the target of it, really of a public conversation, and just sort of say ‘Oh, okay,’ it’s just — I know the students are doing what's healthy, sure it would be nice if it's softer or gentler, but none of this is soft or gentle. So that’s the challenge.”
Harper noted the most powerful action students unaffected by the racist incidents can take is to make themselves sources of compassion and support for those who are. She said her friends cannot understand what she is feeling as a woman of color, but she appreciates their efforts to let her know they are thinking of her.
“You can engage differently in class, you can walk with someone that you might not normally walk with, not even sure if they want you to walk with them,” she said. “But that's what my friends, who don't look like me, do. That’s what they do. They’ll send me a little note, ‘How are you, thinking about you’ — there’s nothing they can do but sit with me in it.”
Referencing the recent protests where students expressed discontent with the administration, Harper said though she cannot take away their pain, she can be there for them and provide love and support.
“If these students can experience it, the rest of us can hold them in it,” she said. “I can live through that, because they're living through this. So a couple of times when the bullhorn was all in my ear, I thought OK, I can at least do that.”