From the Daily: Bias incidents require empathy

Sunday, March 12, 2017 - 6:35pm

As bias incidents continue to occur across campus, student organizations are pressing the University to reevaluate its responses to such incidents. In the wake of racist fliers that were posted in September 2016, racist and anti-Semitic emails sent out to engineering and computer science students and the defilement of a prayer rug in February, a University of Michigan student organization, Students4Justice, drafted a petition, organized multiple sit-ins and put forward a list of demands addressing the administration's reactions to the racist incidents. Shortly thereafter, University administrators issued a formal response to each of the demands listed that included, for the most part, descriptions of procedures and programs already in place at the University. While The Michigan Daily Editorial Board appreciates the University’s prompt and specific response, we call on the University to issue more forward-thinking and empathetic responses that establish more concrete goals to combat many of the issues S4J outlined. 

Though the University highlights a long list of past responses and actions it has taken to combat racist and discriminatory policies and incidents, it continues to ignore many current concerns. When speaking on the underlying problem of affordable housing for students of lower socioeconomic status, for example, the University points to lower rental rates in Ypsilanti instead of attempting to confront the high cost of living in Ann Arbor. This is especially disheartening when considering The New York Times’ The Upshot report on the University’s lack of socioeconomic diversity. Thus, while we commend the University for showing more thought about the issues marginalized groups face on campus, that response depended too heavily on past initiatives, avoiding issues clearly communicated to the administration by students. As a result, the University’s response veers from concrete goal-setting and instead relies on plans lacking in specificity.

Furthermore, one of S4J’s main requests was for a “space solely dedicated to community organizing and social justice work specifically for people of color,” and the University responded by saying that the Connector in the West Quad Residence Hall is a “currently identifiable cross-cultural (space) on campus.” This response exemplifies a vague solution to a hyper-specific request made by S4J. Ambiguous answers like these are scattered throughout the University’s response and do not address the specific concerns S4J outlined.

But even when comprehensively outlining the work that has already been done to appease prior demands from S4J and other student organizations, the University fails to adequately expand upon how its work can be built upon to continually improve diversity and inclusion on campus. S4J reiterates one #BBUM demand from 2013 calling for a Race and Ethnicity Requirement that “should be required for all students at the University … and should be more selective.” Nearly four years later, only LSA and Art & Design students are required to take a course focused on race and ethnicity.

Nonetheless, the University response to this demand consists of referencing “Change it Up,” a program started in the fall of 2014, and involved little clarity for the future of the requirement. Goals with timelines and concrete ways of achieving them are needed to change the campus climate and take on issues of racism and discrimination. Instead of proposing programs and classes that students can partake in, the University should focus on implementing programs that encompass the entire University community. It was commendable that the University noted the new building renaming policy and a roundtable to discuss renaming the C.C. Little Building; however, more could be done to bridge the gap between administrators and other University members.

Furthermore, there is a notable lack of compassion in the University’s response. Instead of providing the initiatives of the past and avoiding the issues at hand, the University should have addressed what S4J asked for first and foremost: “to acknowledge (their) humanity.” In the entire document released by the University, we were hard-pressed to find an instance when the University recognized, on a basic level, how members of S4J, along with many other students, felt after these racist incidents. Though they address their concerns, the nature of the responses seemed removed from the empathy necessary for these students to feel their voices were heard. Instead of using vague language and taking a defensive tone, the University should employ a more empathetic tone for its marginalized students who face unique challenges every day.

Not only is it the responsibility of the University to respond to the fears and concerns of its students, but it is also their duty to address students with empathy and recognize the student body’s humanity and feelings. Additionally, as these bias incidents have shown, previous actions — that the University spent most of their response relaying — have not been enough. The University must recognize this and instead of simply digging into the past, think into the future and take concrete, actionable steps to change our campus climate.