Missouri university protests, though needed, don’t equate systematic racism

It’s safe to say the “Ferguson effect” is alive and well at the University of Missouri in Columbia — a small, secluded town that sits halfway between the state’s two biggest cities: St. Louis and Kansas City.

Students who recently took part in protests, catalyzed by graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, against racist incidents on campus (in addition to what he and others feel is a lack of intitiative from university officials to address racism) got a taste of “unity” after participating in Michael Brown protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

It was very “empowering,” one student said of his newfound activism after participating in a “die-in” after Brown was shot and killed by a police officer.

Many students at the university and high schools in the state acted in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. Students took what they learned from that incident and are now applying it to Mizzou (and other schools I’m sure).

Whether you believe Michael Brown was culpable in his death or was a victim of a shoot-first, ask-questions-later style of policing, the actions by these students and citizens in Ferguson were based on tangible evidence and events. 

Ferguson was seen by some as the gross misuse of policing in black communities that led to the killing of a troubled young man. The evidence was so disturbing that it reached the White House and the Department of Justice was called in to investigate. 

Ferguson protesters demanded justice for the death of a young black male that probably wouldn’t have gone to a grand jury had it not been caught on video.

The demands being made by The Concerned Student of 1950, a group a black students (current and former), are lofty, often imaginative and unclear. 

Ferguson activists made systematic changes through the political process (but things did get ugly at first). 

In the case of Mizzou, it is unclear how forcing the university to increase funding for minority programs, meeting a racial quota for staff and asking the president to acknowledge his white privilege is going to eliminate racism from the campus. What people are taught in their homes has a greater impact on the people they will become, moreso than what they learned in their freshman classes about diversity.

But it is a good start to re-examine structures keeping non-white students from succeeding. Creating racial awareness curriculums and studying retention rates among non-whites (which the group also demanded) will get things moving toward progress without infringing on the freedoms and rights of others (remember, this is the United States, we try to avoid forcing people to do anything against their will, even if they are racist, sexist or homophobic).

Butler and others seem to be in protest of the university president’s (and chancellor) handling (or lack thereof) of racist incidents on the campus including student president Payton Head getting called “nigger” by people in a pickup truck. 

These students feel strongly enough about these injustices that they’re willing to put their reputations and health on the line. 

Other racist incidents that black students on the campus have reported were a swastika written in feces in a dorm bathroom and two black female students outside of the rec center having the n-word hurled at them by a drunk white white male.

As a former student who attended the university from 2005-2009, I’ve seen my share of racism. My friends and I were called “niggers” at a fraternity party for mingling with white women (and subsequently got kicked out) and I witnessed nooses, cotton balls and “nigger” displayed and written on property near majority-black dorms and the culture center. 

I say this not to say that these incidents aren’t serious in nature, but to make a point that things have gotten better since I was a student. 

Missouri is a big state. There’s a lot of open space in between Kansas City and St. Louis. When you have people growing up in inner cities (not around many whites) and others growing up in rural towns (not around many non-whites), cultures are bound to clash. 

While it may not be the whole truth, we each have a story to tell that is partly true and if we are to move forward we must listen to and address every student’s concern because we share the campus together.

Wolfe didn’t take the concerns of black students serious and now he’s gone. Similarly, if blacks ignore the voices of others on campus, we run the risk of becoming what these protests were about in the first place. 

Race is not just a black problem; it’s an everyone-issue. 

The evidence in this situation doesn’t support a culture of hate at the university and even Head told CNN that this uprising is more of a result of empowered black people who now have media access (i.e., social media) and the confidence, because of Ferguson, to speak out against injustices no matter how big or the small they may seem to be.

President Tim Wolfe does not bare the responsibility for all racist white people just as all blacks aren’t responsible for each other’s actions. 

Maybe Wolfe is a victim of the mob-mentality. Maybe his inability to quell frustrations and listen to his students meant he wasn’t fit for the job in the first place. The evidence is few and far between on this issue so we’ll never know.
But one thing is for certain, blacks and non-whites who have been disenfranchised from the political and educational system are exercising a power that has not been seen in the hands of non-whites, in this manner, for some time.

And knowing that, I can’t really be mad. 


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