Editor’s note: This post was written in November 2019 and is, regrettably, still relevant today.
Over the past few months, hell, past few years, a number of college campuses have been inundated with racial incidents that have roiled their campuses. From coast to coast. From leafy small liberal arts colleges to land grant institutions. From community colleges to regional state universities. From research 1 institutions to law, business, and professional schools. The indisputable truth is that racial rhetoric and in some instances, violence has occurred with alarming frequency. Syracuse University and Georgia State University are the most recent high-profile institutions to be plagued with such racial unrest. Georgia College and State University have been victimized by racist behavior as well.
The prestigious, upstate New York institution has found itself (regretfully), under an intense laser-focused microscope and deeply entrenched in a quagmire of racial unrest that has afflicted the campus… Racially vile posters, swastikas, alleged racial manifestos, death threats, etc… have been directed against, non-white and non-Christian students, faculty and staff. The level of harassment has been nothing short of dizzying.
Campus security, equity and diversity administrators, numerous faculty of color, and others of goodwill have been working overtime to combat such racial and religious terrorism and to assist and protect students who have been the victims of such vile and callous antics. Indeed, at the present moment, the climate on campus has become so fraught with tension that many students have opted to forego partaking in routine campus activities and remain inside their dorms, off-campus apartments or in some cases, leave the campus altogether…
Not surprisingly, more than a few people have weighed in on the racial fracas. Mainstream media, talk radio, alternative media, social media platforms across the social and political spectrum and other entities have adamantly provided their viewpoints on the situation at hand. Even politicians have made their opinions known. New York governor, Andrew Cuomo made it clear that he was less than enthralled with how current chancellor Kent Syverud has addressed the crisis. In fact, Governor Cuomo went as far as to say that the manner in which Syverud has handled things inspired very little confidence.
To be sure, Syracuse is far from the only institution of higher education that has been plagued by sinister acts of racial animus. My own campus where I teach, East Tennessee State University (ETSU), found itself embroiled in the middle of a messy, dramatic controversy in September 2016 when a newly minted freshman student, Tristan Rettke decided to take it upon his mentally unbalanced self to taunt a group of Black Lives Matter protesters.
Apparently not content to protest in a civil manner, Rettke decided to go barefoot, don a gorilla mask, make monkey sounds, brazenly display a bag with the word “marijuana” boldly written across it and engage in other deplorable and derelict behavior. Not surprisingly, in this age of advanced technology, his abominable and reductive behavior made international headlines. From here in America to Canada. From Great Britain to Zimbabwe, for the better part of 48 hours, Tristan Rettke arguably became the most infamous person on the globe. As can be imagined, he garnered the sort of laser-focused attention he was likely not expecting nor looking for.
Nonetheless, in his recent trial, Rettke was cleared of the charge of Civil Rights intimidation. The most serious charge levied against him. Moreover, to add insult to injury, his punishment was six months of unsupervised probation. One can only imagine how those who were harassed and victimized by his disrespectful and menacing antics felt once the verdict (which was largely a slap on the wrist as far as I am concerned) was rendered. For many of us it was evident that justice was not fully served and Black lives or Black humanity, for that matter, does not, in fact, matter in the eyes of many others (pun intended).
More recently, the ETSU campus was jilted by an act of covert racial harassment/intimidation when dozens of fliers with the slogan “it’s okay to be White” were plastered at various locations throughout campus. At the time of this column, an investigation is still underway to locate the perpetrator(s) of such a cowardly act.
Truth be told it seems that the more things change, the more they have remained the same. Issues and situations like racial resistance and intolerance (at least overt racial intolerance ) that were thought to be issues and retrograde vices of a distant past have suddenly reappeared and awakened many campuses with an unapologetic degree of urgency and restlessness not seen since the 1980s. To paraphrase mid to late 20th century Black intellectual cultural critic extraordinaire, James Baldwin, the fire next time has indeed arrived.
Things have gotten tense. The students, faculty, administrators, and, in some cases, outside allies have aligned in an effort to resist what they see as searing and inhuman injustices permeating their respective institutions. Many students of color, as well as a notable percentage of minority faculty, have aggressively and defiantly confronted senior-level administrators, including college presidents/chancellors. In a number of cases, the students have taken their protests off-campus to their local as well as national media, to air their frustrations and concerns.
The complaints from students of color at these institutions are both similar and distinct. Blatant disrespect of many non-White and LGBTQ students, and in some cases, Jewish students on campus, numerous daily “micro-aggressions,” (quite honestly, I hate the term microaggressions for what feels macro), racial slurs, inadequate health care facilities, and resources to aid and assist students of color, hostile, condescending, inept or indifferent administrators. The serious lack of non-White faculty and senior-level administrators on campus, The list goes on and on and further on.
Such issues are serious and immediate. Students and their supporters alike are justified in drawing attention to such glaring shortcomings. As has been evident, the one overriding factor that seems to continually plague many college campuses is the issue of race. It is the endemic, problematic, and psychologically chilling factor plaguing numerous institutions of higher learning with a debilitating, passive-aggressive virus for which there seems to be no immediate or effective cure. Indeed, the current prognosis looks grim.
Critics of student protesters have used disparaging terms and levied charges that these students who decry racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia and other retrograde isms stating that such young people are coddled, oversensitive, insensitive, weak, immature and so on. Such drastic generalizations are rooted in social and cultural discomfort. Are some students problematic and unreasonable? Of course, human beings across age demographics are by nature, diverse complicated species. However, the same charge can be levied at many of these student critics! It should be noted that many of these detractors ( the majority of them White, heterosexual, cis-gender, able-bodied have not had to contend with the humiliations and onslaughts that have greeted these students on a daily and ongoing basis.
Indeed, one can only wonder how many of those who are denouncing these brave and courageous generation Z students would have the temerity, wherewithal and fortitude to withstand such mistreatment. Would they be willing to “ignore,” “overlook” “grow a thicker skin” or just “suck it up” as many detractors who fall into this category seem to suggest of students? Given the fact of how searing and rampant the seemingly contagious disease of White fragility is, it is highly unlikely. It appears evident that being a student of color, LGBTQ, non-christian, etc… students on many college campuses in the 21st century is akin to feeling like a voice in the wilderness.
To all those individuals who are arguing in defense of free speech, of course, free speech is of paramount importance. No rational person would argue otherwise. However, the fact is that large segments of students have been routinely verbally and physically attacked, and in some cases, deliberately marginalized and ignored. They are repeatedly told in multiple ways, both subtle and overt, that they are worthless and unworthy of equality, that systematic and systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, etc… does not exist, and that they themselves are largely to blame for the conditions they have inherited or find themselves in.
Truth be told, with free speech comes responsibility and potential consequences. There is nothing immature or childish about asking to be treated with dignity. Rather, it is about basic human dignity. In fact, it is something that should indeed be demanded.
Students are organizing, protesting, utilizing social media and without apology, demanding vibrant and transformative change from institutions in regards to issues they thought had been successfully and deftly settled. On the contrary, the unalterable reality is that such troubled waters perceived to be associated with the days of yesteryear are very much prevalent. The abrupt realization is that campus tides have risen well above sea level. Sporadic typhoons and tsunamis are routinely approaching and causing considerable damage. Thus, the issue of social climate change on campus must be addressed. NOW!
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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