Racial tensions on University of Missouri campus
College campuses across the country have been facing racial tension. But now the University of Missouri (Mizzou) is in the spotlight. This month, the school has seen a hunger strike from a black graduate student, multiple protests, and a boycott from the school’s football team. In response, Tim Wolfe, president of the Mizzou university system, as well as Mizzou’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, have both resigned.
In the last month Mizzou has experienced an onslaught of instances of racism. There have been a slew of racially charged events on Mizzou’s campuses, including feces being smeared on a wall in the form of a swastika. The inaction of the administration, staff and especially the president, led to the hunger strike of black graduate student Jonathan Butler, which catalyzed other reactions on campus. On Nov. 2, Butler decided that he would not eat until the president resigned. This led to the black members of the Mizzou football team refusing to play until Wolfe stepped down. These students appeared to be supported by their coaches. The Mizzou head coach, Gary Pinkel, tweeted his support of the black football players actions. It came as no surprise that the players had this level of influence and received such extensive media attention; football is a multi-million dollar enterprise at Mizzou.
“The revolting acts that are occurring at Mizzou are a result of a poisonous infestation of apathy that has been spawning from University of Missouri system leadership,” Butler wrote in a letter to the university’s Board of Curators.
“He is a smart, calculated and compassionate man,” Symone Lenoir, a 23-year-old black senior in interdisciplinary studies at Mizzou said of Butler. “I feel awesome about what the football players did, because it exemplifies the true power of protest.”
Tension had already been brewing when Wolfe resigned on Nov. 9. Wolfe reportedly hit a protestor with his car during a homecoming parade on Oct. 10. The protestor was a member of the group, “#ConcernedStudent1950.”
The group, which is involved in addressing racism at Mizzou, was trying to get the attention of the president during the parade. They were voicing their complaints over the handling of racial issues on campus. Wolfe did not respond, nor did he get out of his car.
“My behavior seemed like I did not care,” Wolfe later said in a statement on the school’s website. “That was not my intention.
“I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The #ConcernedStudent1950 name is a reference to the year when black students were first admitted to the University of Missouri. The first black faculty member was hired in 1969. #ConcernedStudent1950 released a list of demands on Oct. 20. The list called for an apology from Wolfe. It also called for his resignation. The letter stipulated that diversity, racial awareness and inclusion courses should be given to all students, faculty and staff, in addition to funding for mental health support programs, and professionals that would focus on people of color at the school. Wolfe met with the #ConcernedStudent1950 group on Oct. 26, but the group disclosed that he was not meeting their demands. The group reported in a statement that Wolfe claimed that although he cared for black students, he did not have a clear understanding of systemic racism.
In 2010, two white students, Zachary Tucker and Sean Fitzgerald, spread cotton balls across Mizzou’s Black Culture Center. The two students were arrested. “The students found responsible [for vandalizing the Black Culture Center with cotton balls] were barely punished.” Eisenberg said. “There have been several incidents like that on campus, including the recent threats and racist/anti-Semitic vandalism.”
On Sept. 12 of this year, Mizzou student body president and homecoming king, Payton Head, a black man, was walking with a friend when he was accosted by a group of white people in a pick-up truck. They yelled racial profanities at Head. Head reported that this was not an isolated incident. On a separate occasion, an inebriated white man called members of the Legion of Black Collegians a racial slur while they were practicing for their homecoming performance.
“There has always been racial tension here at Mizzou,” Erica Eisenberg, a 22-year-old white Jewish student studying communications at the university said. “But I remember things really coming to a head after Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, [Missouri]. Many students saw the campus as a necessary vehicle for positive change in the modern fight for civil rights and that movement became more visible on campus.
“But of course there was a backlash.”
Eisenberg explained that this was a catalyst for action on the part of students of color as well as allies. She said that a major problem was the inaction of the administration, so many members of the community felt they had to turn to drastic measures to be heard.
Months earlier, in reaction to what occurred in Ferguson, queer women of color at Mizzou created the group MU for Mike Brown. This group associates itself with the Black Lives Matter movement, but specifically focuses on what is going on at Mizzou.
“Without black women, especially black queer women, there would be no movement at Mizzou. Remember that,” Butler wrote on his Twitter on Nov. 8.
“The common thread is the university’s slow response and lack of leadership in these situations,” Eisenberg said. “This sends a message to students of color that their lives don’t matter here.”
Eisenberg said that although the football players’ actions were very important, that a lot of the work being done was by queer women of color on campus.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the media is focusing on the actions of the football team, claiming that they are responsible for Wolfe’s resignation,” Eisenberg said. “This undermines the sacrifice and hard work of the other students that are agents of change.”
Wolfe was also encouraged to step down by members of the government. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said he supported the concerned students’ efforts and Rep. Steven Cookson (R), chairman of the Missouri House Committee on Higher Education, encouraged Wolfe to resign since he could no longer be an effective leader.
“For more than half the school’s history people of color were not even welcome on campus,” Lenoir said. “And since the year that they were admitted, students of color have been routinely listing demands for change. It’s now 2015 and it seems they are just now hearing us.
“Also, let’s not misunderstand that anything that has happened thus far has made anyone less racist.”
Since Wolfe resigned, the racism on campus has become more apparent. There were threats to black peoples’ lives made over the anonymous media site Yik Yak. Hunter M. Park, a white 19-year-old from Rolla, Mo., was arrested for making the online threats. Connor Stottlemyre, a 19-year-old student at Northwest Missouri State University, was also arrested for making threats against black students on Yik Yak.
Mizzou is not the only college campus, or place in the U.S. dealing with racism, but the combination of a history of racism, as well as the school being late to desegregate has left the university in an awkward position. Also, the fact that Missouri is very rural, except for a couple urban centers – St. Louis and Kansas City – where most of the state’s black residents live, leads to tensions among people from different backgrounds.
Some solutions that were presented to deal with the problems included hiring more black faculty at the university. According to the New York Times, only 3.35 percent of the school’s tenured and tenure-track faculty are black, while only 8 percent of the school’s undergraduates are black. The hope is that with increased numbers of faculty of color, more students of color will attend Mizzou.
Steve Owens has been hired as chancellor for the time being, while Michael Middleton, a black man and graduate of Mizzou, as well as former deputy chancellor emeritus, has been hired as the interim president.
“There is still so much work to be done and we can’t afford to get caught up in this one moment and lose momentum,” Lenoir said. “The struggle continues.”