Holdgruen: Mizzou protests bring attention to racist harassment on campus

In response to racial harassment and systematic inequality on their campus, a group of University of Missouri students have been protesting to garner change within the predominantly white school. The protests continue in the face of white supremacists and anonymous Internet threats aiming to stop them.

The group Concerned Student 1950—its name inspired by the year the school’s first black student was enrolled—began protests because of Mizzou President Tim Wolfe’s dismissal of continual racist harassment of black students on the campus. There were several reports of racist incidents that occurred on campus this fall, to which school administration reacted unsatisfactorily. Wolfe officially resigned on Monday Nov. 9 in response to the controversy.

The situation at Mizzou escalated when anonymous threats directed at black students were written on Yik Yak. One unnerving post from Tuesday Nov. 10 read, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.” The writer of the post, a white male student who attends a nearby Missouri school, was arrested the next day.

In a country where citizens heavily value their Second Amendment right to own a gun—sometimes valuing this right over the safety of others—it should not come as a surprise that black students on-campus would be afraid to go to class after reading these violent threats. School shootings occur on a regular basis and the fear of such is no longer an irrational fear, but a smart one.

Mizzou associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology Dale Brigham, however, told his students—who were too afraid to attend their exam the day after the Yik Yak threat—that they should not “give into bullies” in an email. His emails were spread all over social media, which prompted people around the country to respond to the professor with outrage and concern. Brigham submitted a letter of resignation to the college, but it was not accepted.

One important take-back from the Mizzou events is that the welfare and safety of black students continues to be devalued, undermined and disrespected. Brigham is not alone in his view that black students are overreacting. As seen in the past reaction to the Ferguson and Baltimore protests against police brutality, the media and authority tell black people over and over again that they should not fight for their rights. They are labeled insubordinate and violent when they draw attention to racial issues, even in nonviolent situations.

Black students at Mizzou should not have to face this kind of dismissal from the university faculty that is supposed to support them. Terrorist messages were demoted to the label of bullying; students should not have to choose between getting a failing grade or fearing for their life when walking to class.

University administration did react promptly to find who was responsible for the terrorist messages, but one faculty member equating violence against black people to a simple school bully echoes the deep, historical and racist sentiment America has had in erasing and undermining black peoples’ pain.

It has unfortunately become common practice for Americans to believe we are a post-racial society instead of one actually stricken by institutional racism and inequality. This inequality is still prevalent on our college campuses, as much as we try to ignore it. Although rumors that the Ku Klux Klan visited the campus during the Mizzou protests were proved false, Missouri chapters of the white supremacist group are still active and operating today—alongside other existing chapters all over the country.

America will not be able to move past its racist history—and its racist present—for a long time. Concerned Student 1950 and its supporters are putting in difficult and emotional work to bring attention to the injustices and inequalities that students of color still face in universities and in our country as a whole.