By Michael E. Miller
November 13 at 9:44 AM
Another swastika. Another campus. Another outrage.
On Thursday morning, students at historically black Bowie State University in Maryland found a swastika scrawled on a building named after a civil rights movement hero.
The swastika was spray-painted on a column at the Martin Luther King Jr. Communications Art Center, the university announced. The racist symbol was quickly removed, but not before photos — and anger — spread from the Maryland university to the Internet and beyond.
The ugly incident, which campus and county police are investigating as a possible hate crime, was only one of a number of incidents at universities across the United States, however.
At the University of Missouri, where anonymous death threats terrified minorities earlier in the week, the school suffered another setback when a sign for its black culture center was vandalized.
Howard University, another historically black institution, in D.C. was also hit with anonymous death threats as someone identifying themselves as a disgruntled Mizzou student said they were going to shoot black people.
“After all,” the person wrote, “it’s not murder if they’re black.”
Meanwhile, liberal arts colleges across the country struggled with racial tensions. On the East Coast, students at Yale and Ithaca College continued to demand administrators step down over recent incidents.
And at Claremont McKenna College in California, a dean did just that, resigning after an op-ed provoked ire from minorities.
“Chaos on campus,” is how Fox News summed up the string of incidents on Thursday.
Whatever you call it, what’s clear is that unrest is spreading across American universities. One by one, campuses are lighting up with protests, demonstrations and — in a handful of cases — death threats, plunging the country into a broader debate about lingering racism more than half a century after the Civil Rights Act.
Many of the demonstrations, as well as several of the death threats, are connected to what’s occurred at Mizzou.
Students at colleges across the United States engaged in a “Blackout” demonstration Thursday, wearing black to denounce racism and show support for protesters at the University of Missouri. From New York to Arkansas to Texas to California, college students posted photos on social media with clenched fists held in the air. Even students at the University of Kansas, Mizzou’s bitter Midwestern rival, joined in.
At several universities, students are taking strategies on display at Mizzou and adapting them to their own struggles.
On Wednesday, students at Ithaca College in central New York state engaged in a “die-in” to show solidarity with Mizzou but also to protest Ithaca administrator’s own alleged indifference to racism on campus.
The unrest in Ithaca dates to Oct. 8, when the school hosted an event featuring four alumni. What was supposed to be a brainstorming session on academic immersion, however, quickly went south as two older white alumni referred to a young African American alumna as a “savage.” After Tatiana Sy said she had a “savage hunger” for success, CEO J. Christopher Burch added, “I love what the savage here said.” The panel’s moderator, former NBC News correspondent Bob Kur then pointed to Sy and said, “You’re the savage.”
“What empathy means is actually caring deeply for other people’s personal pain,” Burch continued, “and so as this young—as this savage sits here…”
“All right,” Sy responded uncomfortably. “I mean…”
Ithaca College president Tom Rochon apologized for the “insensitive comments” but his statement only sparked more anger.
“In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus,” he wrote. “Such language, intentional or unintentional, exists in the world and will seep into our community. We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise disrespectful. Even so, we reaffirm our commitment to making our campus an inclusive and respectful community.”
Tempers have been rising on campus ever since. And on Tuesday, the day after University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigned, Rochon announced Ithaca was creating the position of chief diversity officer and filling it with an African American provost. On Wednesday, however, more than a thousand protesters chanted “Tom Rochon. No confidence,” demanding Rochon follow Wolfe’s lead and step down, according to the Ithaca Journal.
Protesters encourage students to lay down as part of a ‘die-in’ at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., on November 11, 2015. A walkout organized by a student group called People of Color at Ithaca College took place on Wednesday afternoon, attracting hundreds of demonstrators demanding the resignation of Ithaca president Tom Rochon. (Matthew Liptak/Reuters)
On the other side of the country, students at Claremont McKenna College emulated Mizzou protest leader Jonathan Butler by going on hunger strike and forcing the resignation of the college’s dean.
On Thursday, Claremont dean Mary Spellman stepped down after protests over an e-mail she sent to a Latina student saying she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”
For some students, Spellman’s e-mail was a sign that she didn’t grasp the plight of minorities on campus. Back in April, about 30 students at the liberal arts college near Los Angeles wrote to its president to complain that they felt intimidated and isolated, according to the Los Angeles Times. They cited recent incidents including racial slurs, vandalism at the Queer Resource Center and the defacement of Black Lives Matter posters.
Taylor Lemmon, one of two Claremont students on hunger-strike this week to demand Spellman’s resignation, said the dean’s decision was a victory.
“Let this be a message to anyone who sees a wrong and speaks out to make it right. You can do it,” Lemmon wrote, according to the Times. “All you have to do is speak up, be strong in your convictions and never give up.”
Like Ithaca, Claremont had attempted to address students’ anger earlier in the week by creating new positions on diversity and inclusion for students and faculty. Adding to the charged atmosphere at Claremont were reports Thursday that the college’s junior class president had also stepped down after a photo surfaced showing her posing with two friends who were dressed in ponchos, sombreros and mustaches for Halloween.
The Missouri connection was also on display at Yale, where one of the Mizzou protest organizers phoned in during a demonstration on Wednesday. The Ivy League institution has been set on edge by its own series of racist incidents, including swastikas drawn on campus last year and allegations of a “white girls only” frat party this semester.
Campus protests really came to life, however, after a school official — charged with fostering “well-being and safety” in her dorm — sent an e-mail pushing back against the university’s warning against offensive Halloween costumes.
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” wrote professor and associate residential college master Erika Christakis. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”
Christakis appears to have misread her students, however, by assuming they resented the university’s costume guidelines. When her husband, also a professor and residential college master at Yale, tried to defend his wife’s e-mail, he was shouted down by a distraught student in an exchange caught on a now viral video.
“Fundamentally, what hurt students… was that the response from the Christakises did not initially acknowledge students’ pain,” sophomore Alois Cerbu told the Yale Daily News.
Hundreds of students protested last week. And on Nov. 6, Yale University president Peter Salovey told students “We failed you.”
But the temperature on campus has hardly cooled. And inspired by the success of Missouri’s Concerned Student 1950 protesters, many Yale students have pushed for more results. On Wednesday night, more than a thousand people filled the largest chapel on Yale’s campus for a “teach-in” about issues facing minority students.
If demonstrations across the country show signs of connections to Mizzou, sadly, so, too, do some of the threats against minority students.
The appearance of the swastika at Bowie State came on the same day that the University of Missouri released a photo of its own swastika, written in feces on a dorm room wall late last month. The photos and a campus police report put to rest speculation by right-wing bloggers that the swastika was a “hoax.”
“This imagery symbolizes deep racial hatred and discrimination that go against the core values of Bowie State University,” the university said in a statement. “We live in a community at Bowie State that values diversity, civility, vigorous debate and scholarly discussions. The imagery that was left seemed to be hateful and such will not be tolerated. We do not tolerate hate speech among students, faculty or staff. We support those students who have decided to rally in opposition to hate speech.”
D.C. Metro Police patrol the front gates of Howard University in Washington, on November 12, 2015, as the campus tightens security after an online death threat was issued against the historically black college. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
The threats at Howard University showed an even more troubling connection to the incidents at Mizzou. In an anonymous letter posted online Wednesday evening, someone claiming to have “left MU yesterday” threatened to shoot black students at Howard on Thursday.
“Seriously America why are we still putting up with this s—?” began the letter, which included a photo of Tim Wolfe, the MU president who resigned Monday. The hate- and expletive-filled letter then proceeded to blame African Americans for “whining and complaining.”
“I left MU yesterday because I couldn’t put up with it anymore,” the person wrote, according to WUSA 9. “I go home to MD and what do I see? The same old s—. Turn on the news and it’s always the n—— causing trouble everywhere.”
The person then threatened to shoot any African Americans on Howard’s campus after 10 a.m. on Thursday.
The spiraling number of racist incidents came full circle when vandals painted over the word “black” on a sign for Mizzou’s Black Culture Center Thursday morning.
The vandalized Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center sign on the University of Missouri campus on Thursday, November 12, 2015. (Bruno Vernaschi/The Maneater)
Meanwhile, the incidents at Mizzou have also stirred action at campuses that have not reported racist incidents.
At Georgetown University, a show of solidarity with students at Mizzou has quickly transformed into demands for change in D.C.
On Thursday, roughly 250 students demonstrated and announced their intention to stage a sit-in outside the university president’s office on Friday. They presented a list of demands, beginning with the renaming of two buildings named after a Georgetown president who sold 272 slaves and his lawyer, who performed the sale, according to student newspaper the Hoya.
Candace Milner, a business school student at Georgetown, read off other demands, including installing plaques on unmarked graves of slaves on campus and the creation of an “endowment to recruit black identifying professors,” the Georgetown Voice reported. The endowment should be “equivalent to the Net Present Value of the profit generated from the transaction in which 272 people were sold into bondage,” protesters demanded.
Students at Smith College in Massachusetts walked out of classes Wednesday to draw attention to challenges minorities face on campuses across America. They chanted “Who’s not here” to “call attention to white students who do not have to carry the burden of racism and racial injustice as well as to point out the black and brown faces that are not at (predominantly white institutions) like Smith College because of institutionalized, racially charged reasons,” wrote protest organizer Raven Fowlkes-Witten, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
In perhaps the most curious official response to the incidents at Mizzou, Purdue president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels issued a statement Wednesday boasting about his university’s tranquil campus climate.
“Last year, both our undergraduate and graduate student governments led an effort that produced a strengthened statement of policies protecting free speech,” he wrote. “What a proud contrast to the environments that appear to prevail at places like Missouri and Yale.”
But Daniels may have spoken too soon. Hours after he issued his statement, Purdue students announced they were holding their own rally to show solidarity with Mizzou and — you guessed it — discuss past incidents of racism on campus.