Racial Tensions Escalate

At Missouri, football players will boycott games and hunger striker vows to fast until system president quits; at Yale, protests grow over letter questioning focus on offensive Halloween costumes.

November 9, 2015
Protest at U of Missouri

Racial tensions at the University of Missouri and Yale University have escalated dramatically in the last week.

At the University of Missouri, a student at the flagship campus at Columbia is approaching a week on a hunger strike to demand the resignation of President Tim Wolfe, who has not done enough, minority students charge, to deal with racist incidents on campus. In a highly unusual move, the black players on the football team on Saturday announced that they would boycott games in the future unless Wolfe resigns. He has not done so, but has vowed to do more to improve race relations and he has apologized for his role in one disputed incident. Sunday evening, the university system scheduled a meeting for today, in executive session, "for consideration of certain confidential or privileged communications."

At Yale, the last week saw widespread condemnation of an alleged racial incident at a fraternity, but also debate over whether an associate master of a residential college showed insensitivity to minority students when she sent out an email encouraging less of a focus on offensive Halloween costumes. In addition, some are saying that Yale students protesting the email are effectively shutting down alternative perspectives.

U of Missouri: Incidents and Anger

At Missouri at Columbia, a series of racial incidents took place on campus, while many black students remained upset over the 2014 killing of an unarmed black man by the police in Ferguson, Mo. Black students reported being on the receiving end of racial slurs. Many said that not enough was being done to recruit and retain black students.

Some students have also pushed for the removal from campus of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, who they say held racist and sexist views such that he should not be honored on campus. Last month, a swastika -- apparently created with feces -- was left on a university dormitory hall, and many students started saying that the university appeared indifferent to the situation.

Then last week, Jonathan Butler, a black graduate student, announced he was going on a hunger strike (consuming only water) until Wolfe agreed to leave the system presidency.

Students are angry with Wolfe both because he heads the university system and because when minority students approached his car during a homecoming parade, he declined to talk to them. Some students say the car struck them and asked the university police department to investigate. John Fougere, chief communications officer for the system, said via email that "after conducting an investigation that included reviewing video footage and interviewing eyewitnesses, [the police] determined that there was nothing to indicate that the driver did anything to cause the car to strike anyone and that they did not commit any traffic violations."

Then Saturday a group of black football players announced on Twitter that it would not play for the rest of the season -- unless Wolfe quits. More than 30 football players appear to have joined the boycott -- a highly unusual step for big-time college athletes.

The attached statement says: "The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe 'Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.' We will no longer participate in any football-related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences. WE ARE UNITED!"

The Missouri athletics department responded with two tweets. First: "The department of athletics is aware of the declarations made tonight by many of our student-athletes." Second: "We must come together with leaders from across our campus to tackle these challenging issues and we support our athletes' right to do so."

And the football coach expressed support for the players' boycott.

Wolfe issued three statements in the last week. In the first, he said he met with the graduate student on a hunger strike and said, "We must rise to the challenge of combating racism, injustice and intolerance. … I am very concerned about Jonathan [Butler]’s health. His voice for social justice is important and powerful. He is being heard and I am listening."

In the second statement, issued Friday, before the football players' boycott, Wolfe reiterated his concern for Butler's health and also apologized for not engaging with the students who approached his car during the parade.

"I regret my reaction at the MU homecoming parade," Wolfe wrote. "I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue. My behavior seemed like I did not care. 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. I am asking us to move forward in addressing the racism that exists at our university -- and it does exist. Together we must rise to the challenge of combating racism, injustice and intolerance."

Then on Sunday -- after the football players announced their boycott -- Wolfe issued another statement. He noted that the university has already endorsed many recommendations of student groups, and is committed to discussions on remaining concerns. "It is clear to all of us that change is needed, and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and passion which have gone into the sharing of concerns. My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters," he said.

Sunday's announcement that the system board would meet today sparked more speculation about how the university system would respond to the growing protests. Also Sunday, The Kansas City Star reported that two Republican legislators have called for Wolfe to resign, with one saying that "the lack of leadership Mizzou has been dealing with for months has finally reached the point of being a national embarrassment." And two graduate student groups issued a call for their members to stage a walkout today and tomorrow to support those pushing for more change to improve the racial climate on campus.

Yale's Halloween Aftermath

Halloween parties set off racial tensions at many campuses, just about every year, with some students using blackface or racially oriented costumes in ways that offend. This year was no different; consider this controversy over white students at the University of Wisconsin at Stout dressing up in blackface as members of the Jamaican bobsled team.

Yale has seen two Halloween party controversies this year. One has been over allegations that members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity barred minority women from attending a Halloween party, telling them that "white girls only" were wanted there. Some SAE members have denied the charges, which resonated with many because of the large number of racist incidents nationally involving SAE chapters. So while there was some dispute over what happened at the party, there was a wide consensus at Yale that the conduct alleged (if true) was terribly wrong.

But there hasn't been consensus about another Halloween issue at Yale. As at many colleges, people and organizations distributed information to students in advance of Halloween about how to avoid costume concepts that would offend. The Yale advice (available here) stressed the importance of not basing costumes on race or ethnicity, and the problems with using blackface or wearing clothing that reinforces stereotypes.

On Friday before Halloween, Erika Christakis, who is an associate master of a residential college at Yale, sent a mass email in response to what she said were student concerns over being told not to risk offending people with costumes. She wrote, in part, “Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense -- and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes -- I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: 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?

“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 OK 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?”

Her full email may be found here.

Hundreds of Yale students have now signed an open letter to Christakis taking issue with her analysis.

“The contents of your email were jarring and disheartening,” the open letter says. “Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people, to preschoolers playing make-believe. This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made. You fail to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people. In your email, you ask students to ‘look away’ if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore. We were told to meet the offensive parties head-on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding. Giving ‘room’ for students to be ‘obnoxious’ or ‘offensive,’ as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe.”

While there has been much discussion about the various views of Halloween costumes, as argued in op-eds and mass email messages, there were incidents Friday in which some students angry over the Erika Christakis email confronted her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who is a professor at Yale and the master of Silliman College, the residential college where his wife is associate master. Nicholas Christakis has defended the email his wife sent. In the video below (warning: an expletive is shouted several times), a student questions the ability of the Christakises, in light of their views on the costume debate, to make the college a welcoming environment for all students.

A blog post by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which posted the above video and others, said, “Yale students have every right to express their anger and frustration with Yale faculty. But FIRE is concerned by yet another unfortunate example of students who demand upsetting opinions be entirely eradicated from the university in the name of fostering ‘safe spaces’ where students are protected from hurt feelings. Practicing free speech does not merely entail the right to protest opinions you object to -- it also means acknowledging people’s right to hold those opinions in the first place.”

But some Yale students say the discussion about the party and the various costume emails -- including the video distributed by FIRE -- don't reflect the real sources of minority students' frustrations. Aaron Z. Lewis, a Yale senior, wrote online at Medium that Yale students shouldn't have to be organizing forums and pushing for officials to acknowledge their pain and the bias they experience. "The protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party," he wrote. "They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t."


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