How do we hold power accountable for its arrogance, oversteps or inaction in the face of injustice? How do we coax power into apologizing for wrongdoing, either civic sins of omission or commission? And finally, can we forgive when power finally does acknowledge its mistakes and their grievous consequences for us all?
These questions apply to a myriad of situations all around us. While most notably, this dialogue of questions I present above could easily attach to the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, we could also see the interrogatories affixed to the situation at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
UConn has seen an increase in racist incidents, including sexual harassment, assaults and outright racist dialogue. The first incident, back on September 29, 2014, saw a largely white fraternity (Pi Kappa Alpha) bully the African-American Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority away from painting the UConn’s spirit rock.
Frat boys being frat boys, they threw in some racial taunts, and took it to social media. PiKA of course denied everything. The reaction seems a nod to the concept of white fragility.
How did UConn President Susan Herbst respond? Claiming there was no room for incivility, and by banning everyone from painting the spirit rock. As if someone couldn’t sneak there and paint it at night.
Herbst also hosted a campus forum November 10, 2014 to discuss issues, and she will meet with Greek groups. Students organized a March for Civility, Equality and Justice on November 18, 2014 against campus racism.
Many of these same students attended Hartford’s First Church of Christ vigil for Ferguson’s late son, Michael Brown on November 24, 2014. And on Tuesday, December 2, more than 100 students took to the frigid Storrs weather to air their grievances.
Rev. Damaris Whitaker from Hartford’s First Church of Christ came to Storrs to support the students, and invoked four and a half minutes of silence for Mr. Brown. I was invited to speak, and found myself inspired and encouraged by the crowd.
Noel Cazenave, a UConn sociology professor who specializes in deconstructing racism and Asylum Hill resident (who happens to be my neighbor), focused on Herbst’s reliance on a campus code of civility.
In Herbst’s world, civility is creating a list of words that students can use to define their grievances. Cazenave explained how huge issues like racism cannot be thrust into the small box of incivility. I think students seeking civility define it differently.
After Cazenave, a number of students took the stage and described their experiences. Taijah Minor, a member of the AKA sorority, described her experiences with racism on campus.
“I don’t feel safe because people on Yik Yak are telling me that AKA should be whipped. People are telling me that AKAs are bad slaves. People are telling me that I need to go back to Africa,” Minor said (as quoted in Uconn’s Daily Campus).
Smart thinking white people reading this, no doubt, will recoil and say that doesn’t happen in Connecticut. What kind of college kids do this? Kids in Connecticut do this. I know it. I have seen it. I have no doubt her experiences are real.
The conundrum these speakers on Tuesday night confronted was a post-racial society where no one is a racist but racism clearly exists. And the power structures that rule over places like UConn ignore it and are slow to respond to it.
How does banning the painting of a rock stop racism? It’s the classic one-bad-apple-spoils-it-for-everyone. But such an approach is bound to fail. Public universities like UConn have a duty to help undo centuries of racist thought.
President Herbst herself has studied how racism in Chicago forced the creation of a parallel society. In her 1994 book “Politics at the Margin: Historical Studies of Public Expression Outside the Mainstream.” It’s clear, though, that President Herbst is not remembering what she wrote, or applying the lessons of her pedagogy to her leadership at Connecticut’s flagship university.
In discussing the election of the Mayor of Bronzeville in Chicago’s South Side, Herbst explored “the creation of alternative public space for political debate in black neighborhoods.” (see page 65) She described how a segregated Chicago eliminated blacks from meaningful political participation.
The black communituy responded by creating a parallel polis of a mayor’s election in Chicago, even though it lacked the political power of the representation within the municipal corporation. Here at UConn, students are doing the same, because they oppressed and disaffected.
Students take to their own social media to express themselves and organize. And when they do meet at protests (which do much to change their own consciousness as much as onlookers) they share feelings: they reflect they are unsafe on campus, and only feel welcome in their respective black student union-style refuges.
Rituals, like the election of Bronzeville, Herbst wrote “are employed by marginalized groups to express discontent with the status quo.” (see page 92) Does Herbst herself recognize the ritual of protest happening in her backyard as such an expression of discontent?
And can her tenure as president incorporate those “marginalized” political voices into campus mainstream? Right now, it feels like her presidency is taking too long to respond to the innate racism of certain factions of UConn students, certain segments of Connecticut society, and the institutional racism of the state and country as a whole.
The march is a step to holding Herbst and her team accountable for its failure to confront racism and its insidious effects on campus. The next step is to meet with Herbst. It appears these marches have coaxed a reaction from the administration.
Anytime the administration reacts, you know it is going to be with stop gap measures. Instead of creating a team to foster civility, which is a very proactive measure Herbst has taken, she should be creating a team to deconstruct the racism on campus in all of its forms.
Herbst needs to recognize her inaction on campus has had consequences, and she needs to apologize for failing to recognize the nature of the situation.
She has been president for four years and allowed this to fester, to the point where fraternity members feel comfortable on social media telling their classmates to go back to Africa, and worse. How is this possible in a liberal environment like a college campus?
It’s not like racism has been hidden. Any look at the racial composition of the men’s basketball team versus the audience watching it should tell the University that something is amiss. We need an apology first.
Should Herbst determine to act, and her actions result in positive change, then the discussion moves to one of forgiveness. After hearing the students themselves speak their truths, they deserve a responsive administration, aware of its faults, contrite, and willing to do penance, and one worthy of forgiveness.