Former University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, in a rare moment of candor for someone who just fired himself, admitted what has been probably one of the worst kept secrets at American colleges. His words: “Racism does exist at our university, and it is unacceptable.”
During the past decade hardly a week has gone by without a report somewhere of hanging nooses, white hoods, racist graffiti, racial slurs and taunts aimed at minority students. The list of colleges that have been called on the carpet for these racist acts reads like a who’s who of American higher education. Clemson University, Auburn, Lehigh, Tarleton State, Texas A&M, University of Texas, Austin, University of Connecticut, Johns Hopkins, Whitman College, the University of Oklahoma, UCLA, Occidental College, UC San Diego, and the University of Maryland, to name only a handful. Months before the firestorm at Missouri, the Harvard University Voices of diversity project found campuses rife with subtle and no so subtle “microagressions” against minority and women students.
The pattern is always the same after a racist outburst. Teary eyed, enraged students confront campus officials. The officials, in turn, issue the obligatory indignant denunciation of the racial offense. A legislator or two may chime in with equal indignation. If it’s a frat, as was the case in 2014 at Oklahoma University, the fingered lily white fraternity will issue a quick statement disavowing any knowledge or responsibility for the racist act of a few of its members. If students squawk loud and long enough, campus officials will convene campuswide sensitivity sessions where students vent and rage at the administrators and at each other. If the students continue to squawk, campus officials will pledge to institute new diversity training, recruit more minority students and hire more minority teachers and administrators, and maybe even an ombudsman.
At first, University of Missouri officials used this template to the letter. Why not? It’s a time-tested formula for stonewalling protest and dissipating student anger. Campus administrators know that time is on their side. Students have to take exams and finals, write term papers, hustle grades and search for jobs. It didn’t work at Missouri only because members of the elite, bread and butter, cash-cow football program said “no” to the racist abuse. The horror of losing millions in on- and off-campus revenue that a big time football program rakes in was too much to bear. When it’s a question of whether a university president or a football schedule will be sacrificed, it’s no contest over which one will go. But there’s a problem, really three problems, with this.
Time, promises and token efforts to change won’t magically make the hate and ignorance that spawned the racial offenses at their schools disappear. The propensity of some students to slander, slur, mock and insult black and Latino students mirrors the acts of hate that occur virtually daily in society.
Meanwhile, campus officials wring their hands about the paucity of black and Latino students at many of the nation’s top colleges. In the last decade, admissions officers at a large number of major universities have reported significant drops in the number of incoming freshmen at universities in nearly every area of the country. The elimination of affirmative action programs, shrinking financial aid packages, soaring tuition and half-hearted to non-existent recruitment efforts at local minority high schools have been the big factors in the plunge in black and Latino students enrolled at many campuses. Missouri is a near textbook example of this. Black students comprise eight percent of the students there, and an even smaller percentage of the school’s faculty, administrators and staff personnel.
In the wake of Wolfe’s resignation, University of Missouri officials probably want to see an end to the hostile environment black students complain about. They are undoubtedly well-intentioned and genuinely offended by the acts. They probably really want to see more student diversity at their school.
But good intentions, ritual denunciations and diversity workshops are not enough. Often, people are loath to take the one step that will send a real message that hate on campus won’t be tolerated. That step is to name the offending students and then take immediate and firm disciplinary action against them, as well as race-baiting fraternities and other organizations. This discipline could be suspension, expulsion, sanctions, even prosecutions. There’s no evidence so far that University of Missouri officials have sternly disciplined anyone.
The failure of campus officials to take tough disciplinary action against acts of hate sends the subtle message that this behavior is only slightly more egregious than student panty raids, water balloon fights and stuffing telephone booths. It’s just a case of boys will be boys, and girls girls. Little harm and maybe no foul, at least not enough a of a foul to get a student or an organization booted from campus. Protesting Missouri football players and students took matters into their own hands against the hate being expressed on their campus. It was a crucial teaching moment for other campuses that also flunk the racism test can learn from.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. A frequent MSNBC contributor, he is s an associate editor of New America Media and a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460-AM in Los Angeles and KPFK 90.7-FM, Los Angeles, and the Pacifica Network.