Change is afoot at Mizzou.
On Monday, University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe tendered his resignation. His announcement followed weeks of intense backlash over his perceived mishandling of high-profile incidents of racism on campus and failure to address the lack of diversity in the university's faculty, among other issues. While many of the student activists who campaigned for Wolfe to step down have called his departure a positive first step, they say there's plenty of work left to do to make Mizzou a more racially aware and inclusive institution.
But as students move forward with that push, critics have emerged to claim that activists' demands -- and their early victories -- have been propelled by lies and oversensitivity to a problem that doesn't actually exist. These skeptics seem to be suggesting that the institutional and overt racism black students say they experience from the Mizzou community is imaginary -- and that demanding these issues be addressed is not only disingenuous, but dangerous to the fabric of a free America that has supposedly achieved the fundamental principle of equal opportunity for all.
We shouldn't need to write a story unpacking the absurdity of this argument, which mirrors a much broader denial about the state of race relations in the U.S. Racism is a dark part of the nation's past, and it's paralleled not just in the history of Mizzou, but in the histories of countless other universities around the country. It should go without saying that the issues of the past have an effect on the present. But what's happening at Mizzou isn't simply a response to historic injustices. It's not a matter of rehashing issues that our ancestors resolved, or of black students not being able to just "get over it" or "move on," as a crowd of mostly white people told a group of African-American protesters at a Mizzou homecoming parade last month.
The movement at Mizzou is an effort to draw attention to the modern manifestations of racism, which students say still rears its head in the form of structural inequality and individual acts of hate. The incidents below document the latter, and together suggest that more blatant displays of racism contribute to concerns among black students that they are not valued by the university.
This is, of course, not a comprehensive list of every racist incident that has happened on campus. Yet sadly, the first response from many has been to question and reject the veracity of each episode, as if the idea of a black person facing oppression or aggression because of their race is so unbelievable in today's America that it must be made-up. Apparently it's easier for some people to accuse the black community of concocting an elaborate racial conspiracy than it is to confront the difficult reality of racism in America. But if these people would take a second to actually listen to those who are affected by racism, it's the only proof they'd need to understand that the current protests at Mizzou are a necessary response to a very real issue.
Two white dudes littered the black culture center with cotton balls.
On the morning of Feb. 26, 2010, in the final days of Black History Month, students woke up to find cotton balls spread across the grounds in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center on campus -- a scene evoking slavery.
Days later, Zachary Tucker, then 21, and Sean Fitzgerald, then 19, both white male students, were arrested and suspended for dropping the cotton balls in front of the center.
Both students were convicted on misdemeanor littering charges.
The incident, which Tucker and Fitzgerald later described as a “prank,” has been cited frequently by protesters on Mizzou’s campus as examples of a racially intolerant culture that has existed on campus for years.
A white guy with dreadlocks spray-painted a racial slur on a statue.
A year after the cotton ball incident, also during Black History Month, a racist slur was spray-painted on a statue outside a dormitory. That same day, police found an anti-Jewish message painted on a car near campus.
Police investigated a connection between the two bigoted acts of vandalism but never found a link.
Benjamin Elliot, then 18 years old, was arrested and charged for the graffiti near the dorm, receiving two years probation and 100 hours of community service after pleading guilty to misdemeanor property damage.
A professor recounts being called racial slurs innumerable times.
Mizzou journalism professor Cynthia Frisby, who lives in Columbia, Missouri, and has worked at the university for almost 18 years, says she has been confronted with racism and called racial slurs “too many times to count.”
In a Facebook post last week, she described an encounter she experienced while jogging near campus in May.
Frisby says while on her run, she was approached by a white man in a white truck adorned with a “very visible” Confederate flag. The man leaned out his window, spat at her, yelled something racist and flashed his middle finger.
She adds that this was not the first time she had been verbally assaulted with racist language while jogging, and goes on to say she has faced similar disrespect even from other faculty members.
Someone repeatedly shouted a racial slur at the black president of the student body.
On Sept. 12, Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, described in a Facebook post that a passenger in a pickup truck repeatedly shouted a racial slur at him while he walked on campus one night.
His statement went viral and many posted messages of support on social media. They also voiced frustration with the lack of response from MU.
“I'd had experience with racism before, like microaggressions, but that was the first time I'd experienced in-your-face racism," Head told the Columbia Missourian about the incident.
"These n****rs are getting aggressive with me."
On the night of Oct. 5, members of the Legion of Black Collegians, a historic black student government group at Mizzou, were rehearsing for a homecoming performance at an on-campus outdoor theater space. They noticed what they later described as an “obviously intoxicated” young white male approaching the group while talking on his cell phone.
LBC ignored the man at first, members wrote in an open letter to campus, until he entered the plaza and got on stage, interrupting their rehearsal. An LBC member approached the man and asked him to leave. The man shouted back, “I don’t give a fuck what y'all are doing.”
When he finally decided to get off stage, he lost his balance and stumbled over onto the pavement.
Still on the phone, he rolled over onto his side and was heard saying: "These n****rs are getting aggressive with me."
The group was stunned by the remarks.
“There was a silence that fell over us all,” the letter from LBC describing the incident reads, “almost in disbelief that this racial slur in particular was used in our vicinity.”
The LBC letter notes that a safety officer was present and heard the racial slur but did not move quickly to address the man and never got his identification.
Protesters confronted Wolfe, were heckled by a mostly white crowd.
On Oct. 10, a group of black students interrupted the Mizzou homecoming parade wearing T-shirts that read, “1839 Was Built On My B(l)ack” -- a reference to the year of the university’s founding, made possible due to slave labor -- to deliver a message that they were not going to be ignored by the school administration regarding discrimination issues on campus.
The protesters blocked the path of the convertible Wolfe was in as he waved to a group of mostly white parade-watchers. Some people in the crowd started yelling back at the protesters, saying “move on” and to get out of the street. Others changed “M-I-Z, Z-O-U” in an attempt to drown out the protesters who were using a megaphone to speak about incidents of racism on campus.
The confrontation got testy, as members of the crowd moved in and began pushing the students out of the way. At one point, Wolfe's car attempted to drive around the protesters, clipping one of them in the process. Police eventually intervened and got the students to step aside, eliciting cheers from spectators.
Wolfe remained in his car throughout this entire ordeal, not saying a word as the incident unfolded in front of him.
Days later, the Concerned Student 1950 group, whose name paying tribute to the year the first black students were admitted to Mizzou, issued a list of eight demands. Among their many requests to increase racial awareness and diversity on campus was one for Wolfe to be removed as president.
“We’ve sent emails, we’ve sent tweets, we’ve messaged but we’ve gotten no response back from the upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus,” Jonathan Butler, a graduate student who later went on a seven-day hunger strike that ended with Wolfe's resignation, told the Missourian.
It took Wolfe almost a month to issue an apology for his inaction during the protest, but the damage was already done.
Someone smeared a swastika in human feces in a dorm bathroom.
In one of the most disturbing -- and what became one of the most galvanizing -- incidents to take place on MU’s campus, in October students discovered a swastika scrawled in feces in a dorm bathroom.
Resident staff members discovered the swastika and reported it to the police around 2 a.m. on Oct. 24, according to the police report from the incident. Police saw the swastika “drawn on the wall by someone using feces [along with] feces on the floor located by the entry way to the restroom,” the report reads.
No one has been arrested in connection to the vandalism, and a police investigation remains ongoing.
The Internet did what it does best: acted racist as hell.
On Nov. 5, Head posted on Twitter a collection of racist comments he says were made by MU students on the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak.
The tweet came just days after the Concerned Student 1950 group attempted to address race and discrimination concerns on campus on a number of occasions with Wolfe.
"I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see."
Just a day after Wolfe resigned, anonymous threats began targeting black students on social media.
“I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” one post on Yik Yak read.
“Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow,” read another.
“We’re waiting for you at the parking lots,” read a third. “We will kill you.”
Police arrested two suspects, both young white males, on Wednesday for making the threats.
Wolfe suggested "systematic oppression" is just a feeling black people get.
Protesters with Concerned Student 1950 confronted Wolfe last week outside a fundraiser at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City.
In a video posted to Twitter, a protester can be heard asking Wolfe: “What do you think systematic oppression is?”
“Systematic oppression,” Wolfe begins, “is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”
The crowd erupted with frustration before he could finish his statement. As Wolfe walked away, one protester shouted: “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe? Did you just blame black students,” as the video cuts off.
In the early hours of Nov. 12, someone spray-painted over the word “Black” on a sign at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center on campus.
Another tweet showed that the “Black” had been painted over on both sides of the sign.
Police said they are reviewing surveillance video from the area as part of their ongoing investigation. There have been no arrests in connection with the vandalism.
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