RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Administrative Changes at Mizzou Don’t Solve Racism

The first question is, “Exactly what happened at the University of Missouri last month?” The media has tried to sleuth it out, but, really, nobody outside of a band of students has a grasp of the entire story. That’s one of the problems with actions that unfold on social media. The insiders know what’s happening, but the larger media—radio and TV and such—are clueless. As a result, the demands of the insiders stay with them and don’t trickle out as the drama unfolds.

Racism in Missouri has been an ongoing condition, as in much of the US. On college campuses, many old institutions—classrooms and fraternities, for example—have been desegregated, but students outside these sanctioned spaces are on their own and may discriminate along racial lines.

The larger society has failed the kids. In St. Louis suburbs, as we learned last summer after the Ferguson riots, the population has shifted quickly to create communities that are (using St. Louis county as an example) 44% White, 49% Black, 2% Asian, and 4% Hispanic. The public school populations are about 80% black. There are roughly four or five times the number of blacks in Missouri prisons than whites. And, 10% of black men are unemployed. The percentage of black teachers, police and city workers, all taxpayer-funded jobs that should be equal-opportunity, is embarrassingly low.

Because black adults are missing from their lives, some white students get to college with little respect for diversity and, in fact, a sense of entitlement and superiority. They haven’t seen adults interacting respectfully with people of other races. The white students’ disdain for differences on campus might have been forbidden or at least stymied if college officials led the way but, alas, they have not. Mizzou leadership was selected for ability to raise money and balance the budget. They had little understanding of their jobs as role models and leaders of the unique community that makes up a university. At the university, by the way, the population of students is 79% white, 8% black, plus a mix of other ethnicities and international students. Professors are 76% white and just over 3% black.

The 2015-2016 school year began quietly, but racism quickly surfaced. Payton Head, who had been elected student president in an election that set records for voter turnout, is a black man, and, in his own word, queer. His election was seen as a sign that things had changed on the campus, but he posted on Facebook Sept. 12 that he had encountered racist remarks. His post went viral in the black community.

The comments against Head and other black students stayed in their community until homecoming in October. Football is a big deal on college campuses and a few years ago Mizzou joined the Southeastern Conference, or SEC, which notably ramped up competition. From being a big deal, football became the biggest deal. It’s all about bowl games and television time and here comes homecoming. The Kansas City Star reported that on Oct. 5, a drunk white male student screamed racial epithets as the Legion of Black Collegians rehearsed a homecoming skit. The incident was widely known on campus and the MU Chancellor made a statement of support for the black group.

Within a few days, media were beginning to trickle in from Kansas City and St. Louis. Next, on Oct. 10, during the homecoming parade, students blocked the car of Tim Wolfe, president of the University system, and demanded a meeting. Wolfe responded by having the group removed by police.

That was a turning point. To the black students, Wolfe’s actions were a sign that he was going to ignore them. To the white students, it meant that administration would do nothing and that they could continue behaving badly.

Two weeks later, in a third-floor bathroom in one of the dorms, a swastika made of feces was found slathered on a wall. It was reported and Residential Life posted a flyer about the incident in the dorm, and called the police.

Wolfe met with students, but the meeting solved nothing. A handful of tents went up on University grounds in protest, a black student started a hunger strike and, as students gathered around him in solidarity, the football players were drawn into the protest.

At this point, things got brilliant. Even those of us who have little interest in campus sports can’t help but admire the power displayed by the black football team. Figuring that a cancelled game would cost the university millions, the students declared that they would boycott games in solidarity with their protesting peers. Their demands included resignation of the President and the Chancellor of the University system.

Those two officials resigned and have been replaced. A student from another campus made threats against blacks on social media site Yik Yak and was arrested. The football coach, who stood behind his players when they protested, has left his post, citing health problems.

As I write this, things have been quiet at Mizzou for a bit. But the major problems remain. Racism in the US requires more than Egyptian Spring solutions. The work will go on.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2015

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