Solidarity with Mizzou Students
Last week, newspapers around the country reported on the University of Missouri football players’ boycott of team activities until their President, Tim Wolfe, stepped down. The team’s actions–taken in solidarity with their classmate Jonathan Butler, on a hunger strike, and with the support of their coach, Gary Pinkel–punctuated longer-standing student protest. For a brief moment, the popular press paid attention to the grievances put forth by the protesting students: persistent patterns of overt racism and sexism, as well as exclusionary administrative decisions. These include open use of racial slurs against campus leaders and black faculty (in some cases by white faculty colleagues), harassment of black students by campus police for minor infractions ignored when committed by white counterparts, a swastika painted in feces on a public bathroom door, and cancellation of health insurance subsidies for graduate students–altogether forming pervasive, institutional racism with a disproportionate effect upon the marginalized.
The mainstream narrative of the protests shifted quickly and decisively, however, displaying a disturbing, yet familiar, historical amnesia of institutional and structural racism and exclusion. Political pundits claimed that the use of intolerant and dehumanizing language is a matter of free speech that no community can speak against or set standards to marginalize; those in power were the victims, and the students were too pampered to engage public debate in an open society.
Shifting the blame to protesters rather than the institution ignores the generations of exclusion of African Americans, Latinxs and other marginalized groups from the University of Missouri.
Shifting the blame to protesters rather than the institution ignores the generations of exclusion of African Americans, Latinxs and other marginalized groups from the University of Missouri. We note that the 2015 student protest coalition, Concerned Student 1950, recalls the year the university, under court order to lift its ban on black admissions, admitted the first black student. Now, Missouri students are asking for implementation of the as-yet unrecognized demands of the Legion of Black Collegians, originally presented in 1969. The 1969 document cited the combination of physical threats by whites against blacks, the lack of diversity in faculty hiring, and the "nonchalant attitude on the part of the university," which rendered the campus "a haven for comprehensive institutionalized racist and political repression.” In 2015, these unmet demands remain so urgent that a student, moved to begin a hunger strike, inspired hundreds of students, athletes, faculty and staff to join him.
Mizzou’s story is not just about Mizzou, individual students, or even groups of activists. It is instead about, among other things, ongoing, pervasive discrimination, state disinvestment, and privatization of the nation’s public universities. For example, at the City University of New York’s top five senior colleges, the percentage of Black students has nearly halved since 2001. At UCLA and Berkeley, California’s flagship public universities, percentages of Black students have also halved since the mid-90s. And while the number of Latinx applicants to these same campuses has risen 350% in the last two decades, admission to those two campuses has remained almost flat–by less than 2%.
This country is at a decisive juncture in education and in our democracy. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression continues to reverberate, decimating opportunity amid record levels of youth unemployment. College seniors now graduate with an average of $27,000 in student debt, while median starting salaries for graduates lucky enough to find jobs have decreased to below $27,000. The student loan burden falls disproportionately on students of color and low-income students, undermining their financial future. Given these circumstances, it was not surprising that this past week students from over 100 campuses across the US marched in the streets demanding free public college, cancellation of college debt for 40 million students, and a $15 per hour minimum wage for students who work on campus.
This story has deep roots; student activism has a long and rich history in this country beginning as early as 1768 with confrontation between students and administrators at Harvard University. The student protests of the 1960s and 1970s on campuses across the country and with cross-campus student groups, such as Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), capture the height of such activity in the minds of many. Recent history provides many other examples: the 1980’s Anti-Apartheid and South African Divestment campaigns launched at many schools; the formation of United Students Against Sweatshops in the late 1990s; the push for ethnic studies in high schools; DREAMers organizing for access and inclusion; student activism around sexual assault on college campuses; and students pushing for the rights of undocumented people. Other student movements include support for formerly incarcerated students; activism in support of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer (LGBTQ) people; support for gender nonconforming students, faculty and staff; activism against police brutality, particularly against blacks and Latinxs; and solidarity support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
This week’s events at the University of Missouri serve as another example of the power of students to affect change, demonstrating yet again that when young people organize, they have the capacity to force policy makers, administrators, faculty and the public to pay attention to their concerns and respond. It behooves us to celebrate these students, who are trying to hold all colleges and universities and our democracy accountable to all of us. For these reasons, we, members of the Urban Research-Based Action Network (URBAN) stand in solidarity with the students at University of Missouri. We see this as a critical democratic moment of claiming the university for all students; we see this as an exciting rebirth of reclaiming democratic, equitable education that benefits our society as a whole.
Jennifer Ayala, Ph.D., Saint Peter’s University
Paige M. Bray, Ed.D., University of Hartford
José Z. Calderón, Ph.D., Pitzer College
Julio Cammarota, Ph.D., Iowa State University
Jerusha Conner, Ph.D., Villanova University
Dayna Cunningham, J.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Susan DeJarnatt, J.D., Temple University
John B. Diamond, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin - Madison
Meghan Doran, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Boston
Timothy K. Eatman, Ph.D., Syracuse University and Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life
Barbara Ferman, Ph.D., Temple University
Michelle Fine, Ph.D., The Public Science Project, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Rachele Gardner, MSW, Executive Director, Youth Hub
Ronald David Glass, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz
Monique Guishard, Ph.D., CUNY
Sarah R. Hobson, Ph.D., SUNY Cortland
Alvaro Huerta, Ph.D., California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Michael P. Johnson, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Boston
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Ph.D., Tufts University
Joyce E. King, Ph.D., Georgia State University
Ben Kirshner, Ph.D., University of Colorado Boulder
Paul Kuttner, Ed.D., University of Utah
Megan Madison, Brandeis University
Allentza Michel, Tufts University
Lindsay Morgia, University of Massachusetts Boston
Gilda L. Ochoa, Ph.D., Pomona College
Barbara Osborn, Ph.D., USC
Talia Sandwick, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Jessica Shiller, Ph.D., Towson University
William M. Snyder, Ph.D., Civic Stewardship Initiative
Brett G. Stoudt, Ph.D., John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
Celina Su, Ph.D., City University of New York
Benjamin F. Teresa, Ph.D., The Graduate Center, CUNY
Mark R. Warren, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Boston
Vajra M. Watson, Ed.D., UC Davis
Dana E. Wright, Ed.D., Connecticut College