The protests at Missouri won’t be the last.
The most striking thing about the racist incidents that forced the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor from office isn’t how unbelievable they are, but how banal. They could happen on any campus anywhere. They probably are. And now colleges are on notice: A timid response is unacceptable.
The protests at Missouri will not be the last.
The resignations of Missouri president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin might quell the immediate crisis in Columbia, as the leaders hoped. But this isn’t just about one university’s tough semester. Over the past year, Americans have paid more attention to the role racism continues to play in everyday life, from the lingering symbols of the Confederacy to disparities in the criminal justice system.
Now that scrutiny has come around to universities. And while college leaders like to think of their institutions as progressive places, colleges, like other venerable American institutions, have both a past and a present laced with racism. For the first time since the late 1960s, students are forcing them to grapple seriously with it.
Historical racism at universities is getting more scrutiny
When black students took over administration buildings and held sit-ins at colleges in the late 1960s, they left change behind them: black studies majors, promises of increased student and faculty diversity, new financial aid programs.
Today’s protestors are picking up those half-finished fights and demanding universities return to that era’s unfulfilled promises. Administrators, the students argue, don’t understand and aren’t helping with the challenges and everyday slights that students of color face on campuses that were often originally built to keep them out.
Some of the wounds the students want addressed are old ones. After the Charleston shootings, the persistence of monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and defenders of slavery on college campuses drew public attention. The nation’s most prestigious universities were built with slave trade money and in some cases slave labor — a history that many universities, including those in the Ivy League, weren’t willing to explore until the 21st century.
The University of Texas moved its statue of Jefferson Davis. Bowdoin College, in Maine, got rid of its Jefferson Davis Award. Yale University is still trying to decide whether it should rename Calhoun College, named after the virulent defender of slavery and Southern secession.