Are the University of Missouri’s Issues Indicative of a Bigger Problem?

I have been watching the recent spate of news out of the University of Missouri with a great deal of interest but not much conclusion. This is something that bothers me because, usually after I study an issue for a period of time, I can normally come down on one side or the other in the discussion (this doesn’t mean, however, that it is set in concrete). With the current situation at Missouri the more I read, the more confusion sets in on my thoughts.

For those that have come a bit late to the story, the situation at the University of Missouri that many think exploded over the last two weeks has actually been simmering for some time. Earlier this semester on the Columbia, MO, campus, the school’s student government president stated that he was targeted with a racial slur by someone on campus. A campus group, the Legion of Black Collegians, followed up the student government president’s accusation in adding that they, too, had been targeted by people (assumedly white) who used racial slurs against their group. Then there was a swastika, drawn in fecal matter, found in a dorm bathroom.

Now, those situations are all serious incidences and require a good deal of investigation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that there was much sympathy for the Mizzou administration to taking the time to examine the issues. During the school’s homecoming back on October 10, a group of protesters actually surrounded the vehicle of school president Tim Wolfe to the point of interrupting the parade, questioning him about the investigation. According to local television reports, Wolfe’s vehicle actually bumped into one of the protestors and he didn’t interact with them during the parade or at any time following the altercation.

As to be expected, it pretty much went to Hell after that. A graduate student, Jonathan Butler, started a hunger strike with the intent to force Wolfe out of his position at the school. This didn’t have an effect on the school’s administration but, once the Tigers football team stated they would not practice nor play until Wolfe was removed from his position (with a game scheduled for this Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City set to pull in $3 million), the writing was on the wall. Earlier this week, Wolfe resigned his position and the school’s chancellor also said he would step down within the next few months.

The resulting turmoil has spread across the United States to other college campuses and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Early this morning, the Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College in California, Mary Spellman, resigned after standing and being photographed with students dressed as Mexicans to celebrate Halloween. At Yale University, two weeks of protests regarding a “white girls only” party at a fraternity on the campus culminated in a massive march against racism on the campus. Ithaca College in New York, Smith College in Massachusetts and Guilford College in North Carolina have also felt the rumblings of racial unrest and protests.

Now it isn’t like there aren’t some issues with relations between young people that are of different cultures. Black students have discussed how their white classmates – or even their roommates – have made racially insensitive statements around them. Those black students have also discussed how they feel they are viewed on the campus. It even goes into the Hispanic community, as the situation in California demonstrates. There is also something problematic in that the group at the University of Missouri, Concerned Students 1950, draws part of their name from the year the first person of color was admitted to the university. The question is, however, is it blatant racism or just something that is inherent from upbringing?

The University of Missouri is estimated to be 80% white, with blacks making up approximately 8% of the student population (no breakdown as to the remainder of the student body). With a few exceptions, this is a breakdown that you would probably find at many public colleges and universities and, to be honest, it may be worse at private institutions. When I went to college long ago, I went to Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis that was predominantly white and, as far as I know, is still that way today. There wasn’t, however, a base of racism that ran through the school (at least to my knowledge).

Some of the incidences brought up by black students at colleges and universities across the country do have some serious racial overtones and/or problems. Being asked about how a black person styles their hair, asking a black person to teach them the latest dance moves or even state that black people’s skin is greasy because slavery made their ancestors “sweat a lot”…these are all examples of some of the idiotic questions or statements posed to black students. What these statements demonstrate isn’t inherently racism as much as it is pure stupidity.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, though. For the most part, when 17-18 year olds get together at a college or university, they aren’t well-versed in the ways of the world. They aren’t educated as to the diversity of the world and how to actually treat people who aren’t just like you (here’s a thought, how about the Golden Rule?). Finally, they are pretty stupid to begin with; this is the reason for college is to further educate yourself about the world that is around you.

While some of these instances may be racial in nature, there are some problems on the other side also. Reportedly journalists looking to report on the protests at the University of Missouri were harassed, kicked out and generally not allowed to either videotape the proceedings or what some of the protest leaders were saying. In one particular instance, a student with the Missouri school newspaper has filed a complaint against one of the professors who was leading the Concerned Student 1950 protest, who is allegedly videotaped calling for “muscle” to eject the student reporter and his videographer from the protest.

Furthermore, there are questions as to the validity of some of the alleged situations. Part of the reason that there was so much time taken in the University of Missouri situation (that investigation – and its length – was a major complaint by Concerned Student 1950) is that there is little evidence to investigate. A student who is the victim of a racial slur thrown from a moving vehicle is going to be difficult to investigate, unless the student has a photographic memory and/or has their cellphone video running (although racism is problematic, the knee-jerk reaction completely to the other side isn’t logical either). The “poop swastika” situation, short of taking DNA samples from the entirety of the Mizzou campus (something that would violate pretty much every privacy law on the books), isn’t going to be solved quickly.

One of the problems overall is that there is still racism in the United States today. Despite what many might want to think, there is still an ugly part of the citizenry that believes people of a different ilk are beneath them and should be treated as less than human. There is still the problem of de facto racism, where it isn’t blatant but is ingrained in the psyche and practices of a particular segment of society. Does it make it right? No, but you have to recall that, even up until the mid-1970s, there was blatant racism going on in both the North and the South (busing in Boston comes to mind). Just because a black man was elected President of the United States twice doesn’t mean that “racism is over.”

On the other side, there are some things that are going to take time if they are to be rectified. Those people that “clutch a purse tighter when I come by?” Those people who ask inappropriate questions regarding your ethnicity? Those people who may shy away from you because they grew up in a 99.9% white country town? Those things aren’t going to change overnight…hell, it may not change until late in this century at the earliest. Change doesn’t happen immediately; for it to firmly take hold it has to be, like a science experiment, performed over and over again with the same outcome occurring.

There is also a problem on college campuses in the fact that they aren’t a bastion of open thought anymore. The ability to be racist isn’t something that should be protected, don’t get me wrong, but the examination of issues regarding race, religion and other areas is something that has traditionally been a discussion point at colleges and universities. The oversensitivity of one or several parties on a college campus – and their overwrought demands to “make it stop” – is something that seriously inhibits free thought, something we should strive for as humans.

Furthermore, I have problems with protesters getting no response from administrators but, as soon as an athletic team threatens to boycott a game, then the change comes rapidly. A sports team shouldn’t have an undue influence on who is in the leadership of the school. What does it say about that leadership if, recognizing that they’ll lose millions of dollars if that team doesn’t play their game, they knuckle under?

The turmoil regarding these situations – wherever they are either in the United States or in the world – are continuing to roil and it doesn’t appear that it will stop anytime soon. I am still on the sidelines, however, as there are way too many moving parts – and changing stories – to be able to draw a firm conclusion as of yet. Perhaps will some more time and the completion of some of these investigations (which SHOULD be given time to come to fruition rather than complaints about their slow pace), those of us on the outside looking in might be able to determine who is right.

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2 comments on “Are the University of Missouri’s Issues Indicative of a Bigger Problem?

  1. Liz says:

    Many people like being racist. It makes them feel better than others. All it really makes them is pathetic. College doesn’t change that. As far as the universities go, I place the blame squarely on their shoulders. They’ve turned collegiate sports into big business using our kids. Now, the kids figured out that what they have is leverage. Money talks. College is going to do whatever they have to in order to keep the $$ coming in. It’s no different that our young children threatening to call child services when they don’t get what they want. My answer to that was to give them the phone and informing them exactly what foster care would be like. The college president should have been fired for not coming down hard on any racist activities. He shouldn’t have been forced resign by the football team threatening not to perform. The school should have shut down the football program right then and there. They both need to experience the consequences of their actions.

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  2. Earl Burton says:

    Interesting viewpoints, Liz. I would like to think that people don’t like being “racist,” but that may be a Pollyanna-esque hope. I do agree with you that athletics – especially college football – have way too much influence on a college administration. I’d have to look it up to be sure, but I believe that the highest paid state employee in more than half of the states in the U. S. is the head football coach at a college university. I know that the students and the football players thought this was the best way to attack things but, as you said, if you are going to use something for a political purpose, you must also understand there can be some ramifications.

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