Black Student Activists Stand Against Racist Cultures on Campus

From Yale to Missouri, college campuses are becoming ground zero in challenging white supremacy and institutional racism.

African-American athletes at the University of Missouri in Columbia who are on strike until university President Tim Wolfe resigns are joined by teammates and coaches.
African-American athletes at the University of Missouri in Columbia who are on strike until university President Tim Wolfe resigns are joined by teammates and coaches. @GaryPinkel via Twitter

Editor’s note: The Associated Press is reporting that University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced Monday morning that he is resigning, “effective immediately,” in the wake of student protests over his handling of racial matters on campus.

The radical spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement touched college campuses this past week in high-profile demonstrations against a culture of racism infecting higher education.

The University of Missouri in Columbia, already galvanized by the waves of activism inspired by the unrest in nearby Ferguson since Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting death, has become ground zero for black students challenging white supremacy and institutional racism. Remarkably, for 2015, they’ve been joined by members of the university’s football team, who have vowed to go on strike until the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigns.

Wolfe has been the target of black students who have organized nonviolent actions for racial justice on campus, led by one student who is on a hunger strike to protest Wolfe’s lack of leadership after a spate of racially motivated incidents.

The participation of black student-athletes has drawn national attention and is a hopeful sign of how movement-building over the past year has penetrated the consciousness of the entire African-American community as well as the wider American public. With their bold and courageous stance on behalf of black humanity, these young men are echoing the heroic activism of 1960s-era sports icons (Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos) who used athletic excellence to pursue social justice.

And this movement is spreading.

While students and athletes have united around pursuing the ouster of the university president in Missouri, at Yale University this past week, 300 African-American undergraduates demanded answers from administrators, including Yale President Peter Salovey and the university’s recently installed African-American dean, Jonathan Holloway, for failing to combat a pervasive climate of racism.

Black-student outrage partially stemmed from an email written by the associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges that urged students to be open-minded about racially offensive Halloween costumes. Black students found the message tone-deaf to the almost ritualized pain they experience on campus when white students engage in stereotyping of black culture and bodies.  

Black women at Yale have shared stories of racial harassment that seem to illustrate a pattern of anti-black racism on the New Haven, Conn., campus. The visceral pain and outcries of black students led Salovey to admit, during a closed-door meeting with angry students, that the school had “failed” them.

This past Friday, some of these same issues confronting black students at Missouri and Yale came into sharp relief for me as I spoke at predominantly white Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Over 300 mostly black students from surrounding colleges attended the Mahmoud El-Kati Lecture, named after a distinguished retired professor of black studies, who was also in attendance. My talk, “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter,” touched on the way in which contemporary Black Lives Matter activists are channeling, in new, important and innovative ways, the organizing traditions of the civil rights and black power era.