University of Missouri must do more to counter recurring problem of racism

Officials at the University of Missouri in Columbia plan to require online diversity training in January for all entering freshmen after two well-publicized incidents of racism.
Officials at the University of Missouri in Columbia plan to require online diversity training in January for all entering freshmen after two well-publicized incidents of racism. The Kansas City Star

It is shameful that overt racism remains a recurring problem at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

In response to two well-publicized incidents ahead of homecoming on Saturday, MU announced plans starting in January to require all incoming freshmen to undergo diversity training. That’s the right step, but the effort will be meaningless if the university insists on it being conducted online.

Most of the 35,000 mostly white students attending MU come from largely segregated communities throughout the state, the U.S. and abroad. The university has a moral and ethical obligation to promote mutual respect through healthy face-to-face encounters among students, faculty and staff.

That duty, in fact, is inherent in the school’s formal statement of values: Respect, Responsibility, Discover and Excellence.

University officials should fully investigate the best practices used on other campuses to promote better understanding among students of different backgrounds, races and religions.

The two recently publicized incidents underscore the need. One occurred shortly after midnight Oct. 4. Members of the Legion of Black Collegians who were practicing for homecoming reported they were verbally blistered by a student who shouted racial slurs at them.

Homecoming on any campus is supposed to be a time of fun, togetherness and unity among students faculty, staff and alumni. The racial assault certainly made the African American students feel excluded from that camaraderie and from campus life in general.

University officials did the right thing by removing the offending student from campus. The investigation and action that are to follow need to be more than window dressing. Doing nothing is not an option.

The other well-publicized incident involved Missouri Students Association President Payton Head, who is African American. Less than a month ago, he endured drive-by racial slurs by white males riding in the back of a pickup truck. He went on Facebook last month to explain what occurred on campus and let people know that it should never be tolerated.

Unfortunately, the harassment directed at Head, a student leader, is undoubtedly being felt by other students of color. It hampers the university’s long-standing efforts to increase racial and ethnic enrollment, and may work against the recent launch of the $1.3 billion “Mizzou: Our Time to Lead” fundraising goal.

In years past, the small minority of black students on MU’s campus had only each other to turn to for solace over the hurt, embarrassment and shame they felt at being targeted and for the strength they needed to continue their education.

Fortunately, the university has changed enough to take forceful action against such problems. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said in online posts that racism “and all prejudice is heinous, insidious and damaging to Mizzou. It hurts students’ education and experience, including their mental health and academic achievement. That is why all of us must commit to changing the culture at this university.”

Even the best diversity training isn’t a cure-all for the deeply engrained racial problems that flow from the state onto the campus. But, done properly, it should provide a necessary and long-overdue start toward getting all MU students, faculty and staff to ensure that the university is a better, safer learning environment for everyone.