Guest Commentary

University of Missouri missed the opportunity to address 2015 racial protests directly

Hunger strike student Jonathan Butler reacts to president resignation

Jonathan Butler and other members of Concerned Student 1950 hold a news conference on the University of Missouri campus. Earlier Monday, Tim Wolfe, president of the university system, resigned from his position amid racial tensions. Butler, a 25-y
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Jonathan Butler and other members of Concerned Student 1950 hold a news conference on the University of Missouri campus. Earlier Monday, Tim Wolfe, president of the university system, resigned from his position amid racial tensions. Butler, a 25-y

Last week, the University of Missouri issued a rebuttal to a recent New York Times story about about the aftereffects of the Concerned Student 1950 protests that roiled the campus in 2015. The university reminded us of some of the great things happening on campus now. But the only question — and the only relevant answer — is about how we are addressing race issues at our state’s flagship university.

I’m sure the protests have brought about positive change and more open discussion about race on campus — more dialogue, more diverse hiring practices, individual efforts to reach out to our students, and engagement that has sparked national efforts like #MizzouSyllabus.

But the university’s actual rebuttal addressed none of this and in fact didn’t directly mention “race” or “black students.” This is shameful.

Until the university can stop seeing these issues as damage control and begin to see this conversation as an opportunity, no real change is going to be possible. We can still get there, but first there are three core truths that we all need to face head on.

▪  The University of Missouri was — and is — a tough place for black students.

During my seven years as a professor and news director at the local NPR affiliate, each semester we welcomed in an army of new hyper-ambitious and accomplished students from diverse backgrounds. So when the Concerned Student protests broke out, I reached out to black students, alumni and friends and asked them about their experiences. Their answers surprised me. If you talk with black Missourians, you may see that we may be in a sort of “O.J. verdict” moment here in the state. It’s possible that the way you see the 2015 protests depends on your race. This gap we need to bridge may be the most important thing for us to do.

Other campuses are also tough, of course. But rather than pointing away from our own problem, let’s acknowledge that the campus we all love might be a difficult place to be black.

▪  Concerned Student 1950 was part of a national historic tradition of black freedom movements and civil rights efforts that have helped form the foundations of freedom in our country. Missouri students took a stand. We can be proud of that stand.

When then-University President Tim Wolfe’s homecoming parade car was halted by a group of students in 2015, their protest drew directly from a tradition that is positive and profound.

The emotion, even anger, in their voices was audible, but so was a world of hurt. The only decent reaction was for the president to get out of the convertible sports car, walk over to his students, and say, “I hear you.”

But Wolfe didn’t realize he was staring in the face of history. One can only imagine that his entire life so far — with its diet of media images featuring black violence, black incarceration and segregation — had taught him that he was looking not at history but at a discipline problem.

Because he didn’t get out of that car, he was out of a job. It was a reaction that was bad for campus, bad for the country and ultimately bad even for business. The football team didn’t like what they saw, joined the protest movement, and Wolfe resigned.

While it’s hard to know how to react to something like a protest unfolding in the moment, we in Missouri have since then had plenty of moments to figure out how to react. And we’re still not reacting strongly enough.

▪  Our Concerned Students have provided us with the impetus to act together to make things better.

If you think that our black students in Missouri are well served in their educational experience, like I did, you should ask them open-ended questions. Take them for coffee, and realize that it’s not their job to educate you.

It sounds overly simplistic, but I heard Kansas City Mayor Sly James say it several times during Ferguson and the MU protests and in city-wide diversity discussions: Make friends. Listen to each other.

And meanwhile, if you see the MU student protests as a low point for our campus, ask yourself: What do you see in the 1960s footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Woolworth sit-ins, or the Birmingham Campaign? Do you see that as an unfortunate disruption that negatively impacted businesses on Main Street?

Around the time of the first anniversary of the MU protests, I found myself in a Columbia coffee shop reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This time capsule struck me as surprisingly apt for my surroundings, as if King himself were writing to Missouri’s campus leaders today.

King asked his fellow church leaders not to see his efforts as “unwise and untimely,” and pleaded: “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Of course, now the words of our country’s greatest theologian strike us with their humility and patience, a patience that is tragic in proportion to the weight it bears.

That weight — with seething below and above the surface — is what our black students in Missouri and on our nation’s campuses are carrying, from semester to semester.

I’m nowhere near a place of enlightenment on this issue. But I do know that the only really important question arising from all of this is the one we are avoiding. It’s not whether Missouri is a good school, or whether it’s more racist than anywhere else or what the causes are of our drops in enrollment. The only question that matters is this: What are we going to do now?

Janet Saidi is a freelance writer, producer and teacher. She is a past faculty member and a current lecturer at MU.

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