Earlier this year, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Columbia, Mo. Located in the middle of the state, it is was a quaint town that just happened to have a huge university located right in the middle of it. Personally, I loved the number of barbecue joints that were speckled throughout the town.
So it was with interest that I saw what was happening with the racism protests that have been occurring in the Columbia community and more specifically, within the University of Missouri. In a period of a few short days, protests were started, top officials resigned and a collegiate football team nearly didn’t take the field. And of course, there were the outside liberal and conservative media types that were applauding or condemning the actions that were taking place.
The entire chain of events started back in September, when the student body president was the target of racial slurs a month ago. The young man shared his experience and his thoughts on social media and the reaction went viral. The chancellor of the University called the situation “totally unacceptable”; protests were held within a few days by African-American students.
The situation became even more tenuous in October. A Caucasian student, supposedly in a state of drunkenness, disrupted an African-American homecoming event. While traveling out of the country, the chancellor asked for students to change the culture at the university.
In November, an African-American graduate student went on a hunger strike, calling for the removal of the chancellor due to his inaction on dealing with the racial tension and perhaps the biggest shoe to drop was that the football team was prepared to boycott games. A day after the football team decided it would not take the field, the chancellor and the president of the state’s college system both resigned. Even after the resignations, more protesting has occurred.
As I see the protests occur in the relatively tranquil community I just visited a few short months ago, I wonder if this is an issue specific to Missouri or if we can expect to see these types of things happen elsewhere.
Demographically, Missouri is a lot like other Midwestern states. Bound by Kansas City on one side and St. Louis on the other, the urban areas tend to be home to a larger concentration of minority students. The rest of Missouri, tends to white and rural.
And that same rural/urban dynamic exists all across the Midwest. In Minnesota, African-Americans make up 5 percent of the population, yet 1 in 5 residents in Minneapolis is African-American. In Indiana, 1 in 10 residents in African-American, yet nearly 30 percent of Indianapolis is African-American. Even here in Ohio, where 12 percent of our population is African-American, African-Americans are 55 percent of the population in Cleveland, nearly 45 percent of the population in Cincinnati, and at least 25 percent of the population in Toledo and Columbus.
Add to the racial and urban/rural component of America’s universities, there is also the fact that our universities are largely populated by young people. For the most part, it is in these environments where young men and women really have the first time to be away from home and exercise some independence. That in itself can be extremely stressful. Add to that, that many of the people you may see in the university environment may not share your values or even look like you and it can be quite the difficult adjustment.
What we are seeing in Missouri is how that adjustment is not working. It appears that many Caucasian students feel uncomfortable, causing them to disrupt activities and spew hateful racial slurs. The African-American students have resorted to protesting and boycotting.
Perhaps there is a lesson in here for all of us. Before we take everything the media throws at us their own filter, maybe we should step back and look at the bigger picture. What if we were those young college students living in a new and difficult environment? Would we be nervous? Would we be scared?
Perhaps the key to race relations is to recognize that the emotions we feel are universal. Treating each other with grace and kindness can go a lot farther than treating people with fear and contempt.
William (Bill) Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]