Grappling with Post-Election Racism

One of the lurking undertones of the past several days has been the flurry - yes, a flurry - of racist activities that have played out on my campus and what to do about them. As I mentioned previously, there was at least one incident of racist graffiti here. I'd thought us fortunate that we'd avoided some of the more high profile problems that have happened at Lehigh. But there's certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that the problem is pretty wide.

As I mentioned in the most recent Job Tracking posting, the university's response has been a big focus of mine over the last week or so. And it has been a positive experience - maybe the most positive experience - of my dealings with the university. Let me explain, and maybe offer some food for thought about what I'm learning about dealing with this as we go (and, of course, I'd love to hear what others are doing).

Following the scrawling of the graffiti, I found myself more frustrated than ever about things here. And a few colleagues and I began to talk about that frustration. Thankfully, one of my colleagues wasn't content to wallow and began rattling chains of the powers that be. Very quickly, those powers responded. More quickly, in fact, than I've seen them respond to anything here ever before. A group of concerned faculty convened, many of whom had expressed similar concerns and all of whom had ideas about things that could be done and frustration that the university hadn't done enough (it's response was essentially to have the graffiti quickly removed and to send an e-mail condemning the act and promising an investigation to the university).

Let me pause here because the group demographics are interesting. This isn't meant as an indictment, but I did find the demographics interesting: the entire group consisted of untenured faculty and all from the Liberal Arts side of things. Make of it what you will.

Part of why this excited me is that it's the first time I feel like there's some sense of community among the faculty here - even if it is just the young faculty. But it was also the response of the administration which felt like a first to me: they admitted that they were caught flat-footed, that they weren't sure how to best deal with it, and that they'd not done a good job of integrating the faculty and student life responses to the problem. And then, the ideas were heard and the group of young faculty were given a blank check (at least from a policy standpoint).

Some of the ideas we're proposing:
  • a signed statement from concerned faculty, making a stronger statement and discussing our ideas and asking for input
  • a retreat with student leaders - particularly from varying political viewpoints
  • workshops for RA's and other student life leaders
  • a day where faculty would be asked, in unison, to take some time from class to tell a personal story related to these divisive tensions
  • asking for some of those stories - and from any interested students - to be put in a series of campus media outlets to help personalize the consequences
  • a similar set of mediated statements about why the election of an African American matters to a similar variety of people
  • a rally in honor of MLK and the inauguration
  • a series of brown bags and discussions over the next few months to continue this discussion
What I like about the range of ideas, in particular, is that it suggests the university realizes this is not a one-time problem and that one event isn't going to come close to dealing with it. And I like that it seeks ways to bring students into the discussion rather than relying on lecturing to them or the hopes that they'll all magically turn up at some amorphous campus event. I like that it invokes a sense of unity - among faculty, where it's lacking; among students; and among the campus as a whole.

Where I'm concerned, however, is that I and other colleagues have continued to talk with students while these things are taking shape, and we're hearing a number of student concerns. First, students are upset because events are still happening - these actions are more pervasive than any of us thought. But the other student concerns about what's been done are telling, and I think should be factored in anywhere that is dealing with this sort of problem. What students have told us so far boils down to the following:

  • sending an e-mail was seen as a weak response, particularly as few students check the campus e-mail accounts. One student noted that there's an entire system in place for the discussion of parking problems and inclement weather, but the best we could muster was an e-mail for this
  • little discussion of what an investigation entails or what the consequences could be has been problematic
  • that discussion has been something quotes, at best. While these events have been talked about in class, most students feel like they've been talked to rather than with. They don't feel like they've been given a voice, and many of them are frustrated that they don't know how they should deal with problems like this on their own.
  • timeliness is a factor. One frustration that they've expressed is that when it has been addressed, it has been days or even a week after, and that disappoints them
  • there's a fear that the same racist fears might be shared by faculty. As one student put it, "I had a faculty member talk about 'you people' to me. And you expect me to take the university's commitment to stopping racist behavior?"
Hearing these things has been a lot of unpleasant food for thought for me. In the next meeting I'm attending, I'm going to push even more for some speedy interim actions to be taken, particularly actions that give students an entry into the discussion. We've forgotten, I think, that this generation of helicopter-parented kids.

They want input and direction. They're used to participation. Of course, they're going to require a different mechanism for dealing with crisis.

And so it is up to us to plan accordingly.


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