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College Notebook: Nationwide, students target racial inequality

By Mia Edelstein

Section: News

December 4, 2015

A new civil rights movement is finding its place on college campuses across the country as students of color, specifically black students, demand recognition and representation from their schools.

Students are forcing their campuses to confront histories of racial injustice and structural oppression through lists of demands to college administrators, protests and building occupations.

The University of Missouri, informally known as Mizzou, set the stage for the subsequent campus activism after a group called Concerned Student 1950 released a list of demands to the university, held campuswide protests and ultimately forced the resignation of President Tim Wolfe in November. The hunger strike by a black graduate student at the University of Missouri spurred the football team to threaten to boycott their next game—a move that would have cost the university $1 million—if the president did not step down.

According to TheDemands.org, more than 60 colleges have announced demands that address systemic racial bias on campuses, although they have not been confined to the past few weeks, as some demands were compiled earlier this year. While each list of demands is unique to the climate that protests have identified at their school, many share themes. Two of the most prevalent demands involved increasing the percentage of black students and faculty on campuses. Another demand that appeared on many schools’ lists was adding therapists of color to counseling centers in order to provide culturally relevant support to students. A number of schools among those on The Demands do not have a black, African or Caribbean studies department, and were therefore demanded at many universities. Demands also addressed concerns of physical safety on campus for black students, specifically issues of campus policing.

At the Amherst College sit-in, like at other schools, students spoke up to tell their stories of racism and oppression, according to Amherst Uprising, the campus’ movement organizers. During the four-day occupation from Nov. 12-15, protesters’ testimonies expressed the daily pain and burden of being black on and off campus, according to Amherst President Biddy Martin. Exceptional to Amherst, students there were vocal about replacing the college’s mascot, the extension of a long history of objection to Lord Jeff. The town’s namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst propagated germ warfare against Native Americans during the Colonial Era. The New York Times reported that the sit-in ended after Martin responded to Amherst Uprising’s demands and pledged to “hire a chief diversity officer, increase the number of faculty members from minority groups, tailor mental health services to students of color and train staff in ‘cultural competency.’”

Students at Occidental College in Los Angeles occupied an administrative building from Nov. 16-20 following protests the week before, according to The Los Angeles Times. Calling themselves Oxy United for Black Liberation, protestors handed 14 demands to school officials, including the creation of a Black Studies department, and the administration responded with an action plan on Thursday, Nov. 19, “including additional funding for the chief diversity officer, providing more resources and support for students of color, and creating a Black Studies program,” according to Occidental’s website. Student protesters called for the president’s resignation, but he remains employed at the college and has the full support of the Board of Trustees, according to the school’s website.

Also in southern California, Claremont McKenna College students forced the resignation of their dean of students on Thursday, Nov. 12. Claremont students sent demands to President Hiram Chodosh in April of 2015, highlighting the alienation and dismissal they face at the hands of students and university employees every day. Protests and hunger strikes ensued on campus after word got out that Dean of Students Mary Spellman characterized a low-income Latina student as not fitting the “CMC mold,” according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to having received Spellman’s resignation, the campus will also see the hiring of diversity and inclusion staff members in the student affairs and academic offices. Despite that protesters called off the demonstrations and hunger strike, Claremont McKenna students assert that they are not satisfied and will continue to press for institutional change.

Movements in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri have swept the nation and even beyond, with the Universities of Toronto and Ottawa also releasing demands for racial justice. Calls for equality and recognition of injustices are propelling campus dialogue forward and addressing issues that administrations have ignored for generations.

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