How could there be a concerted effort to fire a university president over a mere handful of overtly racist incidents? In a multi-century system of white supremacy and racial apartheid, some ugly residue remains and will spill out occasionally. That is just life in America. A few imbibed fraternity brothers shouting the N-word should be confronted and condemned, not the university leadership. One incident of swastika feces smear does not a crisis make.
This narrow emphasis on a handful of egregious and outlandish racist violations eschews deeper issues of systematic racism and regularly hostile environment faced by students of color at Mizzou and university campuses nationwide. Indeed, this is a reoccurring theme in how white people generally view racism – as episodic, individualized acts from “bad” white people usually involving the N-word – not as more entrenched, system-wide concerns with enduring disparities and systemic discrimination in everything from housing and employment to education and criminal justice. It is a game of technicalities, never about the uneven structuring and privileges of the game itself. To be labeled a “racist” is viewed as much worse than participating in a system that broadly advantages certain groups over others.
That type of old-school Jim-Crow style racism, centering on the biological inferiority of Blacks, still exists to some degree, but is now roundly derided and easily criticized. In current times, racism is not as loud nor gauche. It is casual, “stealthy” and structural racism that remains much more pernicious. The type of covert racism and accompanying historical ignorance that largely goes over the head of white naivety. It is now socially unacceptable to refer to Black people as subhuman n*****s. Even the most ardent white supremacist has received that memo, and we certainly see fewer of those types of overtly racist displays. KKK cross-burnings are winning fewer friends in the 21st Century. However, it is not that racism and broader systems of white advantage have ceased to exist entirely. It has merely evolved. It is this inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and address the festering wounds of historic inequities and nuances of contemporary racial discrimination that ultimately led to President Wolfe’s resignation.
In recent decades, the N-word and focus on biological inferiority has been replaced in many ways by unflattering stereotypes concerning the work ethic, shiftlessness, and intrinsic criminality and “pathology” of Black people. Racial degradation is consistently felt in these subtler alternative forms. It is when a Black student enters the student center common area and hears that “she is just here for the welfare TV.” It is when white passersby clutch their belongings tightly in the presence of Black male students. It is when the white medical and law students wonder if the minority students are there because of affirmative action and unmerited racial preferences. It is when Black students are singled out as having special insight about crime and deviance in criminal justice classes. It is when Black students are followed more closely in the university bookstore than their white counterparts. It is in the exclusionary tendencies of fraternity culture that caters largely to privileged white clientele in cloistered social circles. It’s when minority students hear white partygoers whispering about who is “supposed to be there.” It is when Black students rarely see professors that look like them due to lack of diversity in faculty hiring. These more subtle forms of racial animus have tentacles woven deeply throughout society and are much more pervasive beyond a handful of townsfolk shouting racial epithets.
Persistent negative stereotyping is coupled with (and in many ways informed by) an inability or unwillingness among many whites to take a full, honest accounting of our racial history and the systemic inequalities that continue into modern times. Put simply, there is a lack of basic historical understanding, racial awareness and cultural competence. Recently, when Concerned Citizen 1950 activists confronted President Wolfe and asked for his definition of “systemic oppression”, he could not articulate a clear response. I think there is an argument to be made that one should probably not be president of a world-class university system with those types of cultural blinders.
He couldn’t immediately speak to a legacy of segregation and social isolation. He couldn’t speak to deindustrialization and exodus of secure, high-wage jobs. He couldn’t speak to the ways in which the federal government crafted white-only suburbs and fostered home ownership among white-only families following WWII. He couldn’t speak to the centuries-long accumulation of wealth, inheritance, and industry connections at the expense of minority populations. He couldn’t speak to “legacy admissions” showing deference to alumni applications and elite donors. He couldn’t speak to a racialized war on drugs, mass incarceration, and broader discrimination in the criminal justice system. He couldn’t speak to continued discrimination in the housing and labor markets. None of this seemed to be on his radar, at least in terms of agenda setting and issue priorities as university leader. I think that exposes the fundamental divide. Many people, including President Wolfe, might be able to acknowledge that racial disparities and discriminatory practices exist on some level, but are relatively indifferent toward the issue and don’t want to be bothered. Conversely, there are those who desire to actively correct these continued inequalities and disparities, and view comfort with the status quo as emboldening rather than extinguishing systems of white advantage. To not fight back is to acquiesce and tacitly accept unequal treatment.
While many appear baffled that activists would demand resignation, if you have read through the concerns of the protesters, I think the motivation becomes clearer. Wolfe was perceived (fairly or unfairly) as being indifferent and callous toward the concerns of minority students on the Mizzou campus. That indifference and inaction is perceived (fairly or unfairly) by the protesters as engendering the status quo of white supremacy instead of actively standing up against recent incidents and racial injustice more generally. Wolfe came across as being tone deaf to the very real concerns and experiences of the minority students on campus, and they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a change in university leadership at the top is necessary in order to advance racial justice issues.
I don’t know if demanding the king’s head was “right” or the best move (I don’t know if there is a single “right” move or how we could even make such an assertion with any confidence). Direct action by its very nature is sloppy and lacks crisp algorithms. Maybe it wasn’t Wolfe’s place to take action, and perhaps it wasn’t the place of the protesters to demand that awareness and action from top leadership. Perhaps more of the ire should have been directed toward the Mizzou Chancellor or Provost, who have more intimate association with the daily functioning of UM campuses. Perhaps the Mizzou football team should not have flexed their economic muscle and threatened to cease football activities. Reasonable people can disagree with the tactics and appropriate intensity or magnitude of specific protest activities and ultimatums. Youngish students rarely get it right the first time and there is a learning curve for everyone involved here. However, the racial justice issues raised by Concerned Student 1950 are real and enduring and warrant sustained attention. To dismiss those concerns as “P.C.” or “campus fascism” is to miss the big picture entirely. Ultimately, this was and remains an opportunity for the university leadership to address endemic and systemic issues across the totality of campus life, not a handful of fraternity brothers screaming the N-word.