Lessons From Mizzou

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 9: Jonathan Butler (c), a University of Missouri grad student who did a 7 day hunger strike listens along with founding members of the campus group, Concerned Student 1950, during a forum speaking to students on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. Students celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

When the University of Missouri was founded, slavery was not just an acceptable practice, it was the law. Slaves built the buildings of Mizzou, and in 1839, blacks were not allowed admittance. Mizzou wasn’t different than any other university at the time, where it was common knowledge the only place a black person could go for an education was at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). Much was the rest of the country and its wealth: built on the backs of Black Americans, but never for Black Americans.

In October, the students of Mizzou were protesting against that history, and an institution’s neglect in how it has continually persisted to marginalize its students of color. More than a hundred years after its inception, in 1950, did Mizzou allow its first black student to enroll. Several years ago, their black cultural center was vandalized, and no actions were done. When standing up for their rights during a homecoming parade, black student activists were not well received. The power of white-privilege over shadowing their own voices and demands, and the silence of a president who was watching all along.

A month went by, and the university’s president continued silence implied much. The magnitude of his inaction can be measured in weeks, in an activist’s hunger strike, and a football team’s refusal to suit-up until he step down from his position, thus threatening the university a $1 million loss per game. The sad thing is, you can measure how much black lives matter not by what they demand–or by the level in which they feel safe—but by how many dollars are at stake.

The students of Mizzou were not the first students of color to demand change. We’ve seen it on many occasions. The sit-in movement, the freedom riders, and the black power movement hail from students demanding institutions eradicate racist traditions. At my own Alma Mater, the black students shut down the library and demanded it be named after one of the great black scholars, a native of the school’s state: Massachusetts. That was in 1992, and to this day the building is named the W.E.B Dubois Library.

When we see students experiences being diminished, and when their sense of a safe space isn’t so safe anymore, we can say this ain’t a movement football players can squash with a strike, or that can be solved by a president’s resignation. Racism built Mizzou, as it did Yale, and many other institutions we value as sacred. The lessons from Mizzou is that if we don’t easily escape these legacies with the elimination of people in power, then how do we eradicate racism from institutions whose success was predicated on it?

What’s happening in Missouri is not only a characteristic of the campus, but to black students across the country attempting to navigate freely on predominantly white colleges, because they believed the world would not question their merits. They believed they could blend in. Maybe they did not consider all the questions they would have to answer to validate their identity, their presence, or their blackness. They did not put into consideration that white students would laugh at the idea of ‘Black-Studies,’ and the list goes on of all these things black people took for luxury, because white students can. 

I know if I could go back in time when I turned down the chance to go to Howard, the ‘mecca,’ and speak to my past self, I would have made different choices. I would have saved myself the trouble of four years of feeling othered, of the stares, and the feeling I was never good enough as is–black.

Mizzou hails from the state that chose not to honor Mike Brown, because he was not seen as worthy. One year later, students protesting at a homecoming parade were not deemed worthy, nor was a hunger strike. What was worthy, was the revenue a football team could bring in, and how such revenues were dependent upon black bodies.

It was black bodies that such a campus was founded on, or I should say the free labor of such bodies. Racial incidents are not uncommon on the campus, nor in the state, nor in this country. The fact that in 2015 black students feel as safe as the Little Rock Nine did, but that no one is willing to admit it, that should tell us the path we are treading on.

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