Many black students at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus say racial tensions were already woven into the fabric of life at the state system’s flagship campus, well before the recent racially charged episodes.
COLUMBIA, Mo. — At first, Briana Gray chalked up the comments and questions from her new roommate at the University of Missouri to innocent ignorance: How do you style your hair? What do you put in it?
But then her white roommate from rural Missouri started playing a rap song with a racial slur and singing the slur loudly, recalled Gray, a black senior from suburban Chicago. Another time, the roommate wondered whether black people had greasy skin because slaves were forced to sweat a lot.
Then, Gray said, she found a picture tacked to her door of what appeared to be a black woman being lynched. When her roommate said a friend had done it as a joke, Gray said she attacked the girl and her friends. Police broke up the fight, and no one was arrested. But Gray said her view on race relations had been changed.
A handful of racially charged episodes on the Missouri campus this fall, including someone smearing a swastika on a wall with feces, have touched off protests, a hunger strike, the threat of a boycott by the football team and, Monday, the resignation of the university system’s president and the chancellor of the Columbia campus. Similar protests erupted Wednesday at other colleges nationwide.
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But well before those events, many black students say racial tensions were already woven into the fabric of life at Columbia, the state system’s flagship campus.
Some black students say they are greeted with stares when they walk by white-dominated fraternity and sorority houses. Others mention feeling awkward when other students turn to them in class when discussion turns to black issues. And there are the tenser moments when white students talk disparagingly about the neighborhoods where many black students come from, whether the South Side of Chicago or the North Side of St. Louis.
“It can be exhausting when people are making assumptions about you based on your skin color,” said Symone Lenoir, 23, a black senior in interdisciplinary studies. “It can be exhausting feeling like you’re speaking for your entire race.”
That uneasiness spread Wednesday after threats to black students were posted anonymously on the social-media site Yik Yak. An author of one post threatened to “shoot every black person I see.”
On Wednesday, police arrested Hunter Park, 19, a white sophomore at a sister campus in Rolla, about 90 miles from Columbia. Park, a computer-science major at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, was booked on a preliminary charge of suspicion of making a terrorist threat. Later Wednesday, police at another college, Northwest Missouri State University, arrested a white student on charges of making threats against black students on Yik Yak.
Missouri has faced distinct challenges in overcoming racial divisions. With Kansas City to the west and St. Louis to the east, the state has two urban hubs that account for most of the state’s black residents, about 12 percent of the population. The rest of the state is overwhelmingly rural and white.
Blacks and whites are underrepresented at the university compared with the demographics of the entire state. Eight percent of students are black, while nearly 80 percent are white, compared with about 84 percent of the state.
Educational outcomes have also not always been equal. While about 83 percent of black freshmen return for sophomore year, nearly 88 percent of whites and 94 percent of Asians do. Black students have the lowest graduation rate of all races, less than 55 percent, compared with 71 percent for whites.
It is not just black students who complain of cultural isolation. “I can absolutely see why some students would feel uncomfortable on campus, because as a student coming from a small rural community, I’ve felt like I didn’t belong on this campus,” said Lauren Reagan, a white senior from Jonesburg, a town of about 745 people in eastern Missouri.
Ian Paris, the head of the university’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group, described a confrontation when he was signing up students to support Sen. Rand Paul in a campus plaza. A group of activists protesting the administration’s handling of racial tensions came onto the plaza shouting its message through a megaphone.
When Paris complained to a friend about the activists, one of the demonstrators overheard him and told his group to “take their white privilege and leave,” Paris said. A loud argument ensued.
“You can’t just have one side of the conversation,” said Paris, 21, a senior, who on Wednesday erected what he called a “free-speech wall” on campus for people to write their opinions. “I’ve had students tell me that they’re afraid to express their opinion because they are afraid they’ll be criticized.”
Like several other black students, Chris Williams, of Chicago, said he decided to attend Missouri because he had received a scholarship for minority students. He said he came to campus hoping to make friends of other races. But students, black and white, said the campus was segregated. In the student center, people refer to an area where mostly black students sit as “the black hole.”
Racial divisions were sometimes unwittingly reinforced in conversations with white friends, Williams said. He recalled a conversation freshman year when three dorm mates talked about the houseboats their families owned.
Williams and other black students said hiring more minority faculty members would help improve racial understanding. About three of four faculty members on the campus are white; about 3 percent are black.