Black students say universities must go beyond dialogue and take real action to bring substantial changes, including more faculty of color and more recruitment of black students.
College campuses around the nation, and now here in Washington, have been rocked in recent weeks by charges of persistent racism toward students of color.
In the most recent episode at Western Washington University last week, a spasm of violent images and profanity-laced threats were aimed at students of color and specifically at the school’s student-government president, who is African-American. The threats were posted anonymously on social media, and they were triggered by a suggestion that the school’s Viking mascot didn’t represent all students and should be re-examined.
For too long, black students say, universities have failed to address racism on campus — falling short on hiring black faculty, admitting too few black students, allowing faculty and other students to make subtle or overt racist comments without fear of retribution.
Now, in both Seattle and Bellingham, threats and racial taunts are forcing college administrators to ask if they are doing enough to address the issue.
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But students say these conversations will need to go further, and result in real action, to make a difference.
“It’s great to have race talks, and get people together, and have student input — but if you don’t see anything that changes the way this university functions, it’s really just fluff,” said Palca Shibale, a UW senior who helped lead a march that shut down rush-hour traffic in the University District on Nov. 12.
“That’s why you see student protests — not just here, but around the nation,” she said.
Faculty and administrators “like to tell us what we want to hear, to get us to quiet down,” said Uriah Powell, a junior studying public health at the University of Washington. But talk is not enough, she said: “We want this movement to stay prominent. We want to see legitimate change on this campus.”
In Bellingham, WWU students say the campus police response wasn’t swift or thorough enough when students were threatened by hate speech on social media. But on Friday, Western President Bruce Shepard pushed back against that characterization, releasing a detailed description of why and how he sought to ensure the campus, and individual students, were protected.
The social media posts included references to lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, and photos of guns and bullets. The threats were directed at all students of color, but also at specific students — especially Western’s student-body president, Belina Seare, and student Vice President for Diversity Abby Ramos.
The university suspended classes on Tuesday, the first time a higher-education institution in Washington has ever halted classes due to a threat on social media.
By Wednesday, campus police had consulted with the FBI in the investigation, and had served a warrant on social-media platform Yik Yak to try to find the perpetrators. Administrators have also pledged to redouble efforts to address the campus climate.
The Western incident follows one nine months earlier at the UW, where black students were called “apes” and booed as they marched past a fraternity house during a Black Lives Matter protest. The perpetrators were never found.
But that incident prompted UW President Ana Mari Cauce to launch an initiative on race and equity. The initiative is starting to take shape this fall and has included conversations with large groups about how the university should change.
Students “are anguished by some of the things that are going on around the country,” said Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of undergraduate and academic affairs, who is heading up the initiative. “And they are undaunted — they very much want to make this a ground-up initiative.”
Shibale, Powell and activist Dirir Abdullahi, who graduated with a UW degree in neurobiology in June, said they are reserving judgment on the initiative.
They want to see the UW hire more black professors, who make up only 2 percent of the faculty. They want the school to do a better job of recruiting black students, who make up about 3.5 percent of undergraduate enrollment at the UW Seattle campus. (About 4.7 percent of Washington’s college-age students, 18- to 22-year-olds, are black, according to U.S. census figures.)
They are dismayed by the practice of Washington schools buying furniture built at the state prisons. Because the criminal-justice system has meted out justice unevenly, they say, a disproportionate number of black men are incarcerated, in their view making the prisons a kind of system of slave labor.
And they want students of color to feel more at home taking classes in the lucrative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Shibale is majoring in microbiology and says she’s often one of the few black students in her classes.
The UW students say their college years have been shadowed by racism — sometimes subtle comments of the type called “microaggressions,” and sometimes more blatant examples, including professors who use racial expletives during lectures.
Meanwhile, social-media hate speech has become a fact of life; every time black activists march — whether it’s at school or in the community — Facebook, Twitter and Yik Yak explode with “extremely racist” comments, Powell said.
Despite Seattle’s reputation as a haven for liberal ideology, the UW students say racism is as bad here, or worse, as compared with anywhere else in the country.
“People think they can brush off experiences that happen to people of color in Seattle because it (racism) doesn’t exist here,” Shibale said, adding, “We’re not as liberal or progressive as people like to say we are … sometimes I prefer conservatives, because at least conservatives are upfront about their racism.”
She described the fight as exhausting and all-consuming.
“Part of white privilege is not being affected by racism, by what’s going on with Black Lives Matter,” she said. “It’s incredibly difficult, trying to juggle all these different aspects of yourself. We all have exams, we have to care for families, we have jobs. On top of that, we also have to be activists.”
Shibale predicts there will be more protests this academic year, and perhaps a new list of demands for the university. The protesters’ aim, she said, is to make people uncomfortable, “and if you’re uncomfortable, that’s good — you should be uncomfortable with the status quo.”
Still, she said she doesn’t know if it is possible to stamp out institutional racism.
“I don’t know if the system’s going to change,” she said. “We don’t want our unborn children to have to do what we’re doing. I hope it’s our moment, but I don’t know.”