In the two months since Andrew Smith left a noose in an elevator in Allen Hall, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus has experienced a rash of anti-black microassaults. Casual observation suggests that the use of racial slurs and the display of white nationalist and white supremacist symbols have increased significantly over the last couple years. This semester may be off to a record pace. Despite official pronouncements, I doubt the administration’s willingness to take the necessary steps to stem the escalation in anti-black hostility.
Since the end of the spring 2019 semester, I personally know of five or six anti-black racial incidents. In one case last spring, an African-American woman student had a dispute with a white male over a parking space, the next day she discovered racial and gender slurs spray painted on her car. I’ve also noticed an increased use of the N-word by white students.
While I ban its use in classroom discussions, heretofore, I have used it and permitted its use when quoting from a historical document. I have always been judicious in the presentation of documents in which the degrading term appears. I have reassessed and am reversing that practice.
Over the years, I’ve had students drop after I informed the class that I do not allow the use of any slurs whether racial, ethnic, gender or sexual orientation in the classroom. In one bizarre case, a white student asked my teaching assistant (TA) if he could use the N-word. The TA referred the inquiry to me. I addressed it in the next lecture. After I stated my policy, a black student challenged it. He argued for white students’ right to use anti-black epithets. Both dropped before the next class meeting.
This semester, I’ve had a student find ways to use four quotes in which that heinous fighting word appeared. I’ve also had a student approach me twice allegedly on behalf of a relative and a roommate who wondered why whites should not use the word.
I agree with student activists that the campus is experiencing an increase in racist incidents. Statistical data from the university’s Bias Assessment Response Team (BART) 2019 report confirms that we are in the midst of an upsurge. BART data reveals that bias incidents more than doubled in the five-year period from 2013 to 2018. In 2013-14 there were 62 incidents, which soared to 128 in 2017-18.
BART classifies bias incidents into nine categories, eight of which are singular, while one includes “multiple bias types.” Each year “Race/Ethnicity” led in the number of bias incidents.
The BART data has several weaknesses, however. First, due to underreporting, it undercounts the number of bias incidents. In 2016, during a similar spate of anti-black microassaults, a student who worked as a resident assistant (RA) informed me that every week, at least one anti-black incident occurred in the dorms and residence halls.
The RA only addressed racial hostility in housing. Black students, however, report experiencing routine microagrressions in the classroom by teaching assistants and faculty members. They also identify academic advisers and staff throughout campus. Additionally, they claim white students subject them to mircoassualts outside the dorms, residence halls and classrooms.
Second, unlike federal hate crime data, BART does not disaggregate its “Race/Ethnicity” category. Therefore, its impossible to state how many and what percentage of bias incidents are anti-black. This is curious because the university normally uses a more fine-grained method that distinguishes students, faculty and staff by race and ethnicity.
Third, all of the BART team are administrators, almost all are white, and none appear to be scholars of race or another form of bias.
However, my skepticism transcends the deliberate limitations of BART. I am disturbed by the response to anti-black hate speech (the noose) in comparison to the administration’s response to the misguided allegations of anti-Semitism. The reaction to the noose lacked the swiftness, decisiveness and indignation of the false accusation of anti-Semitism hurled against students fighting against racial oppression and for the liberation of the Palestinian people.
From the top down, University of Illinois administrators are committed to a liberal concept of free speech that tolerates and even encourages hate speech. In fact, they reject such a concept. But more importantly, racists know that unless they physically assault someone, the only discipline the university is willing to mete out is an apology, an “educational conversation,” mediation and participation in a “restorative justice circle.”
Racist incidents will continue to escalate on campus until administrators are willing to punish the perpetrators. And the truth is, given the current composition of the Board of Trustees and the current system president, no UI Chancellor will act to seriously curtail incidents of anti-black racism.
The key to ending the racist incidents that plague the campus lies in the hands of those who suffer most from the racist climate. Black students routinely complain to each other and to black faculty about the abusive environment they endure. The racist climate will not change of its own volition, and campus administrators will not voluntarily act to transform it.
Frederick Douglass proscribed the solution more than 160 years ago, when he declared, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”