In the midst of publicized conversation about collegiate racial issues across the nation, Jackson’s own students took time away from preparing for final exams to have an open discussion about problems and solutions they see in their own city.
Union University hosted Lane College students and faculty members in a panel conversation about building bridges across racial barriers Tuesday night. Harvey Auditorium was packed with people from both schools.
Daryll Coleman, division chair of liberal studies at Lane College, and Mary Anne Poe, chair of the school of social work at Union University, were two faculty members among several who have been meeting to dialogue about racial issues that affect both campuses in recent months.
Poe said in her two decades as a resident of Jackson, she does not recall a time such a conversation has taken place between the two student bodies.
“As [faculty] met together, it just seemed like God spoke to us saying, ‘You’ve got the context of what’s happening in campuses across the nation,’” and this was an opportunity to hear the voices of students closer to home, Poe said.
Brandon Nathan, Darius Johnson, Tambra Brice and Brian Simmons represented Lane College while Nyree Smith, Chelsea Phillips, Emily Carter and Caleb Dahl represented Union University.
Students started the conversation by providing background information about the recent protests on the University of Missouri’s campus that served as a basis of the night’s discussion.
The conflict traces back to 2010 when two white students scattered cotton balls outside the Black Culture Center. August 2014, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, about 120 miles away from Columbia, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, launching the Black Lives Matter movement.
In September of this year, University of Missouri Student Government President Payton Head took to social media to broadcast his frustration with widespread bigotry on his campus. A few days later, R. Bowen Loftin, the school’s chancellor, issued a statement condemning incidents of discrimination.
Later that month, Missouri students began protesting administration, saying they had not properly addressed Head’s concerns. Oct. 4, a drunken white student disrupted the Legion of Black Collegians, using racial slurs. Four days later, Loftin ordered diversity and inclusion training for students and faculty in 2016.
During a homecoming parade, students began to block President Tim Wolfe’s car to voice their concerns, but he did not stop and later apologized for tapping a protester with his vehicle. Soon after this pivotal incident, the student group Concerned Student 1950—named for the first year African-American students were admitted to the university—issued a list of demands for administration, including Wolfe’s resignation. The list was not met with an immediate response, and protests continued.
Missouri student leader Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike early this month demanding Wolfe’s resignation, saying “Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction but in each scenario he failed to do so,” according to CNN.
Students stood behind Butler, and Nov. 8, black football players announced they would not practice or play until Wolfe was removed from his position. The Athletic Department, Coach Gary Pinkel and many white players supported the protest, and the following day, Wolfe ultimately announced his resignation.
While many hailed the events as a triumph of justice, Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science at Union, said what happened is complex, and there are elements of both sides he finds disturbing.
“The students feel so confident of their point of view that they are willing to shout others down,” Baker said. “If this is where we are learning to be citizens, it’s very bad for our republic.”
Universities should be places where conversation and discussion can happen even between sides that disagree without either opinion being excluded, Baker said. Wolfe, however, was ousted without any kind of review or analysis of his moral agency to prevent the situations protesters claimed he was responsible for.
Phillips said students at predominantly white institutions tend to dismiss such issues they see in the media, saying it doesn’t affect them. But that unawareness is part of the problem, she said. Smith, her classmate, agreed that it affects all college students, whether they realize it or not.
“We are a predominantly white institution, and in that situation as a minority student here or even as a majority student here, I think it has implications for conversations like these to happen,” Smith said.
Johnson said he once attended a predominantly white institution and often felt uncomfortable and even victimized. But when he transferred to Lane College, he gained a sense of confidence through learning with and from people who looked like him and had shared experiences.
Smith on the other hand, said she has enjoyed receiving her education at Union. Her father graduated from Lane College, but she decided to take a different route. She attends both schools’ homecoming festivities, and she believes each school has a unique place in the community.
“That’s not to say there isn’t racial tension [at Union],” Smith said. Both schools were established during a time in which conversations about unity would not happen, she added.
Some began to question whether or not labels like “predominantly white institution” and “Historically Black Colleges and Universities” should continue to exist.
Nathan said being black and seeking a proper education has become a problem all over the country – not just in Missouri.
“Education has no color,” he said. “I don’t think we should be separated by color. The one who has the desire should be given the opportunity.”
If conversations of this nature had been taking place on Missouri’s campus, Brice said she believes their story might have had a different ending.
Simmons agreed that racism and stereotypes exist, but it is important to set out to understand the other side’s perspective. He said offensive comments often come from a place of ignorance, but building relationships can lead to empathy instead.
Dahl jumped in to remind all participants that each school is a Christian establishment, and all should take that into consideration when dealing with issues of unity and diversity.
Nathan said standing on the principles of God is the way to move past racism and other societal issues.
“Every college, every church, every community should look like this room,” Nathan said. “We serve the same God—a God that sees our hearts and not our color.”
Emily Littleton contributed to this report.