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Alleged racism at Yale, University of Missouri: Are colleges taking it seriously?

Two universities have been roiled by alleged racist incidents that students of color say speak to a larger problem of racism on the campuses and in the culture.

Today, the University of Missouri president stepped down in response to mounting pressure, including the football team’s refusal to play while he remained in office and the student government's demand for his resignation. Critics said President Tim Wolfe ignored or downplayed racism on the Columbia, Mo., campus and was slow to respond to the growing outrage of students and faculty.

“I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred,” said Wolfe.

Minority students have been citing overt acts of racism at the Missouri flagship; the president of the students’ association reported two occasions when racial slurs were screamed at him. When Missouri Students Association President Payton Head shared those moments online in September, the floodgates opened and others shared their experiences.

As the Columbia Missourian reported :

 "I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society," Head wrote. "For those of you who wonder why I'm always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it's because I've experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here."

In his post, Head mentioned aggression against a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, a transgender student who was spat on downtown and students with disabilities trying to navigate Memorial Union. He talked about women who feel uncomfortable walking outside at night. In both the post and the interview, he described his experience walking past a bar with his partner and having drinks thrown at them.

One of those who responded to Head's comments was Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism. She wrote on Facebook about her own experiences with racism, including this:

My most recent experience was while jogging on Route K in May of 2015 when I was approached by a white man in a white truck with a Confederate flag very visible and proudly displayed. He leaned out his window (now, keep in mind I run against traffic, so his behavior was a blatant sign that something was about to happen). Not only did he spit at me, he called me the n-word and gave me the finger.

In New Haven, Conn., Yale University is grappling with student accounts of overt racist acts, some related to social settings. In one alleged incident, disputed by fraternity leaders, a student says women of color were rebuffed from entering a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party by someone saying the event was “white girls only.”

That incident led other students to contend the Ivy League campus is unaware or unconcerned with the challenges underrepresented minorities face. A series of protests led Yale President Peter Salovey to meet with students to discuss their experiences.

Afterward, Salovey told the Yale Daily News, “I would say that to have about 50 minority students in a room with me saying to me that their experience was not what they hoped it would be, I take personal responsibility for that and I consider it a failure.”

There is a good column in the Yale Daily News by senior Rachel Wilkinson on being an African-American woman at Yale.

Here is an excerpt but please try to read her full piece:

My status as a Yale student hasn’t protected me from racist behavior on this campus, and my Yale degree won’t protect me from racism in whatever office I work in or neighborhood I live in after graduation. One of the most important lessons I learned in my time at Yale is that systems of oppression are ubiquitous, and that no combination of good intentions and advanced education will ever make someone immune from the tendency to perpetuate racial biases. As author Junot Díaz once said, “White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.