Update: How Not to Fight Campus Racism

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Boston College has been the subject of national attention the past week or so, following a pair of racist incidents and a subsequent walkout by students protesting what they call the administration’s years-long failure to directly confront racism on campus.

In the first of the two incidents, two Black Lives Matter signs on dorm room doors were defaced, made to read “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” In the second, a screenshot of a Snapchat was circulated online, showing a blackened sandwich with the caption “I like my steak and cheese like I like my slaves.”

Provost and dean of faculties David Quigley and vice president for student affairs Barb Jones released a statement acknowledging “several incidents of racist behavior,” and reaffirming that “Boston College condemns all acts of hate and is committed to holding any student who violates our standards accountable.” They report that a further investigation is ongoing. University spokesman Jack Dunn said the BC Police Department and the Office of Residential Life are aware of the events and are conducting that investigation.

But the mood of the walkout on October 18 was one of hurt, anger, and dissatisfaction with the administration’s response. Students shared their experiences of racism on campus: some recalled posters for Hispanic Heritage Month being defaced; others having their hair touched and played with; and others being subjected to racial slurs, and even being pelted with fried chicken. A student named Howard Huang asked, “How many times have we had to fight injustice at this Jesuit institution,” which then “just sends out a short-ass email and just calls it a day?”

Such sentiments aren’t new. For years, student groups such as Eradicate Boston College Racism have accused the administration of being indifferent or hostile to anti-racism movements, alleging that the administration prefers to characterize racist events as mere isolated incidents rather than as part of a pattern or indicative of the larger culture. In a 2014 letter to the administration, black students accused the school of being more interested in talking about “diversity” than in addressing concrete instances of racism. Students have also accused the administration of blocking protests by threatening disciplinary action if protests are not registered and approved. 

Racist individuals are a problem, but as people of color have said for decades, not the problem.

After a protest in 2015, Dunn stated, “The supposition that BC is an institutionally racist place is a difficult argument to make…I think it’s a false assumption, an unfair assumption, and impugns the integrity of so many good people on this campus who’ve joined this community precisely because they’re people of good will who oppose all elements of bigotry.” The administration’s statements regarding the most recent events are strikingly similar. Faculty member and former director of First Year Experience Rev. Joseph Marchese said, “What we’ve experienced is not general to the student body…Our students are not racist, and many of them understand that very nature of [BC] is to treat everyone with human dignity.”

Further demonstrations followed last Friday, when thousands of people joined a Silence Is Still Violence march through campus. Speaking to the crowd, student Aneeb Sheikh insisted that the heart of the issue is not individually racist students or administrators, but “the culture that allows racism to occur.” Akosua Achampong, president of the Undergraduate Government, listed demands for action that the university should take, such as “increasing the presence of faculty of color and LGBTQ+ faculty” as well as a campus climate survey to assess what remains to be done.

I am an alumna of Boston College, and all of this has a depressingly familiar feel; similar incidents were reported in my time as a student. But even more distressing is what seems like the administration’s continued pattern of reluctance in confronting such situations for what they are. A canned response, echoing previous canned responses, does nothing to address what Sheikh and many others believe to be a culture of racism on campus. Racist individuals are a problem, but as people of color have said for decades, not the problem. The problem is an environment that communicates that some people are “in,” while others are “out.”

Administrators, faculty, and students can have all good intentions yet still foster an environment in which racism is tolerated. At the starting point of last Friday’s Silence Is Still Violence rally, two signs depicting Uncle Sam with the message “I want you to love who you are / Don’t apologize for being white” were posted. Reports have surfaced of additional Black Lives Matter posters being defaced. Boston College doesn’t condone such acts. But it is not doing enough to examine the environment in which they continue to occur. 

Update: Jack Dunn, Boston College associate vice president for the office of university communications, responds to Regina Munch’s original post of October 26

Boston College issued a statement on the morning of October 16 to inform the BC community of what we had just learned, condemn the racist incidents that had taken place over the weekend and call for a thorough investigation by BC Police. On October 19, BC Provost David Quigley issued a letter to the entire BC community in which he described racism as America's original sin, condemned all acts of bigotry and called upon all BC faculty to address the issue of racism in their classrooms. That same day, VP for Student Affairs Barb Jones and Dean of Students Tom Mogan, sent a letter to the BC Community that directly addressed the campus incidents, "strongly affirmed the right of all students to live and study on a campus that is free from bias, discrimination and hate," and announced support for the Solidarity March that would take place on Oct 20.

Jones and Mogan, working with Student Government leaders, approved the March in which they, Quigley and I marched—alongside hundreds of BC faculty and staff—to show our united opposition to racism and to stand with those on campus who feel marginalized in any way. Unfortunately, Regina Munch's article did not mention any of these crucial details, all of which she would have easily obtained if she had taken the time to contact anyone from the BC administration.

In addition, instead of reaching out to me as University Spokesman for a quote, Regina cherry picked a line from our student newspaper from 2.5 years ago that omits the sentence "All of us at Boston College abhor racism in any form and will hold any student accountable who violates our standards."

We have great respect for Regina and for Commonweal. However we believe that both did a disservice to a University that is committed to fighting racism wherever it manifests itself, and to ensuring that its campus is welcoming and inclusive to all.

Regina Munch replies:

As David Quigley, Barb Jones, and Tom Mogan have done, condemning racist actions and conducting thorough investigations into such incidents are necessary and appropriate responses. In my article, I made clear that this was the administration’s stance when I quoted Quigley’s public statement: “Boston College condemns all acts of hate and is committed to holding any student who violates our standards accountable,” and I noted Dunn’s announcement of an investigation by BC police.

I was remiss not to mention that the October 20 march was approved and endorsed by the administration, that Quigley was in attendance, and that Jones and Mogan spoke at the event. But it should also be noted that Boston College President William Leahy has made no statement on the incidents or protests, and his silence has not gone unnoticed by the students who are seeking his support.

My point, however, is that it is not enough to denounce each event and punish each perpetrator without questioning the larger school environment in which these racist actions take place. A significant number of students of color report that they do not feel welcome on campus. How can BC become more welcoming to those students? I don’t have the answer to that, and I don’t blame the administration for being at somewhat of a loss in the face of this enormous problem. The Strategic Plan that Jones and Mogan mentioned in their statement can be a good step forward if undertaken in a spirit of honest self-reflection. I would also suggest listening to students, who have made their own recommendations.

Regina Munch is editorial assistant at Commonweal.

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