Over the past few weeks, Black-led student protests have disrupted business as usual on dozens of US college campuses, with tactics ranging from sit-ins and vigils to hunger strikes and mass rallies. Much of this activity occurred under the banner of the hashtag #StudentBlackOut. Triggered by events at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), where students mobilized in response to several racist incidents, including a swastika written in feces on a bathroom wall, Black students and supporters across the country have rallied to demand change.
Protesting students are fed up with duplicitous campus cultures that tout diversity and tolerate pervasive racism.
On most campuses, there was a specific incident that sparked protests, but the real issues are much broader and ongoing. The protesting students are not simply angered by a single incident or racial epithet; they are fed up with duplicitous campus cultures that tout diversity and tolerate pervasive racist practices, symbols and policies. Many of the protests revolved around the issue of hostile or inhospitable campus climates, but some demands have gone further.
While every historical moment is unique, this wave of anti-racist campus protests is reminiscent of past struggles in its focus on points of connection between campus and community issues. The wide range of tactics and organizations involved in the current protests is also reminiscent of past student struggles, as is the backlash that students are facing from conservatives and liberals alike – a backlash that attempts to trivialize student complaints and derail organizing efforts.
Black student struggles historically have had deep roots and strong ties to movements beyond the campus. In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized students to leave school and work full-time in the Southern-based Black freedom movement alongside maids, sharecroppers and local griots who taught them more about race, politics and justice than they could have possibly learned in their classrooms. At Columbia University in 1968, in the 1980s anti-apartheid struggle there, and in the more recent successful prison divestment campaign, students linked with community organizers around access to resources, racial profiling of Black people in the neighborhood (and Black students), as well as unethical and racist investment practices.
Yale students too have been linked to a broader set of issues. They have been involved in a prolonged and intense struggle over racial profiling and a hostile campus climate. What is significant here is the intimate connection between community grievances, racist policing and the Black student experience. For example, while much attention has been given to the fact that students took offense at two professors’ defense of racist Halloween costumes, the real day-to-day issues are much deeper. Remember in January 2015, African-American Yale student Tahj Blow, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, was detained at gunpoint after leaving the library because he “looked like a burglary suspect.” It’s not a trivial event, and this type of profiling is all too common.
Black-led, campus-based struggles have never been isolated to the campus or solely focused on students.
Black-led, campus-based struggles have never been isolated to the campus or solely focused on students. It is no coincidence that many of the Mizzou student activists are from St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, and were influenced by the sustained and militant protests following the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August 2014. In general, this wave of protests is linked to the growing Black Lives Matter movement. Some students have taken up chants from the Black Lives Matter movement. Signs at some of the campus vigils echoed the quote by Black political exile Assata Shakur, first popularized by organizers in the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100): “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The demands of contemporary student activists are diverse but again, they are not all student-centered. The Black Liberation Collective, a new coalition that helped to coordinate this recent wave of campus actions, is calling for universities to adopt ethical and anti-racist investment policies by “divesting from prisons and investing in communities.” As part of this collective, activists at the University of Toronto have called for divestment from the US for-profit prison industry. Washington University students are demanding that the university “widen the pipeline to higher education for local K-12 students, many of whom attend schools with under-resourced college prep programs.” At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, student protesters are calling for the university to immediately institute a policy of a $15 per hour minimum wage and support the unionization of all campus workers, a link to labor and the growing Fight for $15 campaign.
Black student activism has a long history in the United States, and contemporary struggles rest squarely in this tradition. It is the militant and sustained Black-led campaigns at campuses like San Francisco State, Howard University, Harvard, UCLA and CUNY that led to the formation of Black studies, African American studies and Africana studies programs and departments across the country. This movement is outlined in historian Martha Biondi’s 2012 book, The Black Revolution on Campus. The campus struggles of the 1960s and 1970s were inextricably linked to the broader Black freedom movement, as students demanded an end to nearby neighborhood segregation, opposed the war in Vietnam and brought national organizers onto campus for rallies, teach-ins and debates. In the 1980s and 1990s, Black students allied with campus workers, tenants organizations and groups opposed to university gentrification.
Creative tactics are the hallmark of student protests. Students camped out in tents on the Mizzou campus to draw attention to their concerns. This echoed the anti-apartheid shanties built in solidarity with township dwellers in South Africa that marked hundreds of campus quads in the 1980s. These visual statements make the issues at hand hard to ignore. The longstanding tactic of building and office takeovers has also been employed by contemporary activists at Princeton, Towson and Virginia Commonwealth University. What does this accomplish? It disrupts business as usual, refuses to allow racism to remain routine and directs demands for change at top administrators, rather than focusing on the individual behavior of white students. Rallies and marches are also still a favored tactic. So, while 21st century organizers rely on social media and other technologies not available decades before, it still appears to be mass collective action and putting bodies on the line that galvanize campus movements, past and present.
Any movement that makes an impact will experience a pushback. Not surprisingly, contemporary student activists have suffered a sharp backlash from various quarters. Donald Trump labeled the Mizzou students’ efforts as “disgusting.” Some social media and mainstream media responses have belittled student grievances and maligned the students as pampered, entitled and petty. Some student leaders have even received death threats.
But it is supposedly liberal critics that have been some of the most vocal. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, 1960s activist Todd Gitlin maligns Black student leaders as whiners who lack confidence in their ability to counter offensive ideas and want protection from their elders. He counsels more courage and independence. He obviously does not know the 2015 youth leaders that I have witnessed close up. They are sharp and fearless. The fact that they are willing to expose both blatant and subtle forms of racism is a strength, not a weakness. They are unveiling the postracial myth that pervades so many liberal circles by rooting out old- and new-style racism.
The other liberal critique of Black student campaigns centers on the issue of free speech. Every institution has stated and unstated rules about the values and protocol that define it. Many of those rules and protocols sometimes deserve to be broken. However, it is significant that while students and faculty are expected to adhere to a set of practices that facilitate the smooth functioning of the university (not my rules, mind you), it is when racist behavior is involved that free speech becomes an absolute. While I don’t support “speech codes,” the reality is that we are all responsible for the implications of what we say, and speech never occurs in a vacuum. It is also important to historicize racial slurs and mocking and degrading jokes – the types of speech uttered by rowdy lynch mobs as they conjured the collective spirit to do serious damage to Black bodies. That reality is not so far removed from today.
From the Black Lives Matter movement and its dozen or so constituent organizations and campaigns, to the increasingly coordinated Black-led protests on college campuses, we are seeing a resurgent challenge to racism and white supremacy at a historic juncture when the violence of a crushing student debt is forcing many Black working- and middle-class students out of college altogether, and rampant state violence is threatening the very survival of others. It is also a moment that is defined by hundreds of thousands of Black people under the control of the prison industry, declining quality of Black life for the majority of Black people (Black millionaires and elected officials notwithstanding), rising inequality overall, intensified surveillance under the rubric of anti-terrorism, and increased racism and xenophobia from pundits and political candidates alike. Black youth (not only students) are pushing back and finding their collective voice. We are witnessing a growing movement with varied demands and tactics – a movement that, if sustained, holds the promise of realizing a more hopeful future.
Acknowledgement: I want to thank Deana Lewis and Martha Biondi for contributing to this essay.