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Why College Students Are Challenging Their Own Schools in the Fight Against White Supremacy

Despite right-wing backlash, a powerful movement is challenging racism on the University of Michigan campus.

Students4Justice activists hold bullhorns during a walkout and rally at the University of Michigan in September. Students4Justice mobilized after a spate of racist incidents on campus. (Photo courtesy Benji Bear Photograpy)

Two former University of Michigan professors filed a lawsuit against the school last week, alleging that they were illegally discriminated against and lost their jobs in retaliation for challenging structural patterns of discrimination and exclusion that pervade the institution. The lawsuit also claims that the school’s well-publicized “diversity” campaigns are designed to deflect attention away from entrenched racism and a learning environment that’s hostile for people of color. For junior Vikrant Garg, an activist of color who was recently harangued in the right-wing media for organizing in response to acts of hate and racism on campus, the lawsuit brings a much-needed sense of validation.

“It really frames how pervasive the things we really want to change are,” Garg told Truthout.

Last fall, racist and “alt-right” flyers appeared on campus, including a poster warning white women against dating Black men, citing a barrage of racist myths, including that “your kids probably wouldn’t be smart.” More recently, a hacker entered a professor’s email account and sent students threatening messages that read: “Hi n*****s, I just wanted to say that I plan to kill all of you. White power! The KKK has returned!!! Heil Trump!!!!” The incidents followed a national wave of racially charged attacks and provocations from alt-right and white supremacist groups emboldened by the rise of President Trump to the White House. Many of these incidents have occurred on college campuses across the country.

“It was kind of a breaking point,” Garg said. “You [already] experience a lot as a person of color on campus, just within daily interaction.”

Garg and other students of color decided to organize a group called Students4Justice. Disappointed by the university administration’s milquetoast response to the racist flyers, including a statement about defending an “individual’s right to free speech” but also maintaining an “environment that is free of harassment,” the activists mobilized a movement that would challenge the structural racism at the university’s core. They held large rallies and sit-ins, petitioning administrators to improve curriculums and educational conditions. The blowback spread far beyond the majority-white university as the alt-right and white supremacist groups attacked the student activists online.

In early February — as campus police were looking for an individual who urinated on prayer mats used by Muslim students in the school library — Students4Justice staged a sit-in and submitted a list of demands to administrators. The list included concrete proposals for responding to incidents of hate and bias, such as hiring more faculty of color to support marginalized students and shifting academic requirements around “diversity” towards honest examinations of race and power in the United States. The activists also want broader access to scholarships for students of color at a school where only 4 percent of students are Black and another 4 percent identify as Latino or Hispanic.

Students4Justice’s demands are centered on students of color, but by improving curriculums and the learning environment, the school could become better for everyone. The movement is not confined to Michigan. Black and Brown students across the country are demanding better access to higher education and safer spaces to organize on campus. Racial justice groups at 80 colleges and universities have issued their own lists of demands to administrators calling for an end to systemic racism, according to, a website that catalogues such efforts. This is a direct challenge to white power in academia, making these activists favorite targets of reactionaries and the right-wing media.

A Right-Wing Backlash Clouds the Media

Jewish and Muslim students, along with students of color and LGBTQ students, felt the administration’s minimal response to the growing number of hateful incidents on campus signaled that the University of Michigan is more concerned about protecting free speech than their safety. Therefore, in its list, Students4Justice demanded that students engaging in “oppressive speech” be sanctioned for academic misconduct. Debates over hate speech and freedom of expression have raged on college campuses for decades, so one might expect this proposal to be controversial. Instead, critics latched onto a different demand on the list — the establishment of a designated space for students of color to do social justice work.

The demand says nothing about an outright ban on white students in such a space, but a writer for the Michigan Review, a campus paper known for hosting student debate, questioned whether Students4Justice was effectively demanding a “segregated space” on campus. A few conservative outlets picked up the idea, running headlines declaring that Students4Justice had demanded “segregation” and a “nonwhites only space.” Soon the “story” was ricocheting across the alt-right blogosphere. Twitter lit up with tweets from white conservatives who couldn’t get enough of the apparent hypocrisy:

Even Sarah Palin chimed in:

Spencer Sunshine, a Truthout contributor and associate researcher at Political Research Associates who tracks white supremacist and far right groups, said the right wing in the US has long been “fixated” on racial justice activism on college campuses because it sees higher education as a hotbed of “Communist brainwashing.” The emergence of the racist alt-right and its army of online trolls has made this trend much more visible, as members eagerly attempt to recruit on campuses.

“The alt-right organizes specifically in opposition to them: They both attack any expression of identity politics by oppressed people, often in crudely racist and misogynist terms, while simultaneously claiming that their own views are a form of identity politics for white people,” Sunshine said. “The alt-right in particular hopes to recruit college-age whites — especially men — into their movement.”

The conservative media’s reactionary fits shaped mainstream coverage of the racism at University of Michigan. Suddenly, the news was not about students fighting for a better curriculum and their right to a safe education, or even a campus debate over free speech, but whether Students4Justice’s demand that the university provide an organizing space for students of color was the product of “reverse racism” against white students attending an overwhelmingly white university.

“Nobody has tried to capture the whole scope,” said Students4Justice member Lakyrra Magee.

The activists’ vision was lost in much of the media storm, and the results have been ugly. Garg and Magee said Students4Justice organizers have been harassed by conservative activists, both online and in person, and even received emails warning them that white activists were planning to disrupt their meetings.

On the Hook for Unpaid Labor

Fierce debates over race and privilege are common on university campuses, and the University of Michigan is certainly not the first place where tensions have boiled over. Higher education is expensive, and for some students, college is the first place where they are made to live, work and study with people from very different backgrounds than their own.

In 2014, about 60 percent of University of Michigan students came from families with annual incomes over $100,000, and 30 percent came from families with incomes over $200,000, according to the professors’ lawsuit against the university. Only 4 percent came from the category the school terms “low socioeconomic status.” One of the professors, Scott Kurashige, is one of 20 faculty members of color who have left or been forced out of the relatively small Department of American Culture over the past decade.

The university has developed a “five-year, strategic diversity plan” and appointed Robert Sellers, the school’s former vice provost, as its first “chief diversity officer,” according to university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald. Under Sellers, the university has made it easier for students to report “bias incidents” to authorities. The school is also training “student leaders” to administer an “intercultural development assessment” of incoming student’s “ability to shift cultural perspective” and “adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities,” according to the university’s website. First-year students already participate in programs designed to improve their “ability to live and learn in a diverse environment,” and the school is researching initiatives around “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Fitzgerald said the university has long had “dedicated professionals working on diversity matters,” but critics say marginalized students are still doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to educating their peers about “cultural differences” and “living in a diverse environment.” Earlier this year, the union representing graduate students requested that the university create paid positions in each department to help roll out the diversity initiative, but administrators balked, and the proposal was dropped from negotiations, suggesting to activists that the administration’s efforts are less than genuine.

Austin McCoy, a postdoctoral fellow who teaches US history at the University of Michigan, said the school’s diversity initiatives “set a tone” for the type of environment that “everyone wants,” but there’s a gap between the administration’s policy and the faculty and staff who are called to implement it. That’s why top-down diversity programs do little to prevent day-to-day incidents of racism, such as unconscious but offensive comments sometimes called “microaggressions.”

“There isn’t anything wrong with asking folks to help improve their environment, but what happens is that marginalized students and people of color end up taking on a disproportionate amount of this labor, while other students aren’t asked to do anything,” McCoy said. “It almost becomes another job.”

Garg and Magee said that, even in classrooms, professors will “literally look at you” when discussing topics that concern a particular student’s minority race or identity.

Magee said white students might leave an intercultural forum or class exercise thinking, “Wow, I learned so much,” but students of color, who are expected to share with their peers what it’s like to be discriminated against, for example, leave feeling drained and exhausted. It’s difficult work because academia encourages students to “challenge the idea, not the person,” a notion that nurtures white fragility and leaves white power unchallenged. Many white students and faculty feel entitled to this form of labor from marginalized students, and if you deny them, Magee said, they will complain that they are “only trying to learn.”

“We are pushing the administration and pushing the university to acknowledge this often free labor, with students of marginalized identities doing the work of educating people with privilege,” said Magee, who added that “it’s not our jobs to teach.”

Even top school officials acknowledge that student activism has a long history of creating positive change at the University of Michigan, so, activists say, if it’s up to students of color to forge social progress and “intercultural” harmony, then the least the university can do is give them some resources to do that work. That’s one of the big reasons why Students4Justice has demanded a social justice space for students of color. Conservative critics point out that the university is already building a $10 million multicultural center, but Students4Justice emphasize that they want a separate space that puts a specific emphasis on students of color.

“Why should all activities for people of color be relegated to one building?” Garg said.

McCoy said the idea is far from unprecedented and was not always so controversial. A similar center has already existed with university support, only to fade as staff moved on to other projects. That center, the Ella Baker-Nelson Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education, was founded back in 1988, and McCoy began talks about reviving it as a graduate student in 2014, before alt-right propaganda about “self-segregation” and “special snowflakes” began making headlines. Students4Justice has already found a location for a new center, all they need now is some support from the university.

“We don’t have enough resources at all, and this is one opportunity to provide those resources to the students who want to do this work,” McCoy said.

Magee said students of color need a place of their own to organize, along with forums to air their concerns with the administration, for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with excluding their white peers simply because of skin color. When issues related to race come up on campus or in class, white students tend to interject with their own emotions and experiences, or to simply go on the defensive, which can derail the conversation away from the needs of others. Plus, people of color have the right to hold spaces where they can participate in their shared culture, especially at a school like the University of Michigan, where Black, Latino and Latina, Asian and Native American students are visible minorities.

Fitzgerald said the university plans on continuing discussion with Students4Justice over its list of demands, and Garg confirmed that the group is meeting with administrators later this month. As for the lawsuit filed by the two former professors, Fitzgerald said the university would defend itself “vigorously” in court and has already filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.

Garg agrees that the Students4Justice campaign has generated so much controversy because it challenges the roots of racism at the University of Michigan by demanding tangible changes to policy, academic curriculums and even the physical institution itself. Garg said there are potential allies within the administration, which is why activists are willing to work with the school, but as the professors’ lawsuit points out, the problems at University of Michigan run deep.

“In the end they are also the administration, and it’s always easier to defend the status quo than to change things,” Garg said.

In the US, access to higher education is a privilege, not a right, and the fight for recognition and equity on campus did not end with segregation. Student mobilizations against racism and for civil rights, along with top-down “diversity” initiatives designed by school administrators, can be found at major universities across the country. In the era of Trump, a marked increase in racist provocations has become part of the narrative as well. Universities aren’t just hosts to a range of ideas and viewpoints — they are physical spaces where young people from different backgrounds come together to live and learn, bringing all of their cultures, prejudices and experiences with them. White supremacy is entrenched in our society, and when it’s reflected and confronted in the halls of academia, white people often discover that they have lessons to learn.

“Equity is dangerous for people who have privilege,” Garg said.