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When is an institution not its people? When it is convenient.

On Main Street, looking past the railroad tracks.

In response to a demand by a group of student activists that the university hold a press conference to admit its problem with institutional racism, Chancellor Brad Colwell stated the following:

“The way I’ve been reading the demand is for us to come out say that we are a racist campus or institution and that’s not the case, but are there individuals who say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things? Yes, and we have to deal with those folks and we will.”

Interpreted differently, SIUC is not a racist institution, but there are students who will say racist things, professors who will say racist things, and administrators who will say racist things. Now, in making the above statement, Colwell has split the institution from the people that make it up, which places the emphasis on racist individuals as opposed to thinking about how the institution itself might also bear some responsibility for the racism within it. This shifting of the emphasis is interesting because the freedom to “say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things,” requires a context in it is acceptable to “say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things,” or where there will be no punishment for saying these “offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things.” To be blunt: SIUC is not a racist institution, but it does provide a context where it is okay to “say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things.”

This is the major problem with the way that Colwell has publicly addressed the racism on campus: the splitting of “racist individuals” from the institution allows for the university to treat “eliminating racism” as a matter of eliminating “racists,” and not necessarily dealing with the conditions that allow racists to be racists on campus. We will turn back to that momentarily.

As if anticipating my commentary, the administration has established a “party line” which we can see expressed by SIU’s Chief Communications Officer, Rae Goldsmith: “we are a reflection of society and therefore we have racial issues here that we really need to work together to address as a community.” In her statement, Goldsmith is referencing an earlier comment by Chancellor Colwell where he states “There is racism on our campus just as there is racism in society. I hope we can join forces as a community to build respect and understanding.” Again, we can look at Goldsmith and Colwell’s responses as splitting the location of the issues: instead of the institution bearing responsibility for the racism on campus, the racism on campus is a result of the larger issues of racism in American society. Again, to be blunt: “racial issues” at SIUC are result of “racial issues” in America, and until America changes, SIUC will continue to have “racial issues.”

I do not want to diminish the value of the university recognizing that the situation of race in America has a direct impact on the situation of race on campus; it is rare that any institution indicates at least some recognition of the racism in the society that has produced it. That’s a big step forwards. However, it is how that recognition affects what the university does going forwards that matters. More specifically, we need to look at the way that these two statements, taken together, provide some insight into how the administration of SIUC understands racism not only at the institution, but in the institution itself.

If we’re to follow the narrative established for racism at SIUC, American society has issues with race, which results in the production of individuals who say and do “offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things.” As a result, some of these people go on to attend, work at, and direct the institution, but the institution itself is not involved in these “offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things” except in so far as these people attend, work at, and direct the institution. Once more, to be blunt: racist people produced by a society that has yet to eliminate racism come to SIUC and perpetuate racism through their actions, but the institution itself is not involved with racism.

This is where things get complicated, so bear with me: an institution is made up of the people in it. Because of this, an institution will reflect the people that make it up. If the people who make up the institution have a particular set of values, then the institution will reflect those values. Likewise, if the people who make up an institution are “individuals who say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things,” then the institution will allow for the saying of “offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things.” Further, even if the people who have created a climate where “individuals who say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things” are no longer present at the institution, the institution will continue in that direction until enough of the people, not just the people of color, who make up the institution are no longer willing to tolerate that climate and demand a change in the direction of the institution.

Having said all that, let’s come back to the part about “eliminating racists” as a flawed strategy: even if you were to hunt down and eliminate every “racist” on campus, the direction of the institution set by these racists would take years to correct. This isn’t to say that “dealing” with the folks who “who say offensive and inappropriate, hurtful, just awful things” is a bad idea: it is only part of the problem. The university, the administration, need to recognize that individuals like the ones described can only engage in these behaviors in a context and a climate that treats these behaviors as acceptable, and this requires looking at the way that the institution creates this climate: it requires a frank understanding of how white supremacy structures the activities of the institution, including the kind of climate and the education that it provides to students.

If we need a contemporary example, we can look at the recent capture of the individual who produced the “ATO/AZO White is Right” video that sparked student demonstrations in May. Putting aside the fact that the administration went to great lengths to indicate that the individual was not affiliated with the institution or the greek organizations they claimed to represent, we can view the capture of this individual as irrelevant. It is irrelevant because catching this individual, while important, does nothing to resolve the conditions that allowed them to make the video in the first place. It does nothing to address the fact that there exists a climate on this campus where people are willing to believe that this is something that a member of the SIUC community could produce. Eliminating one racist who, by the admission of the administration, has nothing to do with the campus, does not change the fact that there exists a climate of hostility towards students of color on this campus.

Now, I do want to acknowledge that the institution is trying: shortly after the demonstrations in May, Chancellor Colwell released a preliminary plan indicating the steps that the institution would be taking to address the myriad issues raised by students throughout the month. In doing so, this preliminary plan seemed to center around the integration and promotion of diversity within the institution, rather than engaging with the ways in which the structures of the institution participate in the creation of a climate of racial hostility. In short, the administration’s plan was concerned with the absence of diversity, rather than the presence of oppression, as if the two were the same thing. Inviting more minority students and faculty into an already hostile climate is, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., like integrating into a burning house: the administration needs to put out the fire and work towards eliminating the conditions that caused it, before inviting more people to live in the house. And doing that will take a shift away from a “non-racist” mindset, like the one expressed in Colwell’s statement, to an “anti-racist” mindset. Or, as described by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva:

“Being an antiracist begins with understanding the institutional nature of racial matters and accepting that all actors in a racialized society are affected materially (receive benefits or disadvantages) and ideologically by the racial structure. This stand implies taking responsibility for your unwilling participation in these practices and beginning a new life committed to the goal of achieving real racial equality.”

This is the core of the issues that emerge in Colwell’s statement, the “party line” established by the administration, and the university’s attempts to deal with its “racial issues:” the institution’s focus is so focused on demonstrating that it is “not racist,” that it has failed to establish a position of anti-racism. This failure is evident by the way in which Colwell, and the university by extension, interprets a demand by students to recognize the institutional racism present at SIUC as a demand for an admission that the institution itself is racist.

Put simply: if the university cannot engage in the self-critical work of understanding and taking responsibility for its unwilling participation in institutional racism, it cannot hope to engage with the issues facing its students of color.

References

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo (2006). Racism Without Racists; Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Co.

Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Allen, Evie (2016) “SIU Leaders address student demands after week long protest,” http://www.wsiltv.com/story/31904796/siu-leaders-address-student-demands-after-week-long-protest?platform=hootsuite

Ray, Cory (2016) “Board of Trustees address racial concern, appoint College of Education dean” http://www.dailyegyptian.com/news/article_9fd8c13e-12c9-11e6-81d5-4f752cd2fa7f.html

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