Column: Without student-influenced reform, UConn could be Mizzou

In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Jonathan Butler, center, addresses a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign, in Columbia, Mo. (Jeff Roberson, File/AP)

As students at UConn join many across the nation standing in solidarity with Mizzou, it has become increasingly clear that incidents of racial injustice at Mizzou are produced by systemic failures.

On Nov. 9, former University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stepped down and shocked everyone who ever doubted the collective power of student activists. Students, along with staff and faculty, protested demanding the removal of the president because of lackluster responses to hate crimes and incidents of discrimination on campus.

The racial violence that students have experienced at Mizzou is horrific, but not unique. Students at UConn have fallen victim to on campus racism, just as students of color all over the country who attend primarily white institutions.

Vandals of Mizzou’s Black Culture Center sign put black paint over the word “Black.” This past April, The Courant reported that students at UConn who painted the spirit rock to say “Black Lives Matter” on one side and “Racism: In Storrs Now” on the other woke up the next day to see the words “Black” and “Racism” blocked out with gold paint despite regulations prohibiting partial painting.

Both of these incidents contribute to a project of erasure on campus. The message left on the rock “Lives Matter In Storrs Now” is not indicative of the experiences of people of color on campus last semester. Our lives did not matter on campus last year, but the blotting out of intentional language set out to decenter our narratives from the discussion on racial tension.

Students on both campuses faced attacks on several facets of identity. One of the most egregious offenses at Mizzou was a swastika drawn in human feces discovered in a dorm, sparking the hunger strike of black graduate student Jonathan Butler. Students at UConn rallied Monday after Mahmoud Hashem, a Muslim student, was targeted by vandals writing “killed Paris” on his door tag.

Discussions on racial violence and injustice must be centered on Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Protestors at Mizzou and UConn come from diverse backgrounds, as an understanding that all these forms of oppression stem from institutionalized violence.

University of Missouri student body president Payton Head reported being called a n----- on campus twice during his time at Mizzou. Last fall, incidents at the spirit rock rocked the campus with discussions on whether allegedly calling someone a “black whore” or “fat black b----” should count as hate speech.

These incidents spur conversation on whether hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment. The panic that prevents people from falsely shouting “fire” can very easily be associated with hate speech within communities of color. Pushing back against the use of slurs is not about hurt feelings. It is about the ways that verbalized racial violence is indicative of institutions where students of color are under protected.

Students on these campuses are not just being called the n-word, they are being treated like them. The fictional fires are terms and images employed by institutionalized white supremacy to degrade the identities of students of color across the nation.

Officials at Mizzou faced fire for not making more students aware of Yik Yak threats made to “shoot every black person.” One professor, who later apologized and then resigned, asked that students come to class despite threats to prevent “bullies” from winning and despite the threat being serious enough to result in an arrest.

Threatening Yik Yaks at UConn, including one calling to “kill all the black people to celebrate” a basketball win last spring, did not result in any arrests.

It is no surprise that the institutions which previously barred students of color from acceptance are not built to protect them from racism. Student activists hope that our ability to dismantle oppressive systems and enforce accountability will distinguish UConn from other schools.

Following the recommendations outlined in the draft UConn Diversity Task Force report, will mean serious institutional reform.

Although these initiatives are a step in the right direction, student activists are far from backing down on their positions demanding a change on campus. In order for this reform to be meaningful, students must be engaged in the drafting of the policies meant to work for them. This past week, there have been three major events designed to recognize, uplift and change the marginalized experience on campus.

The collective action taken at Mizzou sent a powerful message to college campuses nationwide, and UConn activists are poised to fall in line.


Haddiyyah Ali is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at haddiyyah.ali@uconn.edu.