UMass Amherst to discuss racism on campus

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus Courtesy photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/1/2018 8:29:55 AM

AMHERST — Faculty and students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will hold a discussion Tuesday on racism and racial profiling on campus.

The panel comes after someone wrote a racist threat in a resident hall’s bathroom on Sept. 23, which happened a little more than a week after somebody called the police on a black employee walking to work in the morning. The incidents and the university’s response to them have sparked protest on campus, where hundreds demonstrated outside the Whitmore Administration Building and the Student Union on Thursday.

In an email message on Thursday, university Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy sought to assure the campus community that university police are investigating the racist graffiti found in Melville Hall.

“I share the frustration and anger that many of you are experiencing as we continue to confront prejudice and racism,” Subbaswamy said. “We are fully committed to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for every member of our campus community where we openly confront the challenges before us.”

But some students and faculty have voiced frustration with the administration’s response.

“The lack of support and action from the administration is unacceptable and we demand steps to be taken to create an anti racist campus,” the Graduate Employee Organization, the graduate student union, wrote on Facebook.

One Melville resident, Savannah Hart, wrote critically on Facebook about the fact that the university initially called the graffiti threat a "biased incident" instead of "racist," and that residents were told not to speak to the media about the situation.

“My floor being one of the only (if not THE only) floors that is predominately of color feels targeted, unsafe, hurt, and outraged,” Hart wrote of the incident.

It was in that context that students took to campus Thursday to protest.

“We want, we demand transparency, from the UMass administration,” junior math major Nuha Futa, co-president of the university’s Amnesty International chapter, said in an interview. Futa and her organization helped organize the protests. Futa said demonstrators want to see the university address demands that Melville residents have made.

Some of those demands include mandatory meetings in each dorm about racist hate speech, a plan of action to create an anti-racist campus, online training for incoming students and more transparency from the administration.

Futa said that she and other students took issue with the fact that only residents of Melville hall were initially informed of the threatening, racist graffiti. 

Subbaswamy, in his email after Thursday’s protest, said that the university’s initial focus “was on the community most directly affected.”

“To that end, a notice was sent to the residence hall, a meeting for residents was held and, as is our usual practice, the public-facing [University of Massachusetts Police Department] crime log was updated,” Subbaswamy wrote. “At the time, I made the conscious decision not to amplify the hateful speech and play into the hands of the hate-monger by sharing news of this incident more widely.”

Subbaswamy also mentioned several ongoing campus climate initiatives, including grants available to create relationship-building projects. He directed students to learn more on the university’s website, saying that UMass Amherst will “redouble our efforts to make you aware of these many opportunities.”

But those initiatives don’t seem to have placated those wanting larger changes on campus.

“We won’t take it sitting down, we’re mobilizing," Futa said Monday. “We really just want to make sure that the school is held accountable and implements change that really will change the climate for a lot of us on campus … This should be a campus for everybody.”

On Tuesday at 5 p.m., faculty and students from the university’s Afro-American Studies department will hold a panel titled “The Problem of the Color Line: A Discussion of Racism and Racial Profiling on Campus.” 

In a description of the event, its sponsors say the panel is meant to be a thoughtful and intelligent discussion of “how and why we got here.” 

“They will offer brief reflections from various disciplines, focused on race and racism in the United States,” the description reads. “This Teach-In will provide the critical context we need to understand the troubled past and envision higher expectations of our community.”

The event will take place in the Cape Cod Lounge of the Student Union.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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