Commentary

My university has been targeted by white supremacists. This is what I’m sharing in response.

My university has been targeted by white supremacists. This is what I’m sharing in response.
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At the university where I teach, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the administration has plastered large posters throughout the campus on the outside and inside of virtually all buildings announcing its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The university sponsors a vibrant Office of Diversity and Inclusion sponsoring discussions and providing resources throughout the university community. We also opened a new center this year, The Center for Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research, to coordinate efforts to empower students in addressing and researching topics of race and racism on our campus and in the larger national community, and, according to the Center’s mission statement to aid in “placing Black and Brown youth at the center of racial and educational justice across all disciplines in education.”

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We also sponsor several other centers catering to the needs of specific student populations to enhance their learning opportunities and outcomes and help to develop a greater sense of community.

Our university administration led by our chancellor has taken principled stands and decisive actions to make our campus the welcoming place it must be for students, staff, and faculty of every social background and identity. In addition, the university requires all students to fulfill a Social Diversity requirement:

“The purpose of the UMass. Social Diversity requirement is to broaden students’ exposure to ways of thinking about how to understand diverse perspectives and more effectively interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds.”

Unfortunately, however, we live in a country based on the original sin of racism and intolerance of any kind of human diversity and a legacy surviving and expanding like dust mites under the figurative carpet our leaders have perennially swept issues and topics they would not address.

What, though, could be more “just, more “patriotic” and “pro-American” than for people to confront our nation’s racist past, the foundation on which this nation arose and whose legacy continues to oppress, divide, and divert us finally and completely from our founding concept of “liberty and justice FOR ALL”?

A fuller and deeper age-appropriate commitment to teaching the truth from multiple perspectives is far more than exposing historical facts. It relates on an existential level to issues of personal and collective identity. It connects to our ability as a nation to become aware of and acknowledge our past so we can ultimately take constructive actions to work toward a better, more just, and equitable future.

I had the sad task of sending the students in my Social Diversity in Education and LGBTQ Issues in Education courses notification of a racist diatribe sent to several individuals and organizations representing black students on our campus. I wrote:

Dear Students,

I want to alert you to a very troubling racist letter that is circulating around our campus. If you go to the link to read the letter, I need to warn you of its upsetting nature. I don’t know if any actions are currently planned to protest the letter, but if any of you hear of such actions, please let me know and I will share that information with all members of our course.

Here is the link.

In solidarity,

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

Our university Chancellor, Kumble R. Subbaswamy, sent a message throughout the university community announcing steps to address, find, and prosecute the perpetrators of this evil attack on our black students, which, in turn, is an attack against the entire community.

These types of patriarchal white supremacist incidents are longstanding on our campuses and in our communities. An example was perpetrated on another of the campuses where I taught as a professor.

Over the July 4th weekend 2006, an individual or group scribbled hate-filled graffiti throughout the campus and the surroundings of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The perpetrator or perpetrators of these criminal acts, in their own distorted way, linked the various forms of oppression by expressing misogynist, racist, heterosexist, cissexist, Islamophobic, and anti-Jewish epithets and symbols.

The timing of these actions around the 4th of July, Independence Day, highlighted the continuing attempt by some to exclude groups of people from participating in the liberty and justice promised in our founding documents but still not yet attained.

A committed and concerned group of student leaders organized a committee to confront the hate. They gave me the honor or serving as a faculty advisor. At one of the initial meetings, they agreed by consensus to create a group statement, which they ultimately titled their “Principles of Community” listing their vision for a safe and inclusive campus community. They arrived at these principles by engaging in a sizable number of one-on-one interviews with their student peers throughout the campus.

In the most recent National Civility Survey (KRC Research, “Civility in America 2019”), the overwhelming majority (93%) of U.S.-Americans reported a civility deficit in our nation, with most classifying it as a major problem (68%). Personal encounters with incivility remain high, with 80% of respondents reporting experiencing uncivil behavior at one time or another. The frequency of uncivil encounters per week rose sharply in 2018 and rests at this level, with 10.2 average weekly encounters.

As we begin a new school year, I share the “Principles of Community” researched, written, and initially distributed by a group of committed and compassionate students who took action to improve the physical and emotional climate of their campus.

Principles of Community

Diversity is a journey that is continually evolving where different challenges are faced and solutions are sought. At Iowa State University, our journey is mapped by six Principles of Community. By using the Principles of Community as the compass, we show how we have begun our journey.

Respect                                                                         

We seek to foster an open-minded understanding among individuals, organizations, and groups. We support this understanding through outreach, increasing opportunities for collaboration, formal education programs, and strategies for resolving a disagreement.

Purpose

We are encouraged to be engaged in the university community. Thus, we strive to build a genuine community that promotes leadership, the advancement of knowledge, cooperation, and leadership.

Cooperation

We recognize that the mission of the university is enhanced when we work together to achieve the goals of the university. Therefore, we value each member of the Iowa State University community for his or her insights and efforts, collective and individual, to enhance the quality of campus life.

Freedom from Discrimination

We acknowledge that we must strive to overcome historical and divisive biases in our society. Therefore, we must commit ourselves to create and maintain a community in which all students, staff, faculty, and administrators can work together in an atmosphere free from discrimination, and to respond appropriately to all acts of discrimination.

Honest and Respectful Expression of Ideas

We affirm the right to and the importance of a free exchange of ideas at Iowa State University within the bounds of courtesy, sensitivity, and respect. We work together to promote awareness of various ideas through education and constructive strategies to consider and engage in honest disagreements.

Richness of Diversity

We recognize and cherish the richness of diversity that contributes to our university experience. Furthermore, we strive to increase the diversity of ideas, cultures, and experiences throughout the university community.

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