A dozen black student leaders at the University of Oregon organized a rally Friday to hold the administration to account, express the pain of racist incidents on campus, and be buoyed and inspired by one another.
“Many of us feel like mourning, and (we) feel hopeless and burned out,” undergraduate Ashley Campbell told hundreds of students and faculty gathered at the Erb Memorial Union amphitheater. “But as black students and leaders we have to be the ones to change the dynamic of the university. I know it’s exhausting, but the change has to start with us.”
The students _ and some of their parents _ said they were hurt by the law professor who donned blackface on Halloween, by three teenagers who appeared on campus in blackface and by threats targeting the Black Student Union in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s election victory.
Portland resident Nike Greene, mother of UO student Natashia Greene, described a gut-wrenching drive south on Interstate 5 after her daughter called about a message on social media directed at her that said, “Nigger this. Nigger that. Black lives splatter. Go kill your own.”
“It was hurtful because, I’ll be honest, we had to pull our daughter off this campus because there was no way that you could ensure that she would be safe,” Nike Greene said.
She said UO Law Professor Nancy Shurtz should face consequences for wearing blackface as part of a Halloween costume, no matter what she was trying to say with the makeup.
“I told my son, `You go outside and play baseball and that ball hits a window and it breaks. You’re intention may not have been to break that window, but guess what? The glass is everywhere, and you still gotta pay for it,” she said.
Natashia Greene’s father, north Portland pastor Herman Greene, said he can’t believe his daughter was the target of racial threats in 2016. “How is it that the Klan’s mask of the ’60s has been replaced with social media?”
“How is it that they’re still using the same tactics of fear and intimidation?” Herman Greene told the students. “They want to scare you because they don’t want you to recognize the powerhouse that you are. They want you to be afraid. They don’t want you to stand up and be strong.”
Nike Greene urged the students to stand up to the racism and threats they’ve encountered at the UO, especially after the election.
“If one man can frustrate a nation, then I want you to imagine what our family will do as we stand together. Let’s go do more than shape a nation. Let’s go impact a world by doing our God-given part,” she said.
Many of the student leaders said, even before the recent events, they moved in a culture of racism on the UO campus.
“Anti-black attitudes, behavior and ignorance are currently running rampant,” said student Adrianna Roberts, a resident assistant at the Umoja Pan-African Scholars, a living community for black students started in the fall to fulfill one of the student demands.
The students chided the UO administration for delivering on six of 13 demands that a Black Student Task Force gave to the university one year ago. The students did not praise President Michael Schill, who watched intently from a seat in the amphitheater, for the progress he has made. Instead, one at a time, they described what was lacking.
The students repeated the demand to remove UO founder Matthew Deady’s name from Deady Hall because of his mid-19th century support for slavery. They didn’t mention that Schill had seen to the removal of KKK member and history professor Frederic Dunn’s name from a dormitory this fall.
The students reiterated a demand for student scholarships exclusively for black students, saying it’s unfair for them to have to compete with white and Hispanic students for the awards.
To fix the “anti-black climate,” the university must meet another of the demands by creating a black studies department, the students said.
The university must hire dedicated African American student retention specialists for all the major schools and colleges. Also, each hiring committee should include one to three black students as members.
Finally, the university needs to create a “substantial endowment” to build a black cultural center, a goal that Schill has promoted in recent months.
When Schill took the microphone near the end of the two-hour event, he agreed that “many students, faculty and staff do not feel included in the University of Oregon. Some have been victims of intentional discrimination. Some have been hurt by careless, thoughtless behavior by members of our community. This is unacceptable. It is intolerable,” he said.
But he urged the dozen black student leaders to not let the events of the past weeks sabotage their education.
“Don’t let the actions of a clueless professor derail you from your studies. Don’t let some ignorant middle-schooler coming onto our campus take your eyes off the prize. Don’t let emotions of the nastiest political campaigns in history _ or at least recent history _ distract you. Each and every one of you belong here. This is your school. You are Ducks. That means something,” he said.
Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion, said faculty, administrators and staff need to work at creating an inclusive campus.
“These students should have the liberty and the freedom to study and not have to hold our feet to the fire. They should not have to march and protest and struggle,” she said.
Though the students expressed hurt and anger, they were not hateful, Alex-Assensoh said, adding that the students were talking about love.
The students started the rally with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the hopeful song often called the “black national anthem.”
Student August Jefferson did a spoken word performance, saying in part:
“I don’t know if you heard about the blackface on campus two days ago, but that shows that we still have a ways to go. And to my caucasian folk, I’ve still got love. This world is not for me to judge. Forget the folk, forget the talking, because one day all will answer for the lives that we’ve been walking.”
Asia Greene, Natashia Greene’s older sister who’s pursuing a master’s degree in education, urged the students to keep going.
“Today when a slithering silence seems to engulf all hope, we should grab it by the tail and pull it back. Today is not a day to retract our steps and put a period where a comma should go. Today we move forward, no matter how much our legs cramp, our stomach does flips and our minds beg to drift into auto-pilot, we must press on,” she said. “We calm our boiling blood. We unclench our tight fist. Today, we do what we must. We love.”
The university has started several initiatives in the past year to meet black student demands and make the campus more welcoming to them. The UO launched an African American speaker series; announced the intention to hire faculty to boost teaching in African-¡American literature, history, women and gender studies; and started making plans for a $3 million Black Cultural Center on the corner of East 15th Avenue and Villard Street.
The UO’s enrollment management team redoubled efforts to recruit African American students and succeeded in bringing 50 more black students than usual into the 2016 freshman class.
In the wake of the Halloween blackface incident, Schill ordered each university administrative unit to produce a plan to increase diversity _ with measurable goals _ within 90 days.
The UO will require training on recognizing implicit bias for all faculty search committees, and new training sessions on micro-aggressions are expected to begin in the winter.