Tim Wolfe

Shifting focus: Mizzou and those racist students

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While the student protests at the University of Missouri continue to be dissected, analyzed, and judged, we might want to direct our attention to the folks who – remarkably enough – have not been thus far the subject of much debate and critique: those white students who shouted racial slurs at Peyton Head as he walked near campus, the drive-by racists who shouted “nigger” at the Legion of Black Collegians while they practiced for homecoming, and the other faceless, nameless students who engaged in racist conduct (we might also want to include the silent white assenters – students, faculty, staff – as well as any onlookers who stood on the sidelines and maybe even laughed or otherwise encouraged their colleagues).

It is not enough merely to call these students or their acts “racist” and their words “hate speech,” to speak only of epithets and hurt feelings, to evoke the First Amendment (while forgetting the Fourteenth), and then to turn and launch extended critiques of “political correctness” on the part of those protesting (a “political correctness” that we must – if we are honest with ourselves – see as, in part, an outgrowth of the heavier burden of free speech that some communities are forced to bear).

Instead, or perhaps primarily, we should be wondering out loud, and without distraction: what are these students trying to do? What do they hope to achieve?

It seems to me that one of the things that they are trying to do is to speak as, and on behalf of Mizzou – with the full power of the institution behind them. Or to put this differently: I suspect these racist students (and others) presume that Mizzou is the institutionalization of a particular kind of white power and privilege, and that because they are white and because they are Mizzou, then when they speak the language of racism and white power as well as engage in racist conduct, they are merely being Mizzou itself. And in being Mizzou, they hope to impress upon students of color, and African American students in particular, that they can never be Mizzou and thus can never embody and exercise power – on campus or anywhere else. No, power belongs to, and can only be exercised by whites and whites only.

If I am right, and I suspect that I’m a little right, then we need to ask whether the University of Missouri – the governing body, administration, staff, and faculty – give white students such as these every reason to believe that they and Mizzou are of one mind and one body. For if this is the case – and I suspect that this is the case – the resignation of Tim Wolfe will hardly suffice. Indeed, what will be required is nothing less than Mizzou’s radical transformation – its mission, its governance, its admissions policies and criteria, its hiring, its faculty, its student body – and, by extension, the entire state of Missouri itself.