President's Blog

Racism on campus: Learning from old yearbooks

Lest we try to brush off the controversy over blackface photos in college yearbooks as a problem of other academic institutions in more southern latitudes, I asked our librarians to comb through the archives going all the way back to our beginnings in 1965 as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. Sadly, we found two such photos in the 1971 yearbook (if you must see them, you can find them online on pages 5 and 149). The yearbook does not reveal the identity of the happy and festive students proudly wearing the offensive makeup. And that’s probably a good thing. It makes it harder to direct our anger (or embarrassment, or frustration, or pain, or all of the above) towards the individuals in the photos and instead directs our attention towards the more difficult questions concerning the context that made that conduct acceptable then, the forms of discrimination we may be tolerating today, and the role universities should play in moving us forward towards a more inclusive and just society.

I have no desire to condone the behavior of anyone in those photos. But it is obvious that behind every racist photo in a yearbook there were many other contributors: a photographer who thought the moment was worth capturing, editors who didn’t think twice about saving the image for posterity, witnesses who either found the slur amusing or didn’t have the courage to stop it, many other cases that likely went unrecorded, and, self-critically, campus leaders who either saw nothing wrong or preferred not to pay attention. As relieving as it may feel to blame campus racism on the few folks who were foolish enough to let themselves be photographed in the act, I am more concerned about the set of social norms that enabled that behavior and the possibility that some of those norms still linger.

There is evidence that social norms at Mason were changing by the late 1980s. In a 1990 case that ended up in front of a United States District Court Judge, a fraternity was suspended after one of its members wore blackface at a fundraiser event it sponsored in the cafeteria. According to accounts in the New York Times and the Washington Post, a group of students of color were offended by the costume and complained to the dean of students. Campus tensions rose. The fraternity apologized: no harm intended, the fraternity president said, “it was just good fun”. Yet not all students got the joke and tensions kept mounting, leading the school to suspend the fraternity for two years. Unlike their 1970s counterparts, the students of 1990 seemed far less willing to accept bigotry and the administration felt either the pressure or the need to do something.

What made this case a national story, though, was the follow up. The fraternity sued the university on the basis that their freedom of expression rights had been violated. What the students had done, their ACLU attorney argued, was reprehensible, but the university turned the “perpetrators of the offense into First Amendment martyrs” and missed the chance to use the incident as an educational opportunity. The fraternity won the lawsuit.

The Mason case highlighted the constitutional limits universities face when confronting hateful speech, an issue that has not lost its currency and relevance today. When last Spring, a video of a group of white students singing along to a rap song with a generous dose of n-words was circulated online, we received numerous calls demanding severe disciplinary action against the students.  As the 1990 case made clear though, students have the constitutional right to say racist things if they so choose.

The question for public universities is not how to sanction expressions that may be offensive, insensitive or even hateful, which they cannot do. The question is how do we educate students to be more aware of the impact their words and actions have on others and to use their First Amendment rights responsibly.  This is not the same as “coddling” our students’ minds, as universities have been accused of doing (a recent book by Lukianoff and Haidt presents the most compelling critique I’ve seen). It is about giving students better tools to contribute to a more inclusive society where diversity of thought and freedom of expression are tools of social progress and cohesion, rather than sources of pain and division.

A group of faculty members at Mason, for example, is creating a course to do precisely that. The course is intended to increase students’ awareness by giving them an opportunity to hear from those marginalized communities that experience hurt and anger and will provide them with tools to handle situations when they may be on the receiving end of offensive speech. A university that prides itself of having one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation has the opportunity—even the responsibility—of leading the way in testing new educational approaches. I very much look forward to this class and seeing the results it delivers.

In addition, we need to continue to reinforce our values of diversity and inclusion. Cultures are sustained over time by the language we use, our symbols, our rituals, the achievements we choose to celebrate and the conduct we condemn. This is also an area where our university needs to keep making progress. We are working on adding the names of individuals of color and women who have made important contributions to our university and our community to our public spaces and buildings. And a group of faculty, students and staff is designing a display that will accompany the statue of George Mason on the renovated Roger Wilkins Plaza and will highlight the paradoxes in the life and work of our namesake—owner of slaves while ardent defendant of the individual freedoms that we now take for granted.

My hope is that the ongoing controversy in Virginia over racism in decades past serves as an opportunity for a self-critical conversation and action in our universities today. As the old adage goes, no crisis should go to waste.