The White People of Mizzou
After weeks of racial tension and protest at the University of Missouri, the school’s white community is filled with a mix of compassion, confusion, defiance and delusion.
James Sidney Rollins was a 19th century lawyer, politician and businessman who earned his fortune selling real estate, building railroads and as the owner of a plantation with as many as 34 slaves. Rollins is, however, best known for his two terms as a U.S. congressman during which he voted first against the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery then later joined a handful of congressmen who changed their votes to allow for the law’s passage. Days before the law passed, heexplained his original vote in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives: “Sir, if I could save this Constitution and this Union by preserving the institution of slavery in its present status in the various States, I would do it most cheerfully,” he said.
Years before helping to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Rollins was instrumental in founding the University of Missouri, which he accomplished by leveraging the institution of slavery. As a state representative, Rollins sponsored a bill that awarded Missouri’s university to whichever county could raise the most money for its construction. Rollins wanted the university for Boone County, where he resided, so he led a fundraising campaign and successfully raised $117,000, more than half of which came from area slave owners. A hundred and seventy-six years later, Boone County remains home to the Mizzou Tigers.
For his efforts, the Mizzou community fondly remembers him. At the entrance to Mizzou’s 1,262-acre campus, there is a bronze plaque with Rollins’ face and name. Below, it reads, “Pater Universitatis Missouriensis” — father of the University of Missouri.
It’s easy to be lulled into comfort at the University of Missouri. The streets in downtown Columbia, Missouri are quiet, beautifully lit by lampposts at night. There’s not a Starbucks in sight — mostly mom-and-pop boutiques, restaurants and bars. From many points downtown, there’s a view of the university’s impressive Jesse Hall, the centerpiece of the campus, in the distance. The lush, green quads are right out of a college admissions brochure. Something else is striking about Mizzou: there are white faces almost everywhere you look.
That should be no surprise. For more than a century, the University of Missouri maintained its campus as an all-white space. The school was desegregated in 1950 and currently, black students still account for just eight percent of Mizzou’s undergrad student population (while blacks 18–24 are 15 percent of Missouri’s population.) Even more, seventy-five per cent of faculty and ninety-one percent of executive-level administrators at the University of Missouri are white, according to official school stats.
Weeks ago, the nation watched black students at Mizzou fight for a more inclusive university. They protested, student athletes refused to play ball and one student refused even to eat.
“I’m fighting for a better tomorrow,” Jonathan Butler, the Mizzou grad student whose hunger strike upped the ante of the protests, told The Washington Post. “As much as the experiences on campus have not been that great for me — I had people call me the n-word, I had someone write the n-word on a door in my residence hall — for me it really is about a call for justice. I’m fighting for the black community on campus, because justice is worth fighting for. And justice is worth starving for.”
Butler and other student activists called for the resignation of the school’s president, Tim Wolfe — who’d been slow to respond to black students’ concerns. In addition, they demanded an increase in black faculty members, a strategic 10-year plan to increase retention of students of color, campus-wide diversity training, and an investment into campus mental health programs, among other things. After weeks of protest, the university’s president resigned. Almost immediately, some white students on campus began pushing back. In fact, just two days after the resignation, anonymous posts on popular social media platform Yik Yak sent the campus into a panic.
“I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” read one post.
“Some of you are alright,” began another. “Don’t go to campus tomorrow.”
“We’re waiting for you at the parking lots,” read a third anonymous post. “We will kill you.”
In addition, MU police reported that threats were called in to the school’s Black Culture Center. Arrests were eventually made in connection to the Yik Yak messages, but in the days following their posting many professors cancelled classes out of concern for student safety.
Today, black students at Mizzou are continuing their fight to transform the university and students at more than 60 other institutions, including UCLA, Vanderbilt, Wesleyan and Yale have joined them in protest — all with similar demands of their institutions.
As a black man who attended a historically black college in Atlanta for undergrad and completed my graduate studies in New York City, I arrived at Mizzou just after the protest a fish out of water, curious about the culture of an institution so persistently white and the community of people at its heart. James Baldwin wrote once that whiteness is a “moral choice” available to and made by an elite group of people. With that understanding, I visited Mizzou to explore an institution that for more than a century made a choice to exclude blacks, that today chooses to memorialize slaveowners, that chooses to ignore the complaints of its black students and that maintains shocking levels of racial homogeneity in its students and faculty. And who, I wondered, are the people it serves.
On the surface, the Mizzou community seems back to business as usual. They’re back to watching football each Saturday. Frat boys still crisscross Greek Town on beer runs. On my first day reporting on campus, I came across two young women –both white — lying across a walkway between buildings. Students at a nearby high school, the girls said they enjoy hanging out and listening to music on Mizzou’s campus because it’s peaceful. Without hesitation, both explained that the recent protests at Mizzou were “bullshit.”
“We’re all humans and should just go back to being that,” one said. “That’s just how I was raised by my family, to not see race — except my grandparents; they’re very racist.”
A few yards away were two other young women, Morgan Brown and Gabbie Gee, the first white and the second black. The sophomores are former co-workers who met working at Cold Stone Creamery and have been friends for less than a year. When I met them, they were in the middle of an impromptu photo shoot with Brown, the white journalism major, taking glamor shots of Gee near a brook that runs through campus.
“I don’t like to form opinions necessarily,” Brown said of the recent events on campus, discomfort halting every word. “No matter how hard I try, I’ll never understand it from that point of view,” she added, presumably regarding racism on campus and the perspective of the black student protesters. “I don’t know if it’s been an issue here. It seems like it has since…well, I don’t know. I sympathize with the people who’ve dealt with it, but then again I can’t, like, relate.”
“No one wants to say the wrong thing; no one wants to offend anyone and that’s why people are reluctant to speak on the topic,” Gee interjected. “I haven’t experienced any hostility. If people are mad about it, they say it behind closed doors and on social media, for example — on Yik Yak where no one can confront them.”
I asked the two friends if they’d discussed the events that turned their campus upside down for a week, leading to the resignation of the university president. They admitted sheepishly that they had not.
Jackson Bollinger is one white Mizzou student in a lot of conversations about the recent events on campus. As news director of KCOU, the school’s radio station, Bollinger is charged with informing the student body of campus news and maintaining KCOU as an outlet for student expression. To the latter goal, he designated the station’s office a “safe space” for marginalized students.
“We’ve been trying to have this discussion and bring it into the work,” Bollinger told me. “I wanted this to be a comfortable place for people of color, to be a comfortable place for individuals on the LGBTQI+ spectrum, for women.” Bollinger says he’s also working on a plan to diversify the station’s mostly white staff. Doing all of this, though, still makes him feel uncomfortable.
“I don’t have the same experiences as the protesters, so it’s going to be difficult for me to write pieces and represent them because of the way I was raised and my unconscious biases. Still, I think it’s important for us to approach this moment actively trying to be open and fair.”
Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia, wrestled with the institution of slavery but was crystal-clear on his belief in the fundamental inferiority of black people. “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
I thought about these words when I met Ian Paris, president of the Mizzou student libertarian organization on campus. After seeing Paris interviewed for Infowars on his ideas around race, racism and diversity, I asked him to meet me on campus somewhere he’d be comfortable, a location important to him and his organization. We met on the quad at a bench that sits between a statue of Jefferson and the founding father’s original tombstone, a large stone obelisk that was bequeathed to the school. Paris explained that, like Jefferson, he values free speech and individual liberty above all, namely “safe spaces.”
“Thomas Jefferson is my favorite founding father,” he told me.
I remind Paris that Thomas Jefferson was in fact a slave owner and infamously took one of his slaves as a concubine, facts which have made the idolization of Jefferson on campus a point of contention for black Mizzou students.
“I find it fallacious to judge Thomas Jefferson by modern standards. He’s not a modern figure,” Paris insists before offering of defense of Jefferson.“ I believe he did do his best to maintain civility with his slaves. I’m not going to defend owning people; that’s wrong, but I don’t think that these horrors that we hear are necessarily what Thomas Jefferson did,” he said. “And I think the fact that we’re having a conversation about the horrors of slavery and how important that was in the founding of the United States. I think that is even more defense for keeping such a controversial figure on campus.”
When discussing the recent events on campus, Paris and I hit more snags. The senior political science major holds several beliefs that are hard for me to reconcile. He believes, for example, that the school’s diversity efforts should be focused on diversity of thought. He insists that power is not a necessary component to racism and that the sources of racial tension on campus are economic factors that leave “minorities” “underprivileged.” Finally, central to the ongoing conflict at Mizzou, Paris takes a controversial stance on the use of the “n-word” on campus.
Missouri Students Association president Payton Head, who is black, reported in September that while walking with a friend on campus, a pickup truck passed the pair and passengers began yelling racial slurs.
“I believe the most important aspect of this and most important part of this is free expression and individuality and that has to be protected,” Paris said. “We have to allow students to express themselves and express unpopular opinions,” he said. “We can’t be afraid of ideas just because someone’s feelings might be hurt…I believe even hateful or hurtful speech is protected. Now, that’s not the same as harassment. I believe hurtful and hateful speech has a time a time and place, but I wouldn’t prescribe that time or place.”
I asked Paris: How is it that a campus can be both safe for the use of the word “nigger” and also safe for black students?
“That’s a tough one,” he replied.
Robin DiAngelo is an expert in multicultural education and the author of What Does it Mean to be White? She explained to me that what I’d heard from Paris and the other white students at Mizzou weren’t uncommon sentiments among white Americans and explained that the racial status quo at institutions like Mizzou is maintained by a toxic combination of white fragility, purported innocence on matters of race and flat out ignorance of history and power dynamics.
“It seems to me the fundamental problem is the mainstream culture’s lack of understanding of what racism actually is,” she said, “It consistently comes down to a claim that if I don’t have conscious dislike of people of color, if I can walk next to them, work next to them, study next to them without a problem then I can’t be racist.”
According to DiAngelo, when white claims to innocence on race are coupled with society’s prevalent white supremacy and antiblackness what results is an artful and “mean-spirited” resistance to engaging race.
“I was just on a college campus where I visited three classes and presented a keynote, and the coldness from the primarily white student audiences I was in front of really took me aback. When I was doing the keynote, I was even mocked on Yik Yak,” DiAngelo shared. “All of that is happening on college campuses at the same time there’s insistence that everything is fine, and that creates a really hostile environment for students of color.”
DiAngelo concluded that in America whiteness is the water we all swim in, that if we can’t acknowledge white supremacy and anti-Black racism as the social contracts on which our society runs, institutions like Mizzou will continue to be contested spaces.
My conversations with white students on Mizzou’s campus reminded me of a lecture I heard just months ago from Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In her speech, Ifill pointed out a flaw in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. To support the Court’s decision, which held that racial segregation in public schools violated the Constitution, Chief Justice Earl Warren cited testimony from the social scientist Kenneth Clark on the deleterious effect of segregation on black children. Missing from Warren’s remarks, Ifill noted, was any mention of Clark’s testimony on the damaging effects of segregation on whites.
“Those children who learn the prejudices of our society are also being taught to gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way,” Clark wrote. “The culture permits and, at times, encourages them to direct their feelings of hostility and aggression against whole groups of people — the members of which are perceived as weaker than themselves. They often develop patterns of guilt feelings, rationalizations, and other mechanisms, which they must use in an attempt to protect themselves from recognizing the essential injustice of their unrealistic fears and hatreds of minority groups.”
Students of color, black students in particular, continue the fight for room at institutions like Mizzou. Taking a cue from Chief Justice Warren, universities have responded by troubleshooting the concerns of their black students. If they’re to rid their campuses of racial tensions, however, all signs suggest they should take the rest of Clark’s advice and reckon with whiteness and white supremacy. The result is likely to be not just the firing of a few racially incompetent presidents, but institutional change. Because, ultimately, America’s institutions of higher education cannot serve both black students and white supremacy.
Still, I’m afraid that I left the campus of the University of Missouri as much a stranger to its white community as I was when I arrived and without many answers for the whys of white folks. Those answers, it seemed, eluded even the people I met on campus. There was no grand revelation in their reflections on race, no clear path forward. What was clear and tangible to me, however, was just how badly schools like Mizzou failed at integration, if they ever tried at all. It’s likely that failure that has damned the student body to relive battles we long ago declared won.
In my time as an undergrad, after a particularly trying week or when I was otherwise confused by the world, I’d attend chapel. The dean of the chapel, as is the tradition of the black church, would connect current events to the redemption gospel of Jesus Christ and shepherd me to a place of peace with the world around me. My last full day of interviewing in Columbia was a Sunday, so I decided to go to church.
First Presbyterian is within walking distance of the university. The 9:00 a.m. service there, The Offering, is accurately described by the church as a “worship gathering.” The Offering was a business casual affair where coffee was served along with a light breakfast. The service moved quickly. There were a few prayers, some singing and a succinct presentation by a minister. The smallish, almost entirely white congregation at First Presbyterian greeted me as a visitor, including Preston Turley, the church worship leader who it turned out also leads the church’s campus ministry.
“The past week has been a bit of a blur. Right now, we’re just putting on listening ears and open hearts in ways that we haven’t done before,” said Turley before extending an invitation to that night’s campus ministry meeting.
A great deal of the conversation that night was about meatballs. In a small den-like area on the ground level of the church, Turley had set out a spread of spaghetti and meatballs, salad and brownies. The campus ministry consisted of a handful of Mizzou students all but one of whom was white. After eating, everyone settled tightly together onto couches and chairs that lined the room to talk. Turley led the conversation by asking them how they felt. One student said that the events on campus had caused him to argue with a roommate. Another said that she was upset that her classes had been interrupted. All expressed some level of empathy for the protesters but more than anything they seemed confused.
Turley closed the meeting with two scriptures.
Proverbs 3:5–6, which reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
And Psalm 139:23–24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
The students seemed encouraged by the scripture. I was too.
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic and GQ, among other outlets. He’s currently a DemosEmerging Voices Fellow.