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A history of racism and black activism on campus at Mizzou, nationwide ... where do we go from here?

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dannielle Davis and Stefan Bradley.

When Stefan Bradley, Ph.D, asks black students, “Do you love your university?” he says the answer is often “No, I don’t.”

“That needs to be the goal of these university officials: finding a way for all of the students to have an affection for their university and to walk away with the kind of experiences that we read about in the alumni magazines,” Bradley said on Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air.” The show focused on campus protests shaking institutions of higher education across the nation, including the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri.

Bradley is the director of African American Studies at Saint Louis University. The subject his research revolves around is one that has made headlines this week: the history of the efforts of black college students to change their scholastic environments and the communities surrounding higher education. He also happens to be an alumnus of the University of Missouri-Columbia himself, earning his Ph.D. there in 2003.

Mizzou has been embroiled in a major administrative shakeup following a string of racist incidents this fall, a hunger strike and continued protests on campus, which eventually led to the resignation of UM System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin

A problem rooted in history

Incidents of racism on college campuses and the black student protests in response to them have been going on for decades. In one Mizzou-specific example, Bradley said that all the way back to 1940, black students at NYU protested when a black football player was excluded from playing against the University of Missouri. That’s because no black football players were allowed on Mizzou’s team then. That made the Mizzou football players’ solidarity this month with Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike all the more powerful.

Another historic black student protest that Bradley referenced was a 1968 sit-in organized by black students at Columbia University protesting the campus’ encroachment on Morningside Park, in Harlem, a historically black community. The recent protests at Mizzou were more tame than those earlier ones, said Bradley.

"There was a model in place for these young people as they took up their protest at Mizzou."

“In terms of results to what we saw in decades before, the idea that a president and chancellor could resign in the same week as a result of the protests, is reminiscent of what we saw in the 1960s out at San Francisco State and others,” he continued. “There was a model in place for these young people as they took up their protest at Mizzou. That’s featured in the demands they issued.”

Bradley also said that, historically in protests including at Mizzou, the presence of white allies has been important in instituting change at the universities. However, that doesn’t diminish the risk black students are taking to make their voices heard.

“These black students, some of whom are first-generation students and some of whom are more privileged, this is stepping out on a limb,” Bradley said.  “College, at least in the African-American community, has been the gateway into the middle class and to a certain status. By making these protests and sacrificing your shot at status, that’s an important thing.”

Where do we go from here?

One of the student demands is to increase the number of black faculty and staff campus-wide to 10 percent. Dannielle Davis, Ph.D., said that most higher education institutions across the country are struggling to achieve this kind of faculty parity in racial makeup, due to the recruitment of black graduate students and number of black students interested in getting their Ph.D. There’s not one institution that is doing everything right, she said.

Related: We Live Here tackles the numbers behind the percentage of black faculty members nationwide and in Missouri institutions of higher education.

Davis is an associate professor of higher education at Saint Louis University, whose expertise lies in the realm of the experiences of marginalized groups in educational settings and the role of organizational policy in addressing those issues. She said that for universities to do better at crafting policies for inclusion and diversity, there has to be some acknowledgement by white people of privilege at institutions of higher education.

She said that part of why change has taken so long to come at Mizzou in regard to racism, is that those creating diversity strategies need to have not only a change of mind, but a change of heart.

"When we have spaces where people aren't included, where people feel threatened, where people don't feel safe, we have failed all of our students."

“Instead of it being a ‘black student problem’ or ‘black faculty problem,’ I think the more effective way to look at this is a university problem, this is our problem,” Davis said. “It is a problem for white students and white faculty as much as it is for black students and black faculty. I think that when we have spaces where people aren’t included, where people feel threatened, where people don’t feel safe, we have failed all of our students. That’s important to remember.”

She said that among black students at institutions of higher education, there is a ‘racial battle fatigue,’ from constant worry about navigating a historically white space. “Micro-aggressions can build up over time,” she said, negatively impacting the black experience at university. That build up needs to be met with educational policy to address those issues.

That fatigue was certainly echoed by Wanda, a caller to the show who attended Saint Louis University ‘back in the day,’ as well as several Mizzou alumni who answered a Public Insight Network query about their collegiate experiences with race.  

“I loved school, I loved education but some of the most significant things I remember were just like the things students at Missouri experienced,” she said. “It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I learned about ‘significant emotional events.’ Once you have one, it changes your life forever. I did not come from a background where people treated me different because I was black. … I was in a school situation where there weren’t many black folks and people called me names, the n-word and…it tires you.”

Let’s keep the conversation going: Share your collegiate experience with race.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.