As the Nation Demands Reform, Student Activists Lead College Reckoning with Racist Past and Practices

As anti-racist protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 continue across the nation, calls for change are growing across the Amherst community. On the national level, students, alumni and the college itself have coordinated donation drives to support organizations working against anti-Black racism, including the Amherst Acts donation-matching campaign developed by the Black Student Union (BSU) in partnership with the college, which ran from June 3 to June 10 and raised a total of $183,000. On the local level, as the college continues to work towards goals set out to promote racial justice, students and alumni have called for more sweeping changes, ranging from public hearings around issues of anti-Black racism to the abolition of the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD).

These initiatives come off the heels of a racist incident in which three members of the men’s lacrosse team chanted the n-word outside a Black teammate’s dorm on March 7. The incident sparked outrage across the Amherst community and prompted the BSU to launch a movement called #IntegrateAmherst, which set out a series of demands to President Biddy Martin to further racial justice at the college. After a series of conversations between the BSU and Martin, most of the demands were met — including the establishment of a bias response protocol by fall 2020, revisions to the college policies regarding hateful speech and the expansion of the Restorative Practices Initiative into a campus-wide program by spring 2021 — but the spotlight that recent events have shone on the prevalence of anti-Black racism throughout the country has caused many to feel a need for more. 

Addressing the National Crisis

On May 31, six days after the death of George Floyd, Martin publicly addressed the murder and the prior killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in an email to the college community by “condemn[ing] racial hatred, violence and injustice” and urging them “to acknowledge the reality of anti-Black racism” at Amherst and abroad. She also acknowledged that “we have not done enough at the college to ensure [Black students’] freedom from racist bias, even racist acts, much less to ensure their sense of belonging and equal ownership of the culture and life of the college.” 

Three days later, on June 3, Martin wrote again “to provide information about resources and actions” regarding anti-Black racism including ongoing support groups, a June 5 Vigil for Black Lives and a statement from the ACPD in which they “denounc[ed] the violent racist actions that resulted in the senseless killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.”

Most notably, the email announced the new Amherst Acts initiative, in which the college would match students, faculty and staff donations for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Negro College Fund and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, up to $250 per person. 

Jeremy Thomas ’21, an e-board member of the BSU who drove the #IntegrateAmherst campaign, initially reached out to Martin about a donation matching campaign, and the initiative came to fruition after the group proposed the idea to Martin. She agreed so long as it “align[ed] with the values and the mission of the college” and wasn’t “too political,” said Thomas.

Concurrently, several members of the Association for Amherst Students (AAS) had established a donation pledge, called Amherst for Black Lives Matter (BLM), for students to donate their $177 student activities refund from the college’s shortened on-campus semester to any organization of their choice related to BLM. Following Martin’s second email, the AAS sent an email to students on June 5 saying that they would also match donations to organizations fighting racial violence up to $5,000, with funds to be distributed between the American Civil Liberties Union, the Bail Project and Campaign Zero. The AAS later replaced Campaign Zero with the Loveland Foundation Therapy Fund as the third organization to which they would be donating matched funds due to “some controversy over support” for the former, according to AAS senator Angelina Han ’22. The AAS later announced that it would increase its match up to $22,000. 

The Amherst Acts initiative ultimately raised $183,000, between both BSU donations and the college’s match. Though alumni were not technically allowed to participate in the initiative, many did anyway, with some students developing a Google Sheets form that matched alumni with students who had yet to reach their $250 donation cap. According to the college, “approximately $115,000 went to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, $36,000 to the United Negro College Fund and $32,000 to the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center.”

Many individual departments have also issued statements of solidarity with BLM, such as the Black studies, chemistry, and sexuality, women’s and gender studies departments, along with the library. “We share in their pain and work for a better world where no one is deemed disposable; where arbitrary violence no longer destroys people; where the vulnerable, the young and the old are not forced to risk infection and bodily harm to challenge the surveillance, control and violation that plague Black communities in the U.S. and around the world,” the members of the Black studies department wrote in their statement of solidarity.

Several professors are also modifying their pedagogy to deal more directly with anti-Black racism. According to Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein, she asked faculty at a meeting on June 9 “to reconsider the courses that they are teaching this fall and to prioritize offering courses on the history and contemporary situation of race and racism in the United States if that’s an area that they teach regularly.” 

Epstein also noted that many faculty participated in the Strike for Black Lives and the #ShutDownSTEM initiative, both designed to foster a more inclusive environment in academia, on June 10. The Strike for Black Lives was an initiative started by Particles for Justice, a group of physicists aiming to counter anti-Blackness in academia and particularly in STEM fields, and involved a day of education and advocacy around anti-racist measures. 

An Institutional Reckoning With Racism

The college has also faced continued criticism for how it deals with anti-Black racism. On May 31, several hours before Martin sent her first email addressing the killing of George Floyd, the Amherst College Twitter account tweeted out congratulations to Matthew Solberg ’20, one of the three people who had chanted the n-word at a Black teammate, along with a small group of other randomly-selected graduating seniors, as part of the college’s virtual celebration for the class of 2020. The tweet was met with heavy backlash from students and was deleted a few hours later along with all other individual shoutouts, with an additional tweet “apologiz[ing] for any offense this may have caused.” 

As the national conversation brought demands for accountability to institutions at every level, alumni and students launched broader calls for change around anti-Black racism and racism at Amherst. Most notably, on June 6, Chaka Leguerre ’08 circulated an 11-page alumni letter written by her with help from Donatella Galella ’09 in response to Martin’s first email, outlining the recent history of anti-Black racism at the college and setting out nine additional commitments they urged the college to take. When it was sent to Martin and Epstein on June 10, around 400 alumni had signed onto the letter.

“We believe that the college’s response to several of these past incidents of anti-Black racism and white supremacy have been neither sufficient nor consistent with the college’s avowed respect for the dignity of Black students, much less their sense of safety, inclusion, empowerment and ownership in the college community,” the letter said.

Thomas echoed these sentiments, describing the way that the college handles issues of race as “reactionary.” “If you’re always responding to a crisis, you’re always addressing a symptom. You’re not necessarily addressing the root of those problems because in the moment of the crisis, you just want the crisis to go away, not necessarily the thing that caused the crisis to go away,” he said.

“[I’m] worried that the college could have done all of these things it’s doing now in an earlier moment,” Thomas added. “It’s violent that it takes death — Black death — for them to do anything.”

Among the nine commitments outlined in the letter were “a public statement of apology to current and former Black students”; “a biennial public hearing … in which current Black students and faculty testifiers have the opportunity to address issues concerning race, anti-Black racism and white supremacy at the college”; “implementing a substantive anti-racist pedagogical initiative as part of [the college’s] annual first-year orientation”; the establishment of an alumni diversity council “to allow for more alumni involvement, support and collaboration”; and reinstating the controversial Common Language Document “and ensur[ing] that it is readily accessible on a prominent part of the college website.” 

Additionally, the commitments call for diversifying counseling center staff, which only has one counselor specialized in racial trauma, and the Board of Trustees, in which 15 of 26 members are white men, as well as greater accountability among current initiatives related to support for Black students and faculty. The letter also emphasizes the importance of letting organizations like the BSU and the Black studies department take a leading role in the development of workshops and events concerning race and racism.

The BSU issued an addendum to the letter on June 8 expressing support for Laguerre’s letter and adding three additional requests: disarming the ACPD and reallocating some of those resources elsewhere; crafting a plan to “remedy the disproportionate number of Black, brown and low-income students who take leaves of absence and withdraw from the college”; and “reserv[ing] two voting seats for student members of the BSU on the Board of Trustees.” The addendum was signed by around 50 current students.

According to Martin, she and Laguerre have corresponded about the letter and are having ongoing conversations over the phone.

Some students expressed a need to go further, namely with the abolition of the ACPD. On June 9, Aniah Washington ’22, Diana Tiburcio ’22 and Zan Rozen ’21E circulated a letter outlining the case for abolishing ACPD, arguing that it escalates situations while being unnecessarily punitive and that most of its responsibilities “can be handled by other, already existing departments on campus.” Just under 200 students and alumni signed the letter. 

A number of community members also took to social media to express their frustrations. Part of a trend of Instagram accounts dedicated to recounting the experiences of Black students at predominantly white institutions, Kyndall Ashe ’18 and Haylee Price ’18 started @BlackAmherstSpeaks on June 10, which has since documented a number of stories of prejudice encountered by anonymous or named submitters to the page, from current students to alumni. In advertising it, Ashe wrote that the account is a platform “to showcase and bring attention to the stories of injustice or discrimination Black members of the Amherst College community have experienced.” The experiences detailed on the page range from academic, in which students described racist encounters in classes or with professors, to social, with some detailing microaggressive comments made by peers and other more explicitly racist incidents. Many include direct quotes that have stuck with students and alumni years later. As of June 5, the account has almost 3,000 followers and over 60 posts.

The college has offered some response to these initiatives; on their Instagram account, the college issued a statement on July 1 saying “we are following, reading and discussing the stories posted on the BlackAmherstSpeaks site. They provide further evidence of the many forms of anti-Black racism students experience on campus and the impact of those experiences. They also require that we do more to make good on our principles and our values. We will do that work.”

Other departments across campus have also addressed the page, particularly those that students specifically named in their @BlackAmherstSpeaks posts. One post described an incident in which the post’s anonymous submitter was followed by security guards in an exhibit in the Mead Art Museum, even though they had access to the exhibit for a class. In response, the Mead put out a statement, noting that “we believe Black Lives Matter and appreciate the labor of the folx running @BlackAmherstSpeaks and the bravery of the students and alumni who shared their experiences publicly. We offer a sincere apology to the individuals who shared their experience and anyone who has experienced racism within the Mead.”

The chemistry department also responded to the @BlackAmherstSpeaks page in a now-deleted Instagram story after a number of posts detailed students’ racist encounters with Professor of Physics Jonathan Friedman. “We are deeply troubled by the multiple posts about the physics professor named [in the post the department reshared] and are advocating for a full investigation of these issues,” the Instagram story from the @amherst_college_chemistry account read. “We stand with the brave students who spoke out.” 

Despite the statements released over the past month, many remain unhappy with the college’s response. “We had to reach out to Amherst — and honestly, we have been dissatisfied with their response, to say the least. It doesn’t seem like they feel our stories warrant a public acknowledgment,” said a post by @BlackAmherstSpeaks.

Though student activism has played a significant role in the college’s response to nationwide and campus-wide events, there still exists a desire for the college to do more out of its own will. “Even though we’re doing this work, it’s not our job,” Thomas said. “It’s a reminder for the college … that they need to be doing these things. You have these obligations to your students. It is not our job to do them; we are here to learn.”