On Saturday, April 17, the President’s Office released a statement in response to the #BlackMindsMatter protest organized by the Black Student Union (BSU). In an email to all students, President Biddy Martin responded to the BSU demands by urging professors to be lenient with extensions and absences, announcing the hiring of an additional counselor (who is a person of color) and asking a team of experts in diversity, equity and inclusion to create focus groups to address demands regarding the abolition of the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD).
Members of the BSU found Martin’s response to be reactionary and performative. Several representatives of the BSU stated that they are tired of unequal burden placed on Black students and students of color to instigate substantive change at the college, they said in a statement to The Student. Improving the lived experience of Black students, the board members added, requires more than empty emails. Furthermore, individuals in the BSU were outraged that the college posted photos from the walkout on its social media accounts before making a robust commitment to improving its practices.
“While I am glad that the administration addressed the walkout, I feel, as always, [that] the letter missed the mark. I think it is disgusting that the administration chose to make Instagram posts about how proud they were before they even responded to the walkout that was literally addressing the structural harms we face here,” said Jeremy Thomas ’21, the president of the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) and the BSU alumni liaison.
Maya Foster ’21, senior chair of the Black Women’s Group (BWG), felt that the email was just a way of putting off anti-racism work. She stated, “The email, to me, seemed like punting the real issues to a ‘later date,’ which often means that they’re waiting until there’s less pressure to avoid meeting our full demands.”
In her email, Martin “provided information” on three issues “raised by students.” First, she indicated that she will discuss the need for increased academic “flexibility and leniency” in “such extraordinarily difficult times” with the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) at their meeting on Wednesday, April 21. Secondly, she relented that the Counseling Center does need more mental health counselors. She relayed that the college recently hired a new counselor, and is planning to begin a study of student wellness and “design an integrated health and wellness initiative.” Finally, Martin said that the decision to abolish the ACPD would need to be made by the Board of Trustees.
Thomas reiterated the sentiment that the email passed responsibility off to other administrative bodies. “The email did a lot of punting … Biddy, for example, is a faculty member and a voting member on the Board of Trustees. While she does vaguely urge faculty to consider Covid-19 and racist violence, we, for example, are still operating under regular grading systems (instead of being completely pass/fail, for example),” he said.
Thomas continued, “The only solution [Biddy] provided is empathy. Empathy is not a solution, but, as we have seen so much in the past year, the performance of empathy is a form of violence itself that hides an unwillingness to take meaningful, substantive action in a haze of supportive words, smiles and commitments to an amorphous, largely insignificant ‘anti-racism’ that does more for people in power than those living in oppression.”
Among students who were deeply dissatisfied with the information provided by the administration was Zulimah Sawab ’22, a member of the BSU board. “[In the email, the administration] evaded any blame or responsibility for the structural harms [that Black students] face. Most of the blame fell at the feet of the Board of Trustees,” Sawab said.
She also felt that “the letter made it appear as if we have a powerless administration that serves as nothing but puppets to the Board.” If this is the case, Sawab said, then the Board of Trustees should be the party addressing the student body.
Students, such as Foster, noted that the response also serves as a reminder that Martin is merely a figurehead for the college and cannot unilaterally make administrative decisions to further anti-racism efforts. “To make real changes, we must pressure the trustees, Catherine Epstein and the rest of the senior staff as well.” Foster said.
Claire Jensen ’24, another member of the BSU, believes that the bare minimum is for students to be informed about the practices of the institution that they attend. Jensen recognizes that it takes time for large changes to happen but thinks that transparency is the first small step towards satisfying student demands. “There’s a lot of gray area around what the institution is actually doing, and if you want answers, you must dig,” Jensen stated.
Members of the BSU have come to see that the response indicates the shortcomings of the college’s administration.“It revealed that the college does not seem to be equipped to review its policies until students sacrifice their sweat and tears and perform for the administration that there are a whole host of issues at play. This points, at best, to a bureaucracy that’s so rusty it doesn’t even recognize when it squeaks,” Thomas said.
“Each time there is a crisis, you can count on the President’s Office to release a statement; this address is no different. A step in the right direction will be writing letters that address specific demands from the student body, creating detailed action plans on how to begin fulfilling these wishes and third, but certainly not least, creating transparency between the administration and the student body when these plans are finalized and materialized.”
Students were also deeply disturbed by the audacity of the college to post photos of the walkout before committing to efforts to change its own practices. “If you go to the Amherst College social media accounts, you’ll see that they posted photos from the walkout. Posting th[ose] photo[s] without making a robust commitment to changing students’ lives is merely a form of commodification,” Thomas noted.
Thomas described how Martin’s email, along with the social media posts, should be cause for grave alarm. “Thanking students for their work toward making the college a more inclusive place is an incredibly violent sentence,” he said. “The college is saying, ‘We will require you to suffer before we even consider taking real action to do our jobs and create a suitable learning environment for you.’”
Sawab referenced the college’s Instagram posts when speaking about the misrepresentation of the BSU’s demands in Martin’s email. “That letter purposely misrepresented and watered down our demands,” Sawab stated. “I say this decision was purposeful because after they posted us on the school’s Instagram, an E-Board member for BSU responded [to the post] with the specific demands of the walkout, yet the language within Biddy’s address was very different.”
Sawab explained that the BSU had demanded for doubling the number of counselors and therapists employed by the college and doubling counseling center funding. Martin distorted this demand, Sawab said, by referring to it as “focus[ing] on mental health resources.”
Overall, students realize that the email indicates that the administration misunderstood the walkout, and their role in causing it. Jensen believes that the email demonstrates that the walkout was a “a makeshift space” for Black students that needed to be heard so that they can heal. BSU members called on the college to see that the event resulted because the college had failed to provide spaces to heal after the traumatic events of the past year.
“It takes so much time and energy to organize such an event and credit for that goes to Ayodele Lewis [’21] and Zoe Akoto [’21]. It also takes so much energy to just walk up to that microphone and speak, especially as a Black student speaking to an administration who is supposed to be supporting them,” Jensen said. “The administration really needs to take to heart that we are people too, and [that] although Black people have shown resilience, [it needs to] create space for us to mourn and heal [rather than] sitting behind a wall. Clearly, the administration is failing us.”