#IntegrateAmherst: A View From '80 and the Need to Grow From the Past

This article is a part of The Student’s #IntegrateAmherst op-ed series. The series intends to act as a forum for a multitude of perspectives to engage in a dialogue surrounding the Black Student Union’s recent #IntegrateAmherst movement responding to racism at Amherst College. Articles included in the series represent the opinions of the authors themselves only and are not necessarily endorsed by the BSU. To contribute your opinion on these events and topics, please contact [email protected] or [email protected].

Dear Amherst College Community,

In these troublingly chaotic times of the COVID-19 pandemic, all dialogue should begin with a tribute to those who are so very bravely staffing and serving to address the urgent needs and overwhelming demands of public service. Thank you to everyone who suffers daily from your risk on the front lines.  

Congratulations to Amherst College on admitting its first freshman class with a majority of students of color. I am an African American alumnus from the class of 1980 — the first Amherst class to matriculate women during the late Dean of Admission Ed Wall’s pioneering initiative to transform demographics at the college. One of my most formative experiences at Amherst derived from a leadership role and the subsequent consequences of 1979’s eight-day student occupation of Converse Hall, led by the Black Student Union (BSU) during my junior year. The vibrant protests were followed by both formal judiciary Code of Conduct protocols and brutally authoritarian retributions by faculty and staff of Amherst.

Recently, the college’s diverse community has been compelled to address racist events concerning the men’s lacrosse team. Amherst College seems trapped in a cycle akin to the movie “Groundhog Day,” repeatedly suffering racist indignities and protecting white privilege.

This cycle results from a lack of institutional safeguards and protocols. Even with the resources to prevent such violence, Amherst fails to make the grade.

Social justice for historically oppressed groups has enduringly eluded us. The college lacks both the spirit and the policy for institutional accountability to victims of racist violence; the college has not yet done restorative justice at the institutional level — the closest thing was a pilot program this January. Instead of leveraging institutional knowledge from its legacy, Amherst seems to shield a rather toxic athletic, male and racial privilege by prizing individualism.

As the college welcomes its first freshman class with a white minority, will it be like the campus that welcomed women forty years ago? The one with virtually no campus outdoor lighting and multiple urinals rather than adequate toilet stalls on the women’s dorm floors? It took the college too long to install appropriate lighting and door locks for the safety of Amherst’s women (which added safety for all students).

How will Amherst welcome its new class of students, with its kaleidoscopic diversity, without requiring violence, like that the first class of women faced, to spur structural and cultural change? What will the college do for its students who refuse to assimilate to the outdated, racially blind institutional norms and toxic legacy of Lord Jeff’s cultural ethos? Does Amherst actually have the capacity to affirm human rights and dignity for all persons? I believe so, but this breakthrough would necessitate a breakdown of status quo perceptions.

As a former chairperson of the BSU, it is beyond disappointing to see the same concerns we raised long ago resurfacing in 2020.

While I cannot speak for fellow Black alumni, my own grievances about the apparently arrested development of the institution regarding racial justice include:

  • A manifest lack of organizational learning regarding protective measures for the safety and dignity of persons outside of Amherst’s historically white and male cultural ethos.
  • Inadequacy of the Student Code of Conduct and the Honor Code to address specifically racist assault after repeated campus experiences of it.
  • The college’s cultural bias in prioritizing western values of individualism even within a context of group and gang-like violence aimed at persons from marginalized identity groups outside of its own cultural legacy. 
  • Lack of sophistication in distinguishing legitimate self-defense from offensive physical violence, particularly within the context of racist violence.
  • Negligible protocols for using restorative justice as a heuristic frame for learning.

The college’s initial email response, with its final paragraph characterizing the lacrosse team as being “among the oldest and most prestigious athletic programs in the country“, is a vivid example of its ethical immaturity. It is regarding racist assault as an aberration upon an otherwise spotless record, rather than the more troubling commonplace occurrence that it is.

The response reveals how skewed Amherst’s ethical perspective is. We ought to regard our rich legacy of sports programs as a waste of an opportunity towards assuring that the cultural ethos within our sports teams is healthy, ethical, honorable and just. Instead, Amherst athletes expect treatment as elites.

Once Amherst lives up to its own ideals of equity, the results will benefit the entire institution in much the same way that civil rights legislation enriched the entire nation. In the era of the coronavirus generation, a pandemic-informed transformational reality, there is opportunity to create a deeper community everywhere.

Amherst College can inspire the long-lost affections from alumni like myself whose alienating experiences of institutional racism have given us rational pause. An Amherst College organizational culture of restorative justice in this instance will prove that an institution of higher learning can put into praxis the highest ideals that it seeks to instill within those who enrich it.

In praise of Ancestors,

Harold Massey ’80