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].
In the fall of 2015, hundreds of students descended on Frost Library, Amherst College’s most central location, to sit in solidarity with marginalized students of color around the nation. Students from every walk of life sat, shared and sobbed to bring light to a longstanding issue at the college and schools like it: a lack of adequate support systems for students from marginalized backgrounds.
It was a series of discriminatory incidents against students of color (SOCs) on various predominantly white campuses nationwide, ranging from Yale to the University of Missouri, that catalyzed this 300-person sit-in, rightfully titled Amherst Uprising for its intentionally uproarious nature. On that day, it was as if the ghosts-of-students-of-color-past were there in spirit. Hanging over the weekend, like a dark cloud of unspoken exasperation, was the feeling that previous generations of equally motivated young activists had made the same efforts.
I remember being there like it was yesterday (and there are few events in my life I remember this vividly).
Why has this moment etched itself into the deepest corners of my memory? Let me paint a picture of American colleges over the past few decades.
For decades, SOCs at U.S. colleges and universities just like Amherst have sought equal representation and treatment at their respective institutions. As in the 2015 Uprising , they’ve demanded more inclusive curricula, a higher number of faculty of color, an infusion of cultural competency into campus communities and a formal statement of institutional values around community conduct.
One might think that because the year is 2020, all is right on the racism front and enough progress has been made. One might assume that structural racism on college campuses is a thing of the past. But unfortunately for all of you optimists out there, the reason Amherst Uprising was so poignant for me is the fact that structural racism at colleges is very much a thing of the present.
Schools who have checked some of the baseline “diversity and inclusion boxes” tout committees and offices dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Our fair college on the hill, in fact, has been deemed “exemplary” at admitting SOCs, a point I am not keen to argue with. But what happens when those students arrive on campus and do not receive the amount of support the college advertised to them?
I’ll tell you what happens. Since institutional mechanisms to support underrepresented and marginalized groups have rarely been woven into the structural fabric of institutions, SOCs have to find ways to cope by creating their own mini-communities or demanding more support from the powers that be.
For schools like Amherst, where its relatively small student body makes for easier contact with the administration, when students choose the “ask for more” route, demands are read, apologies are said, committees are made but lives go on fairly unchanged. Rinse and repeat every 4 years and there you have the phenomenon of U.S. universities.
It takes years for newly proposed student policies to take effect at Amherst, oftentimes due to “wrong timing,” “other priorities taking precedence” or bureaucratic inefficiency. Too often, by the time the students who proposed said changes graduate, only small, incremental strides have been made. And even those small changes end up falling by the wayside over time without a clear voice to represent them.
What I’d like to pose today is one simple point — a lack of policy change addressing racist, discriminatory and hateful acts towards historically marginalized groups is dangerous. When policies don’t change, discriminatory incidents continue.
When a college community isn’t educated about the harm that certain behaviors cause, the most oppressed student groups’ peace of mind suffers. Having one of the most diverse bodies of any college campus is great, but without adequate support systems in place, there will be disproportionate suffering on the shoulders of the very groups that make the campus diverse. Those students may then struggle to learn and thrive within the school’s intellectual atmosphere.
One solution for Amherst’s age-old structural bias problem could be this: a standardized bias response protocol. That is, establishing a guiding policy to address wrongdoings — especially ones involving bias or discrimination against marginalized groups — impartially and transparently.
A bias incident response mechanism would address SOC’s calls for adequate support and provide a structural solution built into the pillars of the institution. If the school truly aspires to achieve the type of culture where all individuals may learn, grow and thrive, it must first create a standard community response in which people are educated about cultural differences and bias so as to prevent future incidents.
To this day, despite Amherst’s impressive numbers of increased representation, it still has predominantly white sports teams that dictate the social strata of the student body. It still struggles to root out the deeply-set racism within these teams, and it still struggles to know how to respond when that manifests itself publicly. It still has legacy students whose parents went to the school in a very different time and view the “Lord Jeff” fondly.
This is both the reason a bias response protocol is needed and why one has yet to be established.
Past conversations around this policy, specifically from my time on Amherst’s Presidential Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion, called for the following: a clearly defined definition of bias, a list of marginalized groups (which would be dynamic with the times), a formulaic way of collecting incident reports, a clear step-by-step protocol of what action would be taken in response to acts of bias and a body of jurists involved in an assessment of said incidents.
The proposal is relatively simple because Amherst is a school that has already made strides in increasing SOC representation, installing committees solely dedicated to discussing these topics and hiring an extremely intelligent administrative staff. So this should be the natural next step if we are to really embrace the “inclusion” aspect of diversity and inclusion as a college community.
What does this mean for the present and future of Amherst College?
If something like what I’m proposing doesn’t happen immediately, Amherst will soon fall behind. The articles that lauded the colleges for its valiant efforts to bring SOCs to its hallowed halls won’t matter as much, because the retention of SOCs will be abysmally low. The matriculation of SOCs will taper; a place that doesn’t properly handle incidents of bias against its most vulnerable groups, — that hinder the community from providing a space for all to thrive — is not a place I could recommend to younger SOCs.
At the end of the day, I want to make it clear that I love my college, and I want to see it succeed. That is why the current culture is even more disheartening. Because through all I’ve done on behalf of diversity and inclusion for the school I love, for all of the cases I’ve made alongside some of the best and brightest students there, for all of the stories other students and I have shared about constantly still feeling othered, different, underappreciated and under-supported, in the year 2020 (one year before the college’s 200-year anniversary) I still have to repeat myself.
America is evolving whether the Amherst administration likes it or not. Without a transparent and standardized protocol like the one I’ve described, I’m not sure SOCs, especially Black students like myself, can fully feel safe.
Sure, alumni of color of past decades have gone on to be wildly successful. Look at notable Black alumni like renowned surgeon Charles Drew (class of 1904), former president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta ’61 and, more recently, published sociologist Tony Jack ’07 or actor Jeffrey Wright ’87. But, I ask, was their success because of their environment at Amherst or despite it?
Recent incidents on campus have demonstrated that change needs to happen. And if not now, when?