#IntegrateAmherst: What Activism Means for This Movement

This article is a part of the #IntegrateAmherst op-ed series. The series intends to act as a forum for varying 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 alone and are not necessarily endorsed by the BSU. To contribute your opinion on these events and topics, please contact [email protected] or [email protected].

This is a moment for community-wide deliberation about how we might all respond to the vicious racism that students of color have experienced. Although COVID-19 poses obstacles to engaging in informal, spontaneous discussions, I hope and believe we can find other forums in which we can converse.

I’m especially interested in addressing the issue of activism, which is a topic of my teaching and scholarly research. I applaud the Black Student Union (BSU) for its leadership in confronting the racism of the men’s lacrosse team and in identifying many, often unreported racist acts that precede March 7. 

Although the college shutdown spurred by COVID-19 prevented the BSU from mobilizing people on the ground, it mobilized hundreds of alumni, many of whom had witnessed or experienced racism themselves, to sign an online petition. Protests are effective when they provide both incisive, cogent analyses and engage our passions. The BSU has helped to shock us out of complacency and forced us to think deeply.

The BSU rightly argues that the college currently lacks the necessary mechanisms and procedures for handling racist incidents. I agree with many of the BSU proposals and would add several to their list, including considering the character of athletic teams and curriculum.

Among the difficult questions that activists face are what kinds of alliances to form, to whom demands should be directed, and what kinds of protests are most effective in bringing about political and cultural change. As I think about how the Amherst community might sustain and deepen the work that the BSU has initiated, I’m mindful of the need for broad-based alliances. I think back to the Amherst Uprising in 2015. The principal organizers, the first people to sit in at Frost Library, were Black women. But over time, they were joined by faculty, staff and students of all backgrounds.  

That same sort of diverse coalition is required to enact change within the current political environment. As Asian and Asian American students at Amherst and elsewhere in this country have become the targets of racism with the acceleration of the coronavirus, their participation is crucial.

While I appreciate the need for anti-racist and cultural competency training, I would like to see more of our students take courses that address racial and ethnic discrimination, exclusion, and violence. I would love to teach a broader cross-section of students than those who choose to take my courses. We need to create more opportunities for a broad cross-section of students to learn from each other about issues that concern us all. 

I’m struck by how the open curriculum, which has for decades been a defining aspect of the college’s educational identity, inadvertently promotes self-segregation among students. The college states without providing a rationale for its views, “Amherst has no distribution requirements and no core curriculum. Instead, students choose the courses that matter most to them.” 

I’m acutely aware of the frustration that activists face in thinking about the timing and character of demands. Amherst College can be maddeningly slow in responding to calls for change. Among other reasons, the college’s commitment to faculty governance entails multiple levels of deliberation before policies are altered and implemented. Given this slow pace, I believe that it was appropriate for the administration to take some immediate actions after the recent racist incident (i.e., firing the coach of the men’s lacrosse team and placing the team on probation through June 2021) while at the same time publicly recognizing that this would only be a starting point in transforming the college.

The administration has stated that it plans to: 1) create a robust set of policies and procedures for dealing with identity-based discrimination and/or harassment; 2) form a bias-reporting protocol; and 3) develop and use “restorative practices.”

With respect to the first two issues, I would ask that the relevant bodies at the college inform us of what they have achieved thus far and when they plan to complete their deliberations, with the hope that we can put new policies in place this fall. I support the immediate use of restorative practices to facilitate our current deliberations and am heartened by the work the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and others have done to make this possible

A more complicated issue concerns the appropriate targets of student protest. It’s not surprising that students often direct their demands at college presidents because they are the most visible symbols of power and the ultimate decision-makers. However, a strategy that focuses exclusively on the president neglects the vital role of other actors. 

Amherst Uprising demonstrated the crucial role of student activism in promoting much-needed reform. A year after the Amherst Uprising, two of its leaders, Katyana Dandridge and Sanyu Takirambudde, celebrated the fact that the Amherst Uprising brought about a number of positive changes to the campus. Thus the allegation that President Biddy Martin is a segregationist who has promoted racism and can only prove otherwise by complying with the BSU’s demands is not only ludicrous and an inappropriate personal attack, but also exaggerates the president’s power and underestimates the role of faculty and students in changing this institution. 

I credit Amherst Uprising, Martin, the faculty and other groups on campus for working passionately and tirelessly on many new initiatives. These changes include the reorganization of the resource centers, the creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, stronger efforts and some success in diversifying the faculty, systematic diversity training for staff, more aggressive efforts to recruit student-athletes of color and a number of curricular initiatives like Being Human in STEM and the creation of a new major in Latinx and Latin American studies.

Making Amherst a more inclusive and welcoming environment entails many different forms of activism. Petitions and sit-ins rightly seek systemic, institutional change. Less evident but of crucial significance are quotidian forms of activism that seek to transform campus culture.  

Consider some examples of the everyday activism of faculty, students, and members of the administration. Johnson Chapel, which epitomized the white, male, elite character of Amherst College has come to include portraits of Rose Olver, the first woman to hold a tenured faculty position here, the great poets Richard Wilbur and Emily Dickinson, civil rights leader Charles Hamilton Houston and the first African American federal judge, William Hastie. The college’s decision to change the mascot from the Lord Jeff to the mammoth repudiated the college’s connection to an officer who sought to exterminate indigenous people. Students acknowledge this history when they open public events by stating that we occupy Nonotuck land. 

These may be small steps but they have great symbolic significance. That we have a long way to go makes it especially important that we recognize the many actors who engage in myriad forms of activism.

Amrita Basu

Paino Professor of Political Science and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies