Why We Must #IntegrateAmherst

Picture of the inside of Johnson Chapel
Johnson Chapel houses portraits of two black men: Charles Hamilton Houston ’15 and William Hastie ’25, major figures of Black history.

The two Black faces in the white-portrait-filled Johnson Chapel are Charles Hamilton Houston ’15 and William Hastie ’25, the legal architects of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Their presence among the faces of people who actively and passively worked to defer their dream of racial integration is hypocrisy to the point of comedy. Through this contradiction, Johnson Chapel is a poignant symbol of the college as an institution of the United States, one made by and for white people, where Black people are expected to abide by the sins of white supremacy. For students at Amherst to still  carry the same weight over 60 years later is anathema.

In her statement to The Student, President Martin writes that she agrees on the need to integrate. In doing so, she attempts to divorce herself from her position in this narrative. President Martin is situated at the helm of this institution and is therefore specifically situated within the administration to not only  make the necessary changes for this to occur but also to determine the college’s actions. On matters of diversity and inclusion, the contemporary analog for integration, President Martin echoes the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board and clearly desires to move with “all deliberate speed” to make such change occur. In matters of race and racism, deliberation is a tool that has historically been used to stave off change. This slow-paced integration preserves segregation and makes President Martin complicit in the institution’s inability to address racism. The well-intentioned segregationist is indistinguishable from the gradual integrationist because of their shared, impossible timeline to address racial injustice. This timeline is intolerable. President Martin is a segregationist.

Ignoring racism preserves segregation and the liabilities it entails. Ineffectual responses by President Martin have not only preserved racism but also uphold a contemporary separate but unequal campus environment. When the strongest structures in place to handle racist incidents are emails, we should all be alarmed. If it took this incident for it to occur to the President that processes, communication and foresight are necessary to prevent and handle racism, how can we possibly feel safe under her administration?

There is a disturbing dissonance between President Martin’s rhetoric and her actions. While she would have us believe she understands the “gap between [her] goals for Amherst and the realities that too many students still face,” she contradicts her ostensible commitment to “ensuring that we take those steps for the benefit of the entire Amherst community.” Her reactionary “fixes,” such as firing the lacrosse coach and punishing the entire lacrosse team both scapegoat individuals leave the institution’s racist structures unaltered.

Where meaningful opportunities for progress have presented themselves, she has failed to act. The majority of the most recent demands from the 2015 Amherst Uprising went unacknowledged, as did the majority of the recommendations made by the External Advisory Committee on Diversity, Inclusion and Excellence. The Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion — the meetings of which the president herself has not attended in the past three years — proposed a detailed Bias Response Team and Protocol and just as many times been denied. The 1969 “Afro-Am Demands,” summarize the events of over 50 years ago as if they were today: “[r]esponsiveness has given way to indifference; stagnation has supplanted change. We, the Amherst Afro-American society, feel that the college has reneged on its promises.”

When the work of “develop[ing] policies and procedures aimed at preventing harm and holding those responsible to account” for race-based discrimination is consistently prevented by its purported supporters, what conclusions must we draw?

This is a matter of priority and a question of whose lives matter at Amherst. Let us be clear, our eight demands are neither suggestions nor a petition. They are necessary first steps to reducing the commonplace institutional violence that terrorizes us. These are not extreme demands — they outline sincere inclusion, appropriate administrative response and protection from racial hostility. We deserve, however, much more than this basic respect. Bemoaning the ‘difficulty’ of accomplishing these goals is the tired tool of gradual integrationists. A learning institution run by a president who refuses to learn is the highest form of irony.

When the president declares her position against white supremacy, we want to believe her. However, when she impedes the institution from learning from its history of racism, she becomes an actor in promoting its contemporary racism. She concedes “respect for persons” to “freedom of expression,” and lets freedom of expression manifest in people feeling emboldened to draw swastikas on people’s foreheads, create openly homophobic and transphobic group chats and shout “N*gger!” at their classmates. The list of racist offenses continues from allowing “I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot” Jeff Sessions to speak at the college to the fact that since at least 1973, the  Student Code of Conduct has outlined greater detail around alcohol policy and sanction than it does around race (“alcohol” appears 62 times, “race” nine times and racism never appears, despite new updates for parties, postering and protest). It goes on to include her public silence on the racism faced by Asian and Asian American students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no neutral ground here; either the policies work to support systemic racism, or they work to dismantle it. To our detriment, President Martin’s posturing promotes the former.

President Martin, we challenge you to disprove our conclusions by complying with our demands and creating an adequate environment for the community your predecessor welcomed — one where we can indeed “learn from one another, build a truly supportive and engaged community and create an environment that draws on a rich array of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences.”

When the Editorial Board of The Student writes that we are working to “ensure that our history does not become our future,” they are right to observe the frightening mundanity with which racist incidents have been and continue to be reported. They are also right to note that most of the racist incidents that take place at the college go unacknowledged. However, the possibility of a better future must not be foreclosed by the limited imagination of the President. We are entitled to more than platitudes and condolences for our disparate mistreatment. We want more than to ensure that the limitations of our history do not become our future; we demand this future not become our history. 

Over the course of this series, we will work to establish an account that cannot go ignored. We hope to communicate the injustices Amherst condones so that something may be done about them. From 1966 to as recently as 2015, Black students at Amherst organized sit-ins and moratoria in Converse Hall, Johnson Chapel and Frost Library. They did so in protest, out of love and in hopes of transforming the nature of Amherst and American higher education. 

Fellow students, alumni, parents and friends, we invite you to read and to share your stories of the failings and successes of the college so that we can fulfill our duty to leave this place better than it was when we entered it. There is no reason for the Amherst of the class of 2024 to resemble that of 1954. Should we echo our administration’s reticence in the face of explicit racist hate, then the combination of violence and sanctioned ignorance of the college, which has undoubtedly positioned itself to define our institution, will define us as co-conspirators of the crimes of this institution. 

President Martin is a segregationist. Not because she explicitly supports the separation of different races of students, but because the lackadaisical speed at which she supports the work of diversity and inclusion has the same effect as opposing it. No matter your personal assessment of President Martin’s character, her actions align with segregationists. Even if you believe President Martin is not a segregationist, you must understand that the reticent integrationist and the well-intentioned segregationist are but two sides of the same coin. Both sides want to “get it right,” all the while wronging Black folks in the name of the long term. President Martin’s leadership  perpetuates the college’s history of reticent racism through its violent incompetence. 

If President Martin cannot find a way to reckon with the plague of her presidency, then we will be forced to live separate and unequal until someone is willing to do something about it. The question is no longer if not now, then when. But if not her, then who?

Love Black Love, 

Amherst College Black Student Union