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Demands, not suggestions: When it comes to anti-racism on campus, the administration must listen to Black students

By Thresher Editorial Board     7/6/20 10:48am

On June 19, an anonymous group of Black students released a list of demands for the administration called “Tangible Ways to Improve the Black Experience, as Demanded by Black Students: Inaction is Not an Option.” The six-page document was circulated widely by current students and alumni on social media, and went on to catch the attention of Fox News, who ran a biased story on the demands that was riddled with inaccuracies, including the false claim that the group behind the demands was associated with the Black Student Association. The story, which incorrectly named certain students as leaders of BSA, led hundreds of people to flood the organization’s Instagram and email with racist criticisms — some of them containing racial slurs.

On June 24, after a student-led social media campaign focused specifically on the removal of the Founder’s Memorial that circulated widely among the Rice community the week of June 22, President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches, who was not named in the social media campaign, wrote an email to the student body. The other three administrators that the social media campaign named, Kevin Kirby, Doug Miller and Christine Church, did not respond to the demand to remove the statue from the academic quad and from marketing and public relations materials.

In the email, Leebron said that the administration “will certainly take these [demands] under consideration and construct a process for further engagement with all members of our community on these issues, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” He also condemned “those who respond to the expression of proposals and ideas with hate and intolerance” on social media and other platforms. The statement came almost a week after the list of demands was released, and did not commit the administration to doing anything in response beyond considering the demands. Furthermore, the email was only for the student body, and no public statement has been made. 

We believe the contents of Leebron’s email, and the fact that it has been the only statement made by the administration on the subject, show that the administration is not taking these demands seriously enough. We implore the administration to take decisive action and commit to implementing the demands of Rice's Black community.

It should go without saying that the feelings of Black students which led them to circulate these demands are not new. Here at the Thresher, Black students have used our opinion section to voice demands for years, calling for the administration and community to listen to them, stop using the N-word, be actively anti-racist beyond performance, and support Black-led movements. The recently published list of demands is not a haphazard, impulsive effort. It is just another iteration of the demands for Rice’s true commitment to equity, inclusion and justice that Black students have been making ever since they were allowed on campus in 1965, after attorneys representing Rice won a lawsuit allowing the administration to overturn the racist charter written by William Marsh Rice that excluded Black students. The administration must treat the demands as such.

Furthermore, Black students should not have to dedicate such an enormous amount of emotional and mental labor to fighting for active anti-racism at any institution that prides itself on diversity and uses it for marketing. Juggling school and work-related stress, compounded by the immense pressures and anxieties presented by the pandemic, Black students have done an extraordinary amount of work in pursuit of social equity that should have already been done by the administration long ago. At an institution that often thrusts responsibility for cultivating social equality on its legions of unpaid student leaders, the administration’s lack of proactivity on these issues is disappointing but certainly not surprising. 

The demands put forward by this group include adding a provision banning hate speech to the code of conduct, investing in a non-residential Black house, including Black, African, Caribbean and Afro-Diaspora languages in CLIC, increasing the number of Black students admitted to Rice, and hiring more Black professors, faculty, well-being counselors and therapists. These actions are long overdue for a university that commits itself to diversity and inclusion, and are completely feasible with the resources Rice has at its disposal. When hundreds of millions of dollars can be mobilized for extravagant campus improvements like a new opera house, social sciences building and inflatable practice field, committing to merely considering Black students’ demands is not nearly enough.

The demand that has received particular attention is for the removal of the Founder’s Memorial, the statue of William Marsh Rice. This is the only demand Leebron explicitly mentioned in his email. He wrote that “many of those writing to us have supported the removal of the statue, but a diverse group of other students and alumni have written against the removal (while also speaking out in favor of measures to achieve greater equity and inclusion).” This language presents the demands of an overwhelming number of current students and the demands of alumni as deserving of equal consideration, which is in line with the tone of the rest of the email, throughout which Leebron called for community members to “recognize diverse points of view and allow for dialogue as we make decisions.” 

Depicting the views of alumni, some of whom may have attended Rice before it was integrated or while a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan still existed on campus, as just as important as the feelings of a large number of current students, shows an unwillingness to fundamentally reckon with and depart from our racist past and present. Depicting those who respond to Black students’ demands with harassment as participants in levelheaded civil discourse who deserve to have their perspective heard and weighed equally as those asking for racial equality on campus is dishonest and unfair to the students who endured online harassment for speaking up about the treatment they deserve. And depicting the limited attachment alumni can have to a statue at a university they no longer attend as deserving of the same weight as the harm and trauma the statue of an enslaver causes for current Black students is offensive.

Making up just nine percent of students on campus, Black students are disproportionately underrepresented. Maybe if Leebron made a public statement acknowledging the demands of the few Black students it does have, committed to implementing them and stopped giving equal weight to opinions that due to deeply embedded systemic racism clearly do not deserve equal weight on these matters, Black students would feel more welcome here. Maybe if the administration listened, that percentage would begin to grow.

Editor’s Note: Thresher editorials are collectively written by the members of the Thresher’s editorial board. Current members include Rishab Ramapriyan, Ivanka Perez, Amy Qin, Elizabeth Hergert, Ella Feldman, Katelyn Landry, Rynd Morgan, Savannah Kuchar, Simona Matovic and Tina Liu.

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