Shahem Mclaurin says he didn’t go to school to be a “revolutionary leader.”
But that’s the role he has found himself in after his tweet about an incident at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work spurred university officials to acknowledge “ongoing institutional racism” in their classrooms and inspired other students to criticize the Silver School for failing to address racist behavior on campus.
On Feb. 12, Mclaurin described the incident in a widely shared Twitter thread. The 24-year-old graduate student was in Paris and didn’t want to miss his Social Work Practice II class. After receiving permission from the professor, Mclaurin emailed his classmates that morning to ask if someone could connect him via FaceTime during class. No one responded.
After class, one of the students emailed Shahem and explained why he didn’t answer. “I found it easier to lead the discussion without black presence in the room, since I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with the (perceived) threat that it poses — something which I have been working on, but it will take more time than I would like it to be,” the student wrote.
Mclaurin posted the email exchange on Twitter, where it quickly garnered thousands of likes and replies. After the incident, more students spoke out, claiming racism has been a “long-standing issue” at the Silver School. “Notwithstanding efforts to actively address these issues, we clearly have significant work yet ahead,” Silver School officials wrote in a statement sent to students and faculty on Feb. 14.
Mclaurin said he hopes the incident will be a learning experience for the university. Graduate-student groups met Saturday to discuss the incident and discussed future measures they may take. Mclaurin and the other students involved in the email exchange agreed to address the incident during class next week.
School officials and faculty will draft “a collective statement of commitment to intensive work on teaching and learning around issues of equity and inclusion ” during the Silver School’s next faculty meeting, according to the Feb. 14 statement. The school has hired an outside consultant to help achieve these goals.
NYU’s confrontation with racism on campus comes amid a nationwide reckoning among colleges and universities with their racist pasts after photographs of students wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and blackface surfaced in old yearbooks.
Mclaurin said he was “really hurt” by the email. He said he has previously raised concerns about this student and racist behavior in classrooms with Courtney O’Mealley, an associate dean of the Silver School, but “there’s been no true changes” to address racist behavior on campus. University spokesman Robert Polner said O’Mealley and Mclaurin discussed the issues last semester when they met in December over what O’Mealley described as an “unrelated matter.”
“During our talk, he also brought up his concerns about what he described as racist behavior in the classroom,” O’Mealley said in a statement. “After helping him resolve the administrative issue that prompted our meeting, I referred him to the appropriate faculty leader at the school who could address his concerns about equity and inclusion.”
Mclaurin said that during the meeting, he wanted to discuss issues of financial aid and equity as they relate to students of color at the Silver School. The student said he did not contact the faculty leader because the meeting with O’Mealley took place shortly before the university closed for the holidays.
Jennifer Spitz, the professor of the class, and the other student involved did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Mclaurin said students of color at the Silver School can often feel “attacked and stereotyped” in classes in which most students are white. Of the 1,064 students enrolled in the master of social work program at the Silver School, 52 percent are white, 18 percent are Latino, 11 percent are black, 10 percent are Asian, 5 percent are two or more races, and 4 percent did not self-identify, Polner said.
Mclaurin said he has received considerable support from classmates. “I’m completely outraged by the email,” said Marinna Pulido, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Silver School. “Racial tension has been here for a long time.” Pulido said former students have asked her if students of color still face challenges at the Silver School.
Nikki Vega, president of the Graduate Student Association at the Silver School, called the incident “frustrating.”
“A reckoning has been needed at NYU for a long time and I still am skeptical that change will happen,” Vega said.
Several graduate-student groups issued statements condemning the incident.
Student activists have repeatedly called on administrators to create a more diverse and inclusive campus. In 2010, students demanded the Silver School improve its “deficient social-work education due to its lack of attention to racial justice.” Last year, several graduate-student groups wrote an open letter to administrators, claiming the Silver School remains “a hostile environment for many students, faculty, and staff of color.”
Neil B. Guterman, dean of the Silver School, said administrators have taken steps to address issues of diversity and inclusion “on a number of fronts” since 2010. The Silver School recently established a Social Justice Praxis Committee of faculty, students and staff members to address issues of inclusion, equity and diversity on campus and initiated training sessions for faculty to better equip them to address these issues in the classroom.
The incident has motivated Mclaurin to work alongside students and faculty to improve the experience of students of color at NYU. “I have to fight for my education, to be treated fairly,” he said. “I don’t want other students of color to deal with this if they come here.”