“Why don’t you be an American life that matters?” shouted Becky Clark, 61. “How is tearing down a statue going to accomplish anything?”
“Stand by your Aggies, not a statue,” the students yelled back, using a nickname for students and alumni of the school. “There’s only White people on your side for a reason.”
The mid-July protest was one of multiple confrontations on the campus of Texas A&M University at College Station since the killing of George Floyd, a former student of the university system whose fatal encounter with Minneapolis police in May has ignited nationwide calls for racial justice. Debate over the Ross statue — viewed by some as the veneration of a violent white supremacist and by others as a unifying memorial for an inspiring educator — has waged for years. Those long-simmering racial tensions peaked this summer across parts of the Texas A&M University System.
A video that called for Black students on the Kingsville campus to be “euthanized” prompted criticism of university leaders, whose response some said was too slow and weak. A social media campaign detailing what #RacismAtTAMUFeelsLike led to an outpouring of stories about unequal treatment on the predominantly White campus in College Station, including racial slurs going unpunished and Black students’ presence being questioned.
University leaders have responded with task forces, diversity scholarships and news releases declaring that racism is at odds with its core values. Student activists have criticized those efforts as rote and out of touch, perfunctory attempts to address a systemic problem.
System Chancellor John Sharp and College Station campus President Michael K. Young, who announced last week that he will step down at the end of May, declined to be interviewed for this story. But debate over the Ross statue has become so tense that it reached the realm of state politics last month, when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) suggested only the state legislature holds the power to permanently move the Sul Ross statue.
Now surrounded by a fence, the monument has become a symbol of the broad racial divides afflicting this university as it struggles with an increasingly diverse population and clashing worldviews, all claiming to be fighting in the best interest of an institution to which they feel deeply connected.
“A&M is a microcosm of what is going on in the country,” said senior Erica Pauls, 21, “as people are becoming aware of the experience of people who don’t look like them.”
‘Are you an Aggie, or are you a Blackie?’
Like the nation as a whole, the population at Texas A&M at College Station has been changing rapidly. In 2000, less than 15 percent of students identified as Black, Asian, Hispanic or American Indian. Collectively, those categories have more than doubled, now defining 1 in 3 students.
The university’s culture has not reflected the change, many say. Opened in 1876 as a military school for men, Texas A&M is deeply rooted in traditions, loyalty and conservatism. Members of its Corps of Cadets, who march across campus in knee-high leather boots with spurs clacking on the concrete, are known as the “Keepers of the Spirit and Guardians of Tradition.” During football games, students stand for all four quarters to demonstrate their willingness to step in if a player is injured.
Even the smallest facets of daily life are governed by tradition: People don’t walk on the lawn around the Memorial Student Center out of respect for former students who were killed at war. Freshmen are taught to greet anyone they meet with “Howdy” and a smile. Alumni wear the Aggie ring long after they graduate.
“If you interview somebody, they better have their [Aggie] ring on, or they won’t get the job down here,” said alumnus John A. Adams Jr. “We believe in mom and apple pie and the American flag.”
But as the university has developed a more diverse student body, some feel uncomfortable with certain traditions rooted in White, Southern culture or tied to the Civil War era, particularly those centered on the school’s Confederate former president. During exams, students put pennies at the feet of his bronze statue for good luck.
During the summer showdowns, counterprotesters guarding the monument held signs aloft declaring, “Aggie traditions matter.” Track and field star Infinite Tucker, 22, was discussing why he believes the statue is racist when a White alumnus asked him, “Are you an Aggie, or are you a Blackie?”
Opponents note that Ross participated in massacres against native people as a leader in the Texas Rangers, created to secure the frontier for White settlers. As a Confederate general, he described slaughtering Black Union troops as they tried to escape.
Faculty from the school’s history department issued a statement in June noting the white supremacist policies and violence that characterized Texas in the years after Reconstruction, when Ross was governor.
“It is unequivocally true that Ross agreed with, supported, and defended these policies until his death, even as he carried out what might be considered isolated acts of charity towards some communities of color,” they wrote.
Statue supporters say that picture glosses over Ross’s historic contributions to education in Texas, including for Black students. Adams, who has a forthcoming book about Ross, said the former governor turned around A&M when it was in chaos and advocated for essential funding for Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black school in the university system.
In a 2018 letter, Sharp noted that Ross, as governor, ordered the creation of an institute for deaf and blind Black children and a mental health facility for Black Texans.
“Lawrence Sullivan Ross will have his statue at Texas A&M forever,” Sharp wrote, “not because of obstinance, but because he deserves the honor with a lifetime of service to ALL TEXANS and ALL AGGIES.”
Sharp has said that he was affected by the social media posts about students’ racist experiences on campus, calling them “heartbreaking — and unacceptable.” In mid-June, he announced that an additional $100 million in scholarships would help the university system’s demographics “look like Texas.” He and President Young have contributed substantially to the more than $350,000 raised to construct a statue on campus of Matthew Gaines, a 19th-century Black state senator who backed legislation that helped build land-grant institutions like Texas A&M in the 1860s.
Young has pushed his own efforts. Weeks after Floyd’s death, he announced 10 initiatives to combat racism, including a larger support center for underrepresented students and increased recruitment of students of color. A month later, he announced the 45 members of a commission on diversity, equity and inclusion, to be co-chaired by Jimmy Williams Jr., a 1983 African American graduate who leads the Engineering and Technology Innovation Management Program at Carnegie Mellon University.
Williams said the commission will look at issues such as admissions, recruitment and policies. He wants to ensure that the school reflects the population in Texas, noting that just 3 percent of students are Black. That requires having difficult conversations about systemic racism and the Ross statue, he said, adding that some of the tension at the university is driven by changing demographics.
“The students now on campus are asking very different questions” and challenging positions that alumni have long held close, he said.
At a recent protest, supporters gathered in front of the statue prepared with tents and folding chairs, as though at a tailgate. They were overwhelmingly White, male and over 60. They sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Spirit of Aggieland.”
Alumnus Wayne Strickler, 65, said he would stop giving money to the university and no longer go to football games if the statue were removed.
“Some good Ags feel so strongly they say they’re going to take off their rings and melt them down and never wear them again,” Strickler said.
Austin Warren, an African American student in biomedical sciences, was frustrated by the counterprotesters’ signs displaying the university system’s six “core values”: Excellence, integrity, leadership, loyalty, respect and selfless service. If Ross supported slavery, Warren said, he did not have integrity.
“There’s no way you can support these core values if you support that man,” Warren said, as he stood among fellow student protesters. “We’re trying to change this university for the better. It’s going to take a lot of time. It’s so ingrained.”
‘In stark contrast to our core values’
At Texas A&M University at Kingsville, a predominantly Latino campus in a small ranching town about 125 miles north of the Mexican border, the atmosphere has little in common with the flagship in College Station. Here, where George Floyd was recruited to play football from 1995 to 1997, tall palm trees sway alongside red-roofed Spanish Mission-style buildings. The campus was at the forefront of the Chicano student movement, in which civil rights leaders like José Angel Gutiérrez, a 1966 graduate, led walkouts demanding better treatment of Mexican American students, faculty and staff members.
The university was among the first in the South to integrate its football team, and it has become one of the nation’s football powerhouses, sending star athletes to the NFL. But some students and alumni describe it as a place where Black students — who make up about 4 percent of the student body — are not supported. Athletes are exploited for the money they bring to the university, they say, and there are few Black faculty or staff members to provide mentorship.
The week after Floyd’s killing, university officials announced they had received several reports of racist and offensive messages on social media attributed to current or former students. The university released a statement saying that the comments were “in stark contrast to our core values.”
Campus closed on June 8 in recognition of Floyd’s memorial service in Houston, but a couple of days later, a Snapchat video appeared, showing a young man pointing to a group of Black students playing basketball near a dormitory and calling them “apes” and other slurs. He and another young man off-camera repeatedly used the n-word.
“We got them trying to be civilized a little bit; teaching them how to play basketball,” the man said. The video does not directly name Floyd, but the man said, “If they act up, we might have to euthanize these n-----s, just like the cop did that one.”
The university issued a statement on June 11 saying the people involved in making the video were not students at Texas A&M at Kingsville. It again declared that the racist rhetoric was “in stark contrast to our core values.”
The boilerplate language angered alumni and students who said it did not rise to the level of threat delivered in the video. Some Black students said they felt unsafe, calling the incident a hate crime that was going unpunished just outside of their dorm rooms. Several said they recognized the man in the video, who lives in the nearby town of Bishop, as a frequent visitor of the campus, who sometimes played basketball with Black students.
City of Kingsville Police Chief Ricardo Torres said the university did not contact the police department and no reports were filed.
Internal communications obtained by The Post show that President Mark Hussey suggested in an email to other campus officials that they develop a plan “to reduce the probability of this occurring,” suggesting increased security patrols and cameras “at least for the next few weeks.”
“Hopefully this will pass in a few weeks, but you never know,” Hussey wrote to campus Chief of Staff Randy Hughes and University Police Chief Felipe Garza.
It’s unclear whether the measures were ever taken. Garza did not respond to questions, and Hussey declined to comment.
“We are aware of the video in question and reject the comments and sentiments expressed in it,” spokeswoman Adriana Garza-Flores said in a statement to The Post. “We take seriously our responsibility to protect our campus community and to respond to any member who feels threatened or disenfranchised.”
The university’s limited action reflects a deep vein of racism that runs through the Kingsville campus, students and alumni said. After the outcry, the school banned the two men involved in making the video from the campus. But some say more needs to be done, including criminal prosecution.
“They basically got off without any consequences,” said Christen Williams, president of the Black Student Union. “I feel if we continue to not take action about problems regarding racial tension, it will keep happening.”
Alumnus James Guidry, a former professional football player who attend Kingsville in the 1980s but did not graduate, said he is concerned that local law enforcement did not take the threats more seriously and pursue a criminal investigation of the two men. He wants the university and local authorities to push for prosecution as a federal hate crime.
He created the Coalition of Former African American Athletes, including alumni who played professionally, to help rectify the problems he sees throughout the A&M system. He said Kingsville’s efforts to set up a diversity committee are a good first step, but his group also wants more diverse leadership, more influence for student-athletes and more accountability for the chancellor and other leaders on matters of race.
“Swift penalties need to be implemented to address some of these egregious things,” Guidry said. “Students are apprehensive to complain to their professors. There is no one who looks like them, and it is overwhelmingly culturally biased. Many Black students end up leaving.”
Williams, the BSU president, pointed out that there are several Black staff members who are highly supportive of students, and she believes “the university is making great strides in fighting the systemic racism that is on this campus.”
Latino students and faculty also have raised concerns. Some recently formed the Hispanic Faculty Council to advocate for the careers of Latino educators, support for students covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy and more diverse hiring. A climate of racism against Latinos prevails, they say, and many of the issues student leaders addressed in the 1960s remain largely unresolved today.
“TAMUK is not exempt from systemic discrimination,” the group said in an Aug. 7 letter to Hussey and Provost Lou Reinisch. “Hispanic students constitute the majority of our student body (67%), and they have not been adequately served.”
Not a time for ‘empathetic noises’
Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons wrote her public statement about Floyd through tears. She knew how much her students at the historically Black university were suffering.
“The stark brutality of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has further deepened the crisis in the country and reawakened a sense of fear and outrage across the world,” she wrote in the June 1 message, “and especially among African Americans who recognize the crime as part and parcel of the reality that they endure every day.”
She knew her students’ pain because of her own experiences as a Black woman in America.
She knew because her parents taught her as a child not to voice her opinions in the presence of White people because it was too dangerous. She knew because of the warnings she had given her own son about how to interact with police. She knew because, while she was president of Brown University in 2001, a Black student who was driving while listening to music in headphones didn’t hear the police car signaling for him to pull over until it was too late.
They bashed in the window of his car, Simmons said, “and dragged him out of the broken window and traumatized this poor young man.”
The names of at least two Prairie View alumni have been chanted at protests: Sandra Bland was 28 years old when she died in jail after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Robbie Tolan was 23 and pursuing a career in baseball when an officer accused him of stealing his own car while he pulled up to his parents’ house in an affluent neighborhood near Houston. He survived a gunshot to the chest.
It was not a time for “empathetic noises,” Simmons told the campus. It was time for action. They needed to confront racism head-on.
Simmons announced in her June 1 letter that Prairie View would require all entering students to take a course on the history of race and class in the United States. The university would establish an activist-in-residence position, bringing to campus role models who had confronted systemic social problems. They would give an annual award, named in honor of Bland and Tolan, to an activist involved in criminal justice reform. And they would create a university committee to address social inequities.
If approved by university system officials, she wrote, they would also create a Center for Race and Justice. She named the scholar who would lead it — political science professor Melanye Price — and announced she had already received a major donation in support.
“Fighting racism and discrimination and upholding justice must always be among our highest callings,” she wrote.
Most of Simmons’s initiatives didn’t wait for approval. Sometimes, she said, the academic process is too slow. Leaders need to convey the emotions they’re feeling in the moment, she said, not rely on others to write statements for them.
“In recent years, we’ve often gone the public relations route. We have these statements that are lofty — and sometimes distant,” she said. “And they are scrubbed to make sure there’s nothing offensive in them for our alumni, for the people who support us and so forth."
But, she said, “People are hurting. They need to hear your voice.”
Some demands from student activists and others will probably push too far, she said, because of the intensity of the emotions in this moment. She, for one, said she doesn’t believe “every emblem of the past has to be eliminated.” But she does believe that failure to acknowledge the truth of what those emblems mean, and the impact they can have, is derelict.
There are ugly stories still being held up to students as examples of heroism, she said.
“This work is deep,” she said. “It is urgent. It is serious. … It would be so easy to remove a name or to tear down a statue. But what would be remaining when you do that?” she questioned.
“This is what I’m concerned about: What remains after that?"
Mary Lee Grant reported from Kingsville, Texas. Brittney Martin reported from College Station, Texas. Julie Tate and Nate Jones in Washington contributed to this report.