Hatred ripples fast and wide, and that’s a part of our increasingly toxic national conversation we can’t deny.
For a lesson on how this works, let’s take a look at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland.
No, I’m not talking about the old yearbook photos of Terps in blackface that were all over Twitter last weekend, just a week after Virginia’s people-in-blackface scandal that now includes the governor, attorney general and the state Senate majority leader.
I’m talking about today, when the number of black freshmen settling in to study at the university has dropped dramatically since things got increasingly ugly on campus, as they did across America.
And the bigwigs at College Park know it.
“We would be naive to think that the tragic incidents of the last two years on our campus have not contributed to our African American student enrollment decline this year,” vice president and provost Mary Ann Rankin said in a statement when the dismal enrollment numbers came out last fall. “We must address the concerns about campus climate and hate-bias incidents that UMD and many of our peers are facing.”
In 2016, 12.2 percent of the freshman class of Terps was African American.
Two years later — after white nationalist fliers were plastered across campus, after a noose was found at a frat house, after an African American student from another campus was slain in a racist attack by a U-Md. student with vocal, racist views — African American students said “no, thanks” in huge numbers. Only 7.3 percent of the 2018 freshmen are African American, according to U-Md. reports.
Add to that last fall’s heat-related death of football player Jordan McNair, which can augment the feeling that black students don’t matter as much.
Remember, this is at the flagship state school of Maryland, the land of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall and Benjamin Banneker, a state where nearly 30 percent of residents are African American.
Oh, come on. You know. America changed. Or it didn’t, at least not as much as we had hoped.
As Nazi flags flew and torches burned in Charlottesville, as white nationalist groups came out of the shadows and President Trump refused to condemn them, black students across the country began to leave schools where they would be a minority.
Applications and enrollments at historically black colleges and universities have soared since 2016. In the District, Howard University’s applications jumped by 25 percent in 2017. There have been double-digit increases — and in the case of Kentucky State, a 162 percent increase — at HBCUs across the country.
“They want to be on a campus where they’re valued and appreciated,” Tiffany Nelson, director of admissions at Spelman College in Atlanta, told The Root last year.
Although there are plenty of other reasons for the increased interest in HBCUs, Nelson’s comment correctly shows us that black students are worried they won’t be valued or appreciated at other universities. Or even safe.
And that’s where the issue is damaging and the evidence of racial tensions is stark.
This is happening at flagship universities across America, but the gap at Maryland is particularly stark, according to a Hechinger Report released last year.
At College Park, leaders immediately began looking for solutions after the big event that rocked the campus right before the drop. Second Lt. Richard Collins III, 23, was visiting the campus in May 2017, just a few days before he was supposed to graduate from a nearby HBCU, Bowie State University.
Prosecutors say he was stabbed to death by Sean Urbanski, 22, a U-Md. student who belonged to a white supremacist Facebook group. It was eventually classified as a hate crime.
Campus leaders put together seminars and speakers and focus groups to try to counteract the impact of that killing. They began programs to pair incoming students of color with black students already on campus, to let them experience the campus for themselves. They are creating a tour of the campus’s African American historical landmarks. They teamed up with the Anti-Defamation League for training and created a Student Leadership Council for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Their efforts are compiled in one place, We Are UMD.
All of this just to get back to where they were two years ago before they can hope to move forward.
Those blackface yearbook photos, posted on Twitter over the weekend, found by a student who wondered whether it happened at her school, too, don’t help.
“The images of blackface found in past UMD yearbooks are profoundly hurtful and distressing,” University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh responded to the student, Camille Alexander, in a tweet over the weekend. “Traditions like this reflect a history of racial prejudice and do not convey what we seek to embody today.”
That’s the argument the university — heck, all of America — has to keep making, with words and actions.
This isn’t about snowflakes, as some are so quick to call anyone not them. It’s about canaries in coal mines.
The words, the actions, the fliers, the blackface: They matter. And we need to act like they do.
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