After police shot a black man in Charlotte, Jeremiah Pearson was so upset by yet another death that he went to a friend at East Tennessee State University and asked if he would help him organize a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. They prepared for some backlash.
They did not prepare for this: On the second day, a white student walked out of the library barefoot, wearing overalls, a gorilla mask, and carrying a burlap sack with a Confederate flag on it. He was making monkey noises, and he offered protesters bananas. He used a racial slur. He tied a rope around a banana and dangled it in sophomore Jaylen Grimes’ face.
That moment, and their measured response, was a powerful symbol of the challenges and the possibilities that face universities — and the nation — in what many believe is an increasingly volatile racial climate.
This academic year opened with an onslaught of racially charged incidents at colleges across the country. A professor at Eastern Michigan University found a racial slur spray-painted on the side of a building on campus along with “KKK” in large letters. A former Kansas State University student shared a photo of herself and a friend with their faces painted black, and a racial slur. Students at the University of Michigan found posters on campus warning white women not to date black men. On a wall at Ohio University, someone painted a person hanging from a noose.
And again, the University of Missouri campus was thrust into the discussion of the racial divide when this year began with black students hearing the n-word yelled at them. It was almost exactly a year after a racial slur in fall 2015 prompted a student leader at Missouri to force a public debate about race that erupted into protests so intense — including a threatened boycott from members of the school’s football team — that they forced out the system president and chancellor and sparked and energized demonstrations over race at campuses nationwide.
The battery of ugly incidents this fall is a reflection of our times, said Benjamin D. Reese, Jr., vice president of institutional equity and chief diversity officer for Duke University and Duke University Health System. National protests over police violence and race have changed the climate on many campuses, he said, and so has political rhetoric. And as racial tensions and polarization ramp up, things that had been muted are now increasingly likely to be expressed intensely and directly.
In 45 years of working with race and diversity issues, Reese, the immediate past president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, has seen dramatic cultural change. But in the past year or so, “I certainly do see a backward step,” he said. “There is a kind of increase, or culture of permissiveness when it comes to saying things and expressing hostile intent and in some cases engaging in violence.”
“The racial ugliness we see on campus and on social media isn’t new,” said Shaun Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Some experts said there’s no proof that there are more racist incidents on college campuses than in the past — they say such things have long been happening — and they’re not aware of anyone who tracks such incidents in a systematic way. But they’re far more visible now, in part because phones so easily capture the moment — before it’s painted over, deleted, washed away or denied — and social media so easily spreads it instantly to the world.
“It is quite possible that there is growing resistance to the conversations about the need for greater diversity and inclusion efforts in higher education, but there’s no concrete evidence to say whether or not that’s the case,” said Sam Museus, director of the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments Project and an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “Any time you have pressure to change, there are people who resist that pressure.”
At scores of schools last year, students demanded change — pushing for more faculty of color, cultural centers, and new names for things on campus that honored people whose legacies included slaveholding and advocacy for white supremacy.
This year, as some football players take a knee or raise a fist during the national anthem and Black Lives Matter protests continue, at some schools, real changes are happening.
The University of Oregon removed the name of a former KKK leader from a building. Georgetown University promised to give an admissions preference to descendants of people who Jesuits sold as slaves in the 1800s, a sale that brought considerable financial benefit to the university. Seventy-five universities hired chief and senior diversity officers in the past year alone, a more than 40 percent increase. At Mt. Vernon this weekend, a panel is discussing universities and the legacy of slavery, something a growing number of college presidents are willing to explore. Next spring, Harvard will host a conference on the topic.
Last week, Harvard’s president announced a university-wide task force on inclusion and belonging.
“Harvard has come to understand that the promise of diversity requires attention beyond our hiring and admissions decisions,” Drew Faust told the campus community in a statement. “It is no less important for us to create an environment on campus that is open and inclusive and that inspires a sense of belonging for all members of our community.”
At a forum in Washington on universities and the legacy of slavery last week, Faust, a historian, paraphrased James Baldwin, noting that our history is far more than about the past: “It’s so embedded in us and who we are.”
At East Tennessee State University, the small group of friends planning a protest knew they were taking a risk. For Jeremiah Pearson and Jaylen Grimes, it was the first time they had been involved in any kind of activism.
They just wanted to make the point that black lives are lives too, Grimes said.
“We do love all lives — white lives, black lives, brown lives, yellow lives,” Grimes said. “If there were people that were purple with polka dots, we would love them just the same.”
Pearson knew, from social media, that some people were angry about the protest.
“We are in the south, a fairly conservative, religious area,” that is predominantly white, said Nathaniel Farnor, vice president of the ETSU student government association, one of the small group of friends who organized the protest. “In our region it’s usually frowned on. Black Lives Matter — I’ve heard people call it a terrorist group, a hate group, a racist organization.”
When the person with the gorilla mask walked toward them, Grimes said he was in shock, his heart shaking in his chest.
But he steeled himself and, for more than 20 minutes, as a white person taunted them with a noose and bananas, they did something remarkable: They stayed calm.
Grimes told them they needed to make it clear to everyone that it was a peaceful protest, a counterpoint to the anger and rioting that had emerged elsewhere in the country.
“They want to start an argument with you, let the fire flame up,” Pearson said. “We want to extinguish the fire.”
Grimes was thinking, “You can exercise your First Amendment rights, but don’t touch anyone.”
When Tristan Rettke, who had been a freshman at ETSU, took out the rope and held a noose in their faces, Grimes said, police stepped in.
Rettke was arrested and charged with civil rights intimidation, a felony in Tennessee. The arrest was controversial.
Rettke, who is no longer enrolled at ETSU, did not respond to requests for comment. Police said he told them he went to buy rope and bananas when he learned of the protest, saw the gorilla mask and bought that as well, intending to provoke the demonstrators.
Rettke’s lawyer, Patrick Denton, said in a written statement that Rettke deeply regrets the events leading up to his arrest “and understands the negative perception of his speech and actions.”
“He respects the rights of those in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to peacefully demonstrate in furtherance of their message in the spirit of the First Amendment. That being said, despite what many may feel was objectionable behavior, Mr. Rettke has the same Free Speech protections as those in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement,” Denton said in the statement. “Above all, he did not intimidate or attempt to intimidate anyone during this incident. Accordingly, we look forward to defending his rights in a court of law.”
On ETSU’s Facebook page, people engaged in heated debate over whether the punishment was too harsh, with some horrified by what he had done and others saying, “White lives matter.” “Kid did the right thing,” one person wrote. “Glad someone stood up to the hate group BLM.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education questioned the arrest on First Amendment grounds. So did the ACLU of Tennessee. Hedy Weinberg, the executive director, said in a statement that they were disturbed by the event, and commended the protesters for their measured response despite the legacy of lynchings in the south.
“However, while the student in this instance clearly intended to mock and provoke people, from video of the incident he did not appear to be making a targeted threat or to be creating a real fear of bodily harm. Particularly in a public forum space where First Amendment protections are at their height, even this kind of contemptible racist speech is protected by the First Amendment,” Weinberg said.
Universities, Weinberg added, don’t have to be passive in such situations: “The best answer to hateful speech is always more speech.”
University leaders were quick to respond. They offered support to students. They hosted an open forum that day. Rettke is no longer enrolled. Farnor said administrators met with students to talk about things they wanted to see change on campus. “I believe it will have a lasting impact,” he said.
And the next day, which Pearson and his friends had planned as the third and final day for their protest, the same group of 20 or so students were out there — along with a couple hundred more, holding signs, arms locked.
“Black people, white people, Hispanic people, Asians,” Grimes said. “It was a beautiful day.”