The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A group demanded a space for students of color. Now they say they’re being called racists.

Students walk across the University of Michigan campus Jan. 17, 2003, in Ann Arbor. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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A student organization has attracted a firestorm of criticisms after it demanded that administrators create a space for students of color to organize.

Some have called the action by the Students4Justice racist and an effort to facilitate segregation on campus by creating an area unwelcoming of white students.

Members, however, said critics have misinterpreted the group’s intention. They said the demand, along with a few others, was the result of what they believe was the University of Michigan’s lackluster response to recent incidents of racism on campus.

“I think it’s just been a really interesting firestorm. Because we asked for a space for students of color, people automatically assumed that no white students would be allowed, whereas that’s never explicit in the language,” Vikrant Garg, one of the group’s organizers, told The Washington Post. “That was never an agreement, never anything that we thought about.”

The group wrote a letter with a list of demands to university officials in September, after white supremacist fliers were found at the university. The specific demand that has attracted criticism calls on university officials to create a designated space for students of color “to organize and do social justice work.” The members said in the letter that they want a space separate from the multicultural center that already exists on campus “because we want a space solely dedicated to community organizing and social justice work specifically for people of color.”

The idea of designated or safe spaces for specific groups of people has been the subject of debate.

While some see it as a way for traditionally underrepresented students to feel a sense of belongingness, others believe that however well-intentioned, it’s a regressive step back to segregation.

A fellow student, Cole Carnick, slammed Students4Justice in a column in the Michigan Review, a campus publication, and called the demand “unprincipled.”

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“The same organization that criticizes the University for failing to create ‘an environment that engages in diversity, equity and inclusion,’ is calling upon the University to undermine these ideals by facilitating a sort of de facto segregation? One where space and resources are designated for students based solely on the color of their skin?” Carnick said, adding later: “If Students4Justice genuinely wants to foster an inclusive and diverse campus, then it would be best to avoid propositions that seek to divide and separate students. The ugly history of racially designated public spaces should remain in the past — revisiting it would only fulfill the dreams of our most depraved members of society.”

Lakyrra Magee, a member of Students4Justice, said the purpose behind creating a list of demands was to highlight how activism by students of color has changed the institution.

“People just have taken it however they want,” Magee said. “They’re changing the conversation to whatever they want it to be and not the rest of the demand.”

Both Garg and Magee said the group has received hateful messages since news outlets reported on their demand for a space for minority students. Some called them the n-word and told them to kill themselves, said Magee, a junior.

“We’re called Nazis, and that’s interesting to hear, and the equivalent of the KKK,” said Garg, a first-year student. “It’s just so strange.”

Somewhat-similar efforts to create these spaces at other schools have attracted controversy. The University of Connecticut, for instance, announced a living community specifically for black male students. Moraine Valley Community College outside Chicago announced a course specifically for black students and later walked back its plans.

Students4Justice was formed last year as a response to racially charged fliers that were found at the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor.

One urged “Euro-Americans” to stop apologizing and denying their heritage, The Post’s Susan Svrluga reported. Another advised white women not to date black men, saying, “Your kids probably wouldn’t be smart.”

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More racially offensive incidents targeting minorities happened in early February, prompting the group to repeat its list of demands to the university and to organize a sit-in protest on campus Feb. 9.

Racist and anti-Semitic emails were sent to engineering and computer science students and appeared to have been sent by a professor. The professor has denied doing so and said the emails were the work of a hacker.

According to the Michigan Daily, one of the emails read: “Hi n——, I just wanted to say that I plan to kill you. White power! The KKK has returned!!! Heil Trump!!!!”

Another one says: “Hi you f—— jews, I just wanted to say the SS will rise again and kill all of your filthy souls. Die in a pit of eternal fire!”

In a separate incident, a prayer rug in a reflection room largely used by Muslim students and staff was urinated on.

The university has since released statements condemning the acts, but members of Students4Justice said they feel the response has been timid.

In the letter, the group said university officials have protected hateful speech in the name of the First Amendment and at the expense of “marginalized” students targeted by racist acts: “The safety of students should not come as an afterthought, it should be a priority. The active stance that the University has taken to ensure others’ their right to Freedom of Speech … should be comparable to the active measures the university is taking to protect its students of color.”

The group further wrote:

“Frankly, actions by the administration have felt disingenuous. They often are reactionary to student mobilization, including the most recent efforts by the administration to release statements. There are issues that are impacting us right now, every day, and yet the University has remained stagnant in waiting on a strategic plan that isn’t doing anything for us right now. There are students that are impacted by the hateful actions by other students and others on our campus, and there is no concrete addresses from the administration.”

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University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said administration officials and have been in “ongoing discussions” with Students4Life to better understand their concerns.

“We fully understand at this moment that they’re not asking for space that is exclusionary in any way, that they want to do social justice work in the university,” Fitzgerald said of the group’s demands. “That’s one of the many things that we’re continuing to work on.”

The university has responded to the group’s list of demands by releasing a lengthy document last month outlining existing policies on bias-related incidents and steps that officials said they’ve taken to address racism on campus.

Members of the group, however, said the document failed to address their demands, which also includes sanctioning students who “engage in any form of oppressive speech,” and creating a protocol for the campus community to be informed of racial incidents when they happen.

“They gave us things that the university is already doing,” Magee said. “Obviously, if these things existed before our demands, then it’s not doing the things it needs to do in order to improve the institution.”

Fitzgerald said the document is intended to be a starting point to help inform discussions.

“Let’s all have this common knowledge of processes that are in place or are being developed as part of a strategic plan on diversity and inclusion,” he said.

More than half of students at the university are white, according to most recent enrollment data from fall 2015. A little more than 4 percent of students are black, 4.6 are Hispanic and 11 percent are Asian. About 14 percent are considered nonresidents.


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