Is White Privilege the Cause of the University of Missouri Problem?

By Harry Jackson Published on November 21, 2015

The simple answer is no. Let me explain why.

Anger and frustration over “marginalized students’ experience” had been brewing on campus for quite a while, dating back at least to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, just over a hundred miles away. Tension escalated with incidents of racial name-calling on campus, and the vandalism of a dorm with a swastika made of feces.

I think opponents of the protestors (and the subsequent resignations) would do well to recognize several things. First, the students’ non-violent protest is a welcome step in the right direction when compared to the senseless display of violence we saw from some protestors in Ferguson. Second, it is admirable that black and brown college students — particularly scholarship athletes with a great deal to lose — desire to improve the status quo, even if they are a bit young and naïve to know what will bring meaningful improvement.

Third, education is an essential component to making the American dream accessible to all; given this reality, we may very well see similar situations in the future. Fourth, the fact that Coach Gary Pinkel (who is white) stood by his players, shows that he understood the emotional nature of the conflict and that there was no way his team could move forward in unity if he didn’t back them wholeheartedly.

All that said, I found the demands of the student protestors to be a mixture of legitimate grievances and ideological posturing. This was an opportunity to ask for more than just superficial or symbolic measures. In addition to demanding Wolfe’s removal, the protestors wanted a handwritten apology in which he, among other things, acknowledged his white privilege. But would such an admission from Wolfe (or anyone else) measurably improve the lives of blacks and other minorities at the University of Missouri, or anywhere else for that matter?

Assuming the protestors are really interested in raising black enrollment and graduation rates at the University of Missouri, their mentors and friends should have helped them formulate a much more comprehensive strategic plan. The emotional struggle the students face as a tiny minority at a white school will not be easily fixed by the University, because it requires resilience that must be built from childhood.  I had to navigate Williams College and later on Harvard Business School as one of just a few black students. As a result, my wife and I knew we had to prepare our daughters with inner strength and fortitude as we sent them off to Williams and Harvard. Such strength can be encouraged by universities, but it must be built by the family, caring mentors and communities of faith.

The demand that Wolfe acknowledge his white privilege goes to the heart of why the current framing of racial issues is so toxic to reconciliation. Most white conservatives react to the term “white privilege” with everything from eye-rolls to extreme defensiveness.  They feel they are being blamed for wrongs that they don’t believe they had anything to do with and accused of not working hard for what they have. On the other hand, most blacks see white privilege as a self-evident truth: a painful reality they have lived with every day of their lives. Evidence of forces like institutional racism is invisible to one group and painfully obvious to the other. Can it be possible to find common ground between these two positions, rather than each side trying to bully the other into submission?

This is a deeply complex issue, but it often devolves into a battle to place blame rather than to formulate solutions. It’s like a married couple attempting to have a discussion about their finances. The person who begins the conversation with, “You always” or “You Never” is about to receive an angry response. A greater truth than white privilege is that whites have a unique opportunity to transform the class, race, and poverty problems of our nation. And all Americans, regardless of color need to renew our commitment to measurable progress for struggling minorities. We also need to recognize that reconciliation begins in individual human hearts. That means building relationships, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, and working together patiently for a better future.

In my next article, I will delve into some possible approaches that could help at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) and beyond. Our nation is in a defining moment, in an election year. Nonetheless, problems of this magnitude must rise above political agendas. If Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian leaders can unite around healing prescriptions for our communities; our greatest days are ahead.

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