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College Wars: The American Students Protesting Against Racism

19/05/2016 10:33 | Updated 19 May 2016

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The spark: In November 2015, protestors at the University of Missouri forced the resignation of the college President and Chancellor. ©Associated Press

On 1st April 2016, nine students began a sit-in protest at Duke University, North Carolina. The students occupied a room outside the college President's office for eight days, while tents pitched in the main quad for 26. They were responding to an alleged racist slur by executive vice president Tallman Trask III, exposed by the college newspaper, The Chronicle. According to student reporters, the victim was Shelvia Underwood, a black parking attendant, whom Trask called a "stupid n****r" before a college football game in 2014.

Numerous other Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) employees also informed The Chronicle of racist behaviour by their supervisors. Renee Adkins, former special events manager for the PTS, said that the Trask-Underwood episode was merely one of "innumerable incidents" of racist abuse suffered by her staff, all of which were "swept under the rug" by senior management. Under the banner 'Dismantle Duke Plantation', students began protests - demanding, among other things, an independent investigation into racial discrimination against PTS employees and the resignation of three senior members of staff, including Trask. The college has agreed to some of the demands, but none of the implicated officials have stepped down.

"I think when people hear our slogan they're initially confused because channel slavery is over in the United States and plantations don't exist. When we say 'plantation politics', we're talking about the exploitation of black and brown labour by mostly white executives," says final year undergraduate Brenda Onyango, who helped to organise the protests.

This isn't the first race storm suffered by Duke University in recent years. In late March 2015, a noose was found hanging from a tree outside the student union; an allusion to the lynchings carried out by white supremacists in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This incident occurred just a few days after a group of white males allegedly shouted a racist chant at a black student. The culprits apparently recited the 'SAE chant', associated with Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, which was founded at the University of Alabama in 1856. The chant goes:

"There will never be a n****r in SAE.
There will never be a n****r in SAE.
You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.
There will never be a n****r in SAE."

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Students march through Duke University campus after a noose was found hanging from a tree. ©Associated Press

These stories are alarming in their frequency, and their effects have been dramatic on ethnic minority students.

"What I feel most keenly, most often, is alienation. I feel neither fear, nor anger, nor sadness, nor rage, nor pain. When students hang nooses on trees or dress in blackface, I have trouble identifying or feeling my emotions. I have become separated from myself, as a defense mechanism," says Shahrazad Shareef, a third year PhD student at Duke.

Echoing the situation at Duke, university presidents across the country have been accused of wilfully disregarding the concerns of black students and staff members. As a result, anti-racism protests have become a mainstay of campus life, from Harvard to the University of California. The watershed moment took place at Missouri University in November 2015, when a university organisation called 'Concerned Student 1950' led a movement that brought down the college President and Chancellor. Graduate student Jonathan Butler went on hunger strike and the college football team refused to play after a series of racist incidents were ignored by university leaders. "Seeing what can happen when students really mobilise together was amazing. The effect of Mizzou has been incredibly inspiring," says Stanley Yuan, a leader of the protests at Duke.

Another source of inspiration has been the Black Lives Matter movement. Following the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of white police officers, Black Lives Matter became the rallying cry of bereaved communities. "To say that we have lives and we are human, we have dreams, is a beautiful statement. It's not a question - we're not asking you to validate that our lives matter. Our lives do matter - full stop," says Brenda Onyango, the final year undergrad from Duke. But Black Lives Matter is not just a release valve. Its campaigners are not just content with strong language; they want to change the system.

In October 2015, just before primary season, eleven Black Lives Matter campaigners were invited for a face-to-face meeting with Hillary Clinton. The atmosphere was tense and antagonistic - not what Clinton anticipated. "What I realise now, is that Hillary wasn't really prepared for the meeting," says Alwiyah Shariff, one of the eleven campaigners. "I think she thought we were going to give her ideas for what we wanted - what we thought her platform should be."

Instead, the campaigners took apart Clinton's policies and political associations. After an hour and a half of heated discussion, Alwiyah made a final comment. She questioned how Clinton could be committed to a progressive justice system while accepting donations from private prison companies. Clinton stood her ground in front of the activists. But, within a couple of weeks, the Democratic presidential contender had adopted many of Alwiyah's views, and announced that she would refuse donations from the owners of private prisons.

Smiling wryly whilst recalling the story, Alwiyah told me, "That's the reason I wanted to go to the meeting. Yes, I wanted to get a picture for my mum, but I also wanted to ask her [Clinton] about her relationship with prison companies, because the justice system is failing black Americans."

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The hard-fought victories of Black Lives Matter campaigners have galvanised student activists, not least because police shootings and racist chants strike a chord with black and minority Americans. These events reinforce their lifelong experiences, and expose the marrow-deep infiltration of racism in America. In a recent survey conducted by Newsweek of 2,000 teenage Americans - mirroring a near-identical poll the publication ran 50 years ago - it was found that 91% of young black Americans think discrimination is here to stay. In 1966, that figure was just 33%.

"We lived in Topeka, Kansas, for a while, near Sumner Elementary School, which is the school of Brown vs Board of Education in 1954," Brenda Onyango tells me. "So one day our teacher took us to visit the school, because it's a museum now. And, while we were there, I realised that I was one of only two black people in my class. It kind of made me realise that segregation in schools still hasn't ended." This sort of discrimination has always been normal for Brenda. Recalling the first time she was called the n-word, she explains that it didn't really affect her.

"It happened at high school. I usually drove to school but that day I was riding the bus. It was the kid sitting behind me who said it, I think just to see if he could. On a personal level I wasn't hurt. Although it was the first time someone had called me that word, it wasn't the first time I had gotten the idea that I was different and my differences apparently made me less than other people. I think it would've been different if I was alone, or if it was a different setting. He might have been racist, but he wasn't going to carry it as far as trying to kill me or anything like that."

Brenda derived some comfort, at least subconsciously, from the fact that her life wasn't in danger. She was thankful because, in a different situation, she might not have made it to graduation. Brenda is part of a generation of young people who came of age during the Obama years; believing that things were about to change. Yet, after eight years, racism has not subsided. Students are abused and threatened by their classmates as college executives and politicians stand idly by. And, according to Alwiyah Shariff, that's why they can't afford to stay silent. "The world is on fire. We can't sit around and not do something."

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