EAST LANSING, Mich. – The campus of Michigan State University has been rocked by recent acts of racial intimidation directed toward black students. The student body at the state’s largest university made their voices very loudly heard on Tuesday night that these acts will not be tolerated.
“The incident that really jump-started this movement was an incident at Akers Hall where someone wrote ‘No Ni**ers, please’ on a door of a young lady’s room,” said Mario Lemons, the president of the MSU Black Student Alliance (BSA). “The residence life staff told us not to talk about. Of course, someone took a picture of it and sent it to one of us.”
The picture set off a firestorm on campus and online, even starting the hashtag #MSUBlackUnity on Twitter. An estimated crowd of 1,000 MSU students of all races filed into Conrad Hall for a town hall meeting on the issue of racial intimidation on Tuesday night.
“We put it on Facebook and Twitter and started a dialog about it,” said Lemons. “From that came more stories of other people going through things on campus.”
These incidents included other racist messages being scrawled on doors; outright physical acts of racial intimidation; and the initial incident of a black doll being hung from a beaded noose in a chemistry lab shortly after the school year began in early September.
“There are people overtly saying the n-word,” said Lemons, a senior from Detroit, majoring in education. “People telling other students that they don’t belong here, saying that they only got here because of Affirmative Action. Very unwelcoming things done to black people on campus.”
The Akers Hall incident was directed toward Tinisha Sharp. Sharp was leaving her dorm room to go to chemistry class last week when she saw the slur written on the dry-erase board. Since she was the only black student living in the room with three other students, it was very clear the message was directed at her.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Sharp, a sophomore from Detroit. “It was very surprising to see a message like that. I really thought this type of discrimination had been ceased by this time. But I guess not.”
Sharp moved that same day from Akers Hall to another dorm across campus. According to the MSU registrar, of the over 47,000 students that were enrolled at MSU in 2010, 3,175 — or 6.7 percent — were black.
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon issued a statement, via e-mail, to the MSU students and faculty on Tuesday afternoon. It said that the university was investigating the matters and that she is concerned by these actions.
“The University supports free speech including the use of words that are offensive to most in our community,” Simon said. “However, given the nature of these incidents, the MSU police were immediately contacted and the matter has been turned over to them to investigate, not only as a form of vandalism, but also as potential ethnic intimidation. I am personally awaiting the outcome of the police investigation.”
“In my many years at MSU, this rash of incidents at various parts of the campus in such a short timeframe is unmatched, is extraordinarily troubling and creates a legitimate concern that all of us must address.”
BSA feels that the University administration stood idly by and let these incidents happen. MSU has no explicit policy on racial intimidation, and generally handles any incidents internally.
“A lot of people in the black community (at MSU) found some of the comments she made in her e-mail problematic,” said Silver Moore, an MSU junior and BSA vice president. “It didn’t address the severity of the situation. We felt that the letter should’ve said ‘No, this should not be tolerated.” That kind of passion wasn’t in the letter at all.
“If you are apart of the black community, reading that, you don’t feel like your issues matter because it was kind of passive. We would’ve liked to have heard that a week ago.”
These frustrations were on full display on Tuesday. Many students voiced their concerns about discrimination on campus.
“The n-word is being written on our doors and confederate flags are being hung,” MSU student Jasmine Fountain said. “Meanwhile, the university stands by and does nothing.”
Brittany Harvey, a junior, said somebody drew a swastika on her dorm room door last week and wrote offensive words two days later. “This year my picture was torn down in the hallway,” Harvey said. When Lemons asked how many students had experienced some form of racism on campus, hands went up all over the room.
“We had an open floor for people to talk about if they had experienced something,” Moore said. “It was really a time for us to let our voices be heard. It was supposed to be a safe place, a place to receive comfort and see that we are not alone.”
It wasn’t just black students that were there. Allies were there, from any minority group, whether it be cultural minorities, the LGBT community, everyone came to support each other and bring solidarity and awareness that these things can’t happen any more.”
“We’re taking a stand to say that this is not tolerable, and that change is upon them,” said junior Dedric Cotton. “It’s human nature to fear change. This needs to occur, this needs to happen. As an African-American student here, I want my family to be able to come here and feel comfortable and feel like this school will make them into a better person.”
News of the incidents quickly spread throughout the state. News media from Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing ran the picture of the slur scrawled on the door on the front of its websites and led television broadcasts. From afar, it outraged MSU’s black alumni from as well.
“In my five years at MSU, not once did I experience racism,” said Ashleigh Hunter, a 2004 MSU graduate. “Racism is on the rise in this country. It’s become more blatant within the last year.”
There have been numerous incidents of racial intimidation in high schools around Michigan in the last few months. On Sept. 26, a 17-year-old boy from Ida, Mich. — 12 miles north of Toledo — was stabbed multiple times after allegedly hurling a racial slur at a 16-year-old black student.
An even stranger incident occurred on April 20 in Birmingham — 15 minutes outside of Detroit – where a disgruntled student wrote on a bathroom wall that five black students at Seaholm High School should be lynched. The student who wrote it, 19-year-old Courtney Thomas, is black.
He did it out of anger after being bullied. He was barred from commencement, sentenced to a year’s probation and 100 hours of community service yesterday.
While incidents such as these have been rare at Michigan State, they have left lasting impressions on those that have dealt with them in the past.
“I remember my freshman year in 1999, someone had written ‘KKK’ in an East Holden Hall elevator and we held a meeting hosted by Holden’s Black Caucus,” said MSU alumna Latrice Jackson-Walker. “It’s sad that more than 10 years later that students are still faced with racism. Some things changed but some things never change unfortunately.”
The message sent buy members of MSU’s student body at the town hall was that enough is enough. Lemons admitted that he did not expect the meeting to draw as many people as it did.
“We felt that the 1,000 people that were there last night were our supporters,” Lemons said of the standing room only crowd. “Now the dialogue is open for the whole campus. I’ve heard people say they’re outraged and they didn’t know these things were going on.
“Even though we had 1,000 people at our town hall, there’s still an entire campus of people who had no idea.”
The investigation into the culprits is ongoing and the university insists that they will find the people responsible for the racial intimidation.
Black student groups from across the state of Michigan, including Western Michigan University’s National Pan-Hellenic Council, have vowed to help BSA with some of their upcoming protests they plan to hold on campus. They plan on continuing to hold the university accountable and assist students who feel they are being singled out because of their race.
“I think our faces are kind of getting out there more now,” Moore said. “We want students to be able to voice their concerns. People were saying after the picture went up on Facebook that ‘we went through something like that too’ and we want to hear about it. At the end of the day, we’re here for advocacy, we’re here for the students.”
“This was my number one pick as a school,” Cotton said. “I love this school with all my heart, so the fact that this is happening, I won’t allow it and my family here at Black Student Alliance won’t allow it, and my community won’t allow it.
“There’s no way we’ll allow this negative stigma to be associated with Michigan State University.”