At a “town hall meeting” about race at UNC-Chapel Hill on Thursday night, a group of protesters issued a list of demands before individual students pleaded for a more inclusive environment.
The event, in a packed Memorial Hall, was tense at times, with black-clad protesters immediately seizing the forum from moderator Clarence Page, a journalist from the Chicago Tribune.
They chanted, “Whose university? Our university!”
Their demands were expansive – the elimination of tuition and the use of SAT tests in admissions, no outsourcing of campus jobs and no investments in prisons. They called for gender neutral bathrooms and the firing of the recently hired UNC system president, Margaret Spellings. Then they read additional demands for administrators across the nation, at the University of Missouri, and across the world at the University of Cape Town.
The protesters walked out of the town hall, where other students, one by one, put forth suggestions to make everyday life more comfortable for students of color. The Black Student Movement asked for a dedicated space to replace the one lost when a campus building was torn down. Several called for the removal of Silent Sam, the Confederate monument at the center of campus.
“We all agree on one thing,” said Madrid Danner-Smith, a sophomore. “Systemic racism exists.”
His suggestion drew applause: “Mandatory racial equity training,” he said, for every student, professor, administrator and staff member. “That’s all I got to say.”
At universities around the United States, a wave of student activism has erupted in the aftermath of mass protests at the University of Missouri that led to the resignation of the president this month. Demonstrations about other racial incidents have occurred at Yale, Duke and many other campuses.
UNC’s town hall meeting came a week after a large rally on campus in support of Mizzou. But UNC students have been active for years on racial issues, and pressure from students led the Board of Trustees this year to rename Saunders Hall, a building named for a purported Ku Klux Klan leader.
Laurie Medford, a graduate student in 19th Century history, pointed out the irony of the event being held in a building that commemorates war dead.
“Southern colleges and unversities have a complex, often uncomfortable history,” Medford said. “An inclusive Carolina is not owned by its Confederate past. This is a small step, but badly needed. How can my students and my classmates feel welcome and included on this campus with the Lost Cause narrative owning our campus space?”
A history task force has embarked on plans to place markers on McCorkle Place, where Silent Sam is located, to give full context to it and other memorials. The group is also studying the feasibility of creating a museum to give a full account of UNC’s history.
Thursday’s town hall came 50 years after black students made similar demands and a year after the birth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. “Still talking about the question raised by a man named King,” said Page, the moderator. “I don’t mean Martin Luther King. I mean Rodney King. Can we all get along?”
Some students described what they said were microaggresions at UNC. One female African-American student, a political science and biology major, said someone had asked what sport she played – implying that she wasn’t smart enough to attend UNC. Another, a Latina student without documentation, described picking tobacco with her family at age 11 to escape poverty, only to be told by someone to go back to her country.
The event was heavily attended by faculty and staff, who were asked to be there by Chancellor Carol Folt.
One professor, Jennifer Ho, stood up to assure students that faculty cared.
“Institutional racism and white supremecy are very real,” said Ho, an English professor, “and very tied to the history of UNC-Chapel Hill.”
After the forum, Folt made no specific promises, but said her administration is committed to improving the campus climate.
“You can’t have been listening to this without feeling the pain that people are feeling,” she said. “I hear it loud and clear that people want action.”
Cara Pugh, a sophomore, asked UNC leaders for an action plan, concrete steps, by February.
“Students are hurting,” Pugh said, “and students need change.”