Uncomfortable but powerful change in Missouri

Race Issues
by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, November 13, 2015, at 3:07 pm

On Monday, University of Missouri system President Timothy Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, from the system’s flagship campus in Columbia, stepped down. Normally this might make minor ripples in the news, but this story made national headlines.

Over the past several months, minority students at the University of Missouri have raised increasing concerns about how they are treated on campus. Reported instances included a swastika smeared on a wall in human feces and a meeting of an African-American student club being interrupted by a drunken white student using racial slurs. Minority students did not feel that Wolfe was responding with the necessary urgency or force, or really responding at all.

What commenced was a student uprising of sorts, but not the burning-cars-and-throwing-stones variety. A respected student began a hunger strike until Wolfe stepped down. Hundreds of other students gathered for peaceful protests on the campus quad. But the tipping point in momentum seemed to happen when minority members of the football team, with the backing of their white coach and athletic director, said they would not participate in any football activities until the president resigned. With a home game against Brigham Young looming on Saturday, this was a threat to the tune of seven figures in potential financial losses for the school. In the face of all this Wolfe, as well as Loftin, stepped down.

It is a shocking result. In athletic terms, players never hold the upper hand in NCAA sports. They are the pawns in whatever game the administrators want to play, and yet here they were joining together in Missouri to sway a state-run institution.

From a broader perspective, the power and influence shown by a collection of college students is stunning. They brought an institution to a halt and captured its attention, and did so with passion, clarity, and dignity. They gained leverage without losing respect.

On the one hand it might be troubling to see how fast and easy it was for a group with momentum and working toward a singular goal to effect massive change. That is a recipe for revolution. It could become a runaway train, an unchecked force. And what if they took aim at a target we hold dear? Such thoughts are very uncomfortable, especially for those of us from the majority culture unaccustomed to having our boat rocked.

On the other hand, what happened at the University of Missouri was a momentous occurrence. Students—including student athletes—stood for a cause. They didn’t do any of the stereotypical millennial online activism that amounts to little; they took action and used what leverage they had to its fullest, but not to hurt or harm. They respected the persons and property they confronted. They exemplified the respect they were demanding. Those students could not be ignored and neither did they commit any actions that would allow the media or the school’s administration to write them off as punk kids or rabble-rousers.

This is how change takes place when those seeking justice are not in a position of power. It is uncomfortable. It is surprising. And it is powerful. We must hope such movements are in pursuit of the right change, aimed at the right objectives. 

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas is a former WORLD correspondent.

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