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‘Tired’ of Racism and Pushing for Change

Black students want Salisbury administrators to hold students accountable when they use or post racial slurs and other offensive comments on social media and elsewhere.

June 12, 2020
 
Courtesy of Stephon Mason
Salisbury students and community members participate in a protest on June 10.

After racially offensive language shared in private group chats by white students at Salisbury University recently became public, black students say they are tired of administrators' indifference when their community is “targeted” and made to feel unwelcome.

Two incidents of students using racial slurs or making insensitive comments about black people in group chats affiliated with student organizations occurred just days after Charles Wight, the university’s president, sent an email to the campus on the Eastern Shore of Maryland condemning the killing of George Floyd and “an underlying scourge of systemic racism.”

The incidents followed a series of racist vandalism and threats on the campus in November and February, which prompted the university to hire Joan Williams, its first chief diversity officer, who started working there in May. Williams did not respond to a request for comment.

Screenshots of the more recent incidents, the first of which the university was made aware of on June 2, shows a text by a member of the Salisbury chapter of Theta Chi fraternity, which is unaffiliated with the university, that says, “fuck n-----s.” The second incident came to the university’s attention on June 5, said Jason Rhodes, public relations director and university spokesperson. A member of the Salisbury College Republicans said in a group chat, “funny joke, what does killing a black man and saying the n word have in common? They only get mad when white people do it,” according to a screenshot of the messages.

In a statement posted to the group's Instagram page, the College Republicans said it does "not support nor condone any racist threats, comments, jokes, or activities by members inside or outside of our club" and it "embraces diversity and open conversations."

"The messages are taken out of context and only showing brief sections of the entire conversation," the statement said. "We apologize for any harm the comments have caused by various students in social media. They do not represent the beliefs of our organization … We are committed to working with our campus leaders, students, and faculty to create positive change through dialogue, education, understanding, empathy, and acceptance​."

Representatives of the campus chapter of Theta Chi could not be reached for comment. The international Theta Chi Fraternity issued a statement that said the Salisbury chapter member had been removed and that the comments “do not represent nor reflect the ideals” of the chapter or international organization. The group chat was not affiliated with the chapter, the statement said.

“Members of the Kappa Eta Chapter are disgusted by this member’s messages and apologize to all,” the statement said. “The chapter will work to further educate its members and remain a positive force in the local community.”

Wight tweeted a response to the June 2 incident that said the university was aware of the text messages and that the incident had been forwarded to the Salisbury University Police Department, student affairs officials and the Office of Institutional Equity to begin an investigation. Salisbury “condemns and repudiates racism in all its forms, including racist language and behaviors,” Rhodes said in an emailed statement. But as a public institution, it must also uphold the First Amendment and students’ right to free speech, “even when the message is not one with which the University agrees,” he wrote.

“Our goal is to take action to the fullest extent legally possible,” Rhodes wrote. “To this end, we hope to provide the campus community with education about the power their words have, the importance of respecting diversity and cultural differences, and the hurt and pain words and actions can inflict, especially on people of color.”

In his message about Floyd, Wight said the university has a duty to lead the community in “confronting racism” and to “be a facilitator of lasting change.” That is not the message black students are receiving when they see Salisbury administration failing to make clear the consequences for students who use racist language, said Stephon Mason, a rising junior and president of the Salisbury National Pan-Hellenic Council, which represents the university’s historically black fraternities and sororities. When administrators say the incidents will be referred to the appropriate offices without detail on how it will be addressed, it’s uncertain whether it’s being addressed at all, Mason said.

It turns out that the vandalism that occurred last year was not committed by a student. Jerome Kevin Jackson, a 54-year-old man from Princess Anne, Md., who is unaffiliated with the university, was found responsible and signed a plea agreement with prosecutors on June 3, Delmarva Now reported. He was charged with defacing university property “while exhibiting racial animosity” in violation of Maryland’s hate crime statute.

In a statement on June 8, Wight thanked the Salisbury campus for their “patience and understanding” throughout the investigation. Mason said he is happy to have the matter finally closed, but that it doesn’t mean the root problem of racism at the institution has been solved.

ChangeSU, a student-led coalition that held protests last year and called for the university administration to change how it responds to racial incidents, wants the administration to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for racist language used by students, said Dorien Rogers, a rising junior and former member of the coalition and a presidential task force formed in response to the past racist incidents. The policy would guarantee officials take disciplinary action against students who make racist or other hateful comments directed at specific groups on social media or in person, and inform the student body that action was taken, Rogers said.

“Students aren’t asking for specifics. They’re asking that there’s an acknowledgment to disciplinary action being taken,” Rogers said. “Administration has yet to bend on that. It’s quite frustrating. Silence equals support for such actions and words that are being said by members of the community.”

Savannah Johnson, a rising junior and public relations officer for the Salisbury student chapter of the NAACP, said it shouldn’t be the job of black students and leaders to serve as the “racist police” and bring attention to these incidents. The university should be the first to respond publicly and strongly, as soon as it knows about the incident, and not wait for students to catch wind of it first, Johnson said. She said the stress of racist incidents involving Salisbury students and the national response to Floyd’s murder have been exhausting.

“As black students, we’re supposed to be able to be students first, but it feels like we always have to be on guard,” Johnson said. “We’re not on campus, so you don’t think we have to deal with campus issues, but I am. We’re being hit by both sides. It takes a toll mentally and physically.”

Jamil Charles, a rising junior and community relations chair for Salisbury’s Black Student Union, said he, Mason and Rogers, along with other students and local residents, attended a protest march from the campus to the local Salisbury police station to join the national movement in support of Floyd and against racism in the community. He said it’s “disheartening” that black students have been “fighting the same problem” on campus since he was a freshman.

“There are a lot of promises made to end racism, but if you don’t put in actions to respond to that, there’s no point,” Charles said. “We’re fed up with it … Don’t give out false promises. It’s not fair to the student body. There should be consequences for people who put these slurs out to other people. There shouldn’t be room for ignorance in our community.”

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