It Runs Deep and We Can’t Talk It Out: On Campus Racism and the Murder of Richard Collins III
This past weekend, Sean Urbanski, a white University of Maryland student and member of an ‘Alt-Reich’ Facebook group stabbed to death Richard Collins III, who was about to graduate from nearby Bowie State University. This occurred late at night, but on campus with witnesses. The murderer did nothing to hide his act. “Step left, step left if you know what’s best,” he said to Collins and his friends. And when Collins refused, he was attacked. The FBI is investigating whether the murder constitutes a hate crime. Today, Maryland students continued their graduation ceremonies.
I attended UMD as an undergraduate, worked as a social worker after graduating, and then returned to campus for my doctorate. The state and the school gave me quite a lot, and as both a student and employee I tried to return the favor. Maudlin though it may be, the place is a part of me.
But there is a deep rot on campus, and on many campuses across the country, that prevents so many members of the campus community from building the world they want. Students, staff, and faculty of color feel this racist climate cutting away at everything they do, sometimes slowly, sometimes quite suddenly. These same students and staff have demonstrated, organized, and petitioned administrators for years to change the way the university is run so that they can feel safe, so they can go to work or school without feeling hated or threatened. If they are not ignored outright, they are placated with roundtables, working groups, and ever more calls for ‘dialogue.’ This does not heal the rot or cut it out, it merely presents the rot as one possible path for growth in the marketplace of ideas — and surely we wouldn’t want to offend the rot, or those who embrace it. So the rot sits, deep within our institutions, left to fester, slowly cutting away at the staff and students of color who walk through it. Until it bursts out and consumes someone like 23-year-old Richard Collins III.
There is a pattern here. Let me trace out some pieces of it.
In 1999, a series of racist death threats were mailed to the African American Studies Department, the Black Student Union, and the president of SGA — then a Nigerian-American woman.
In 2007, a noose was found hanging outside the Nyumburu Cultural Center — a gathering place for UMD’s black community.
In 2011, UMD’s Black Faculty and Staff Association confronted the administration with a 56-page report documenting abusive, racist management practices throughout campus, particularly in Facilities Management. Austere fiscal conditions heightened an already repressive workplace, which some campus workers referred to as The Plantation. Some organizational changes resulted, but most administrative recommendations focused on better communication between employees and management, and better training for management.
In 2014, following Ferguson police officer’s Darren Wilson’s non-indictment for the killing of Michael Brown, students occupied the Stamp Student Union. They protested the contradiction between the campus’ avowed commitment to student safety and respect, and the University Police Department’s 16 12-gauge shotguns, 50 M16 rifles, two transport vehicles, and a $65,000 armored truck — all garnered through the Defense Department’s 1033 program. University President Wallace Loh praised students for “advanc[ing] the dialogue on race relations” but the guns remained at the school.
In 2015, a Kappa Sigma fraternity member’s racist, sexist email leaked to the broader public. After discussing planned sexual conquests, the signature line read “Fuck consent.” Students protested the email as a symptom of a racist and sexist campus culture and demanded greater funding for diversity studies (and the faculty who teach these classes). This coincided with demands to rename the football stadium, which then bore the name of former President and avowed segregationist Harry Byrd. It has since been renamed.
Later that year, as campus occupations broke out at the University of Missouri and elsewhere in protest of campus racism, Loh positioned his response to the fraternity email as a national model for resolving these conflicts: Not expelling the student, but reinvesting in the marketplace of ideas through dialogue and diversity trainings.
Almost exactly a year ago, campus police broke up an off-campus party of mostly black students with force, pepper-spraying several, following a fake 911 call. It is worth quoting from the students’ account at length:
“Arguments escalated between police, residents, and witnesses outside of the apartment when everyone was trying to clear the area. The police then proceeded to mace the entire crowd without warning. The first five people to get maced were walking away when it was released as they were told to do. After people were maced, more police officers began laughing and shaking their mace bottles to continue spraying even though people were on the ground screaming and crying. The party goers were scattered at this point. Two people who did not attend the party but were there to help control the situation proceeded with other witnesses to a grassy area away from the apartment in Courtyards. As they proceeded to leave the area back up officers then came from the same direction they were walking. It was then ordered by an officer to ‘Arrest those two’ while given a description of what they were wearing. The two witnesses were forcefully tackled to the ground, while the officers put their knees and elbows in their backs and necks to keep them down. They were then both taken away to cop cars.”
I certainly never heard of a majority-white off campus party, let alone a fraternity party, broken up with such force.
The administration and University Police reviewed the incident, finding that “use of pepper spray to break up a graduation party of predominately black students was justified, but could have been avoided had the officers used a less hostile approach.” Charges against the two arrested students were dropped. One officer was suspended for two weeks. University police mandated a new department-wide implicit bias training. Loh’s public reproach to the police department centered not on the imbalance of power, but the lack of positive dialogue: “There are a lot of people in their daily interactions that are a bit confrontational or raise their voices. And that’s not a crime; it’s just bad manners. But if you do that when you’re wearing a uniform, that has consequences.”
This spring, UMD saw the DC area riven by protests against the Trump administration’s xenophobia — including immigrant raids and the so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ One of the administration’s responses was to unilaterally levy a new fee for international students to pay for their support services, bypassing the usual shared governance structures for creating fees. Students were outraged and Loh responded by throwing the issue back into the marketplace of ideas, saying “If they don’t want to pay it, they don’t have to come to the University of Maryland.”
Since December, white nationalist posters have repeatedly been found hung all over campus.
In April, Terps for Trumps left chalk messages through campus that ranged from the typical “MAGA” to “Deport DREAMers.” Campus activists washed it or away or covered the attacks on their peers with welcoming messages. On Twitter, Loh glossed the event as “Students took to the sidewalk to exchange ideas and engage in debate today. Keep the conversation going #chalkUMD.”
Earlier this month, a noose was found inside the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house. Loh condemned the incident and reaffirmed the university’s “commitment to core values of human dignity, diversity, inclusiveness, and intellectual freedom.”
And then, this past weekend, Sean Urbanski took out a knife and murdered a stranger from a nearby historically black university, a second lieutenant who had just obtained his airborne certification from the US Army.
Loh’s past pleas for ever more dialogue ring hollow in the wake of this tragedy. I’d like to believe that these calls, common throughout American liberalism, to keep the conversation going come from a place of genuine concern. I’d like to believe that there is genuine intent to fix things, that such calls for diversity and respect are not, as feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed argues, non-performative utterances that do not, cannot, and will not do what they say they will do. I’d like to believe that black lives matter to our schools and that more dialogue helps make it so. I certainly wouldn’t have committed myself to teaching in universities if I didn’t believe in dialogue advancing some form of cross-cultural understanding in some way.
Student activists certainly want to be heard. They are young and they are learning and finding their voices, but they are certainly present. And for all the calls for understanding from the administration, it appears they are not being listened to. Indeed, they are having an entirely different conversation and asking for different things to solve different problems. In the wake of Trump’s election, the Protect UMD coalition released a list of 64 demands to shift the resources of the University in ways that removed the barriers to safety and participation for marginalized students and protected them as full members of the community. Diversity trainings and dialogues show up on that list, but also more mental health professionals on campus, gender neutral bathrooms, more dedicated funding for Latinx faculty and cultural institutions, tenure for black professors, a full-time immigration attorney for undergraduates and graduates.
Two months later, Loh responded in a campus-wide email that largely dismissed the demands, noting that “We talk more about our differences than about our common ground.” The emphasis was, again, on dialogue, perception, and “the clash of ideas and values.” To Loh’s assurance that the administration recognizes community members who “feel disenfranchised”, one member of the coalition responded: “These groups don’t ‘feel’ disenfranchised, they are disenfranchised.” This situation is repeated across the country, and Loh is no special villain here. He is just doing his job and these institutions are much larger and more durable than any given leader.
Tragically, Collins death shows how high the stakes are. The rot has festered for decades. A safe space was built, purposefully or not, for racism. The timeline makes clear that tensions have escalated and students of color have real reason to feel unsafe. Why then, can students’ requests for life-saving resources only ever be met with calls for more dialogue?
There is a fundamental disconnect here. At most, administrative calls for more dialogue imagine racism as a virus coming from the outside to infect a diverse, liberal campus with misguided prejudice. Once subjected to the sunlight of rational inquiry and the rigorous education of various diversity courses and bias trainings, the infection will be banished. At other times, the call for dialogue imagines racism as one viewpoint among many, one that can be nudged out of the marketplace of ideas by increasing the supply of or demand for anti-racist ideas with enough tweets, committees, and trainings. Racism, these calls for dialogue teach us, is out there: In red states, not blue states; in the country, not a major metro area; in the unwashed masses, not the ivory tower. It infects the people in the university and then they commit individual acts of bias, but if we all commit to the talking cure then there is nothing to fear.
If racism is a pesky infection, then what do we make of the timeline above? Just terrible luck that we end up with a string of bad colds, year after year?
Perhaps it is better to think of racism on campus as less of an infection from outside than a cancer, growing from within. This is the frame student activists often take: Exclaiming that exceptional moments of violence — physical or symbolic — are actually symptoms of long-term, everyday problems. This is what so many of those 64 demands are about: Pleas to take everyday racism seriously and to restructure the institution so that it does not commit such violence. This violence might be the insults, disrespect, and threats to which students, staff and faculty are continually subjected — witness the testimonies united under the #feartheturtle hashtag that has exploded on social media in the wake of Collins’ murder. Or it might be the banal deprivation of high costs and low pay, where the University maintains a minimum wage lower than the county surrounding it and where a food bank has needed to open on campus to feed starving Terps, while the University system regularly floats bond sales to Wall Street worth tens of millions of dollars to fund new capital projects, secured against tuition revenue. Or a hundred other things.
In the end, perhaps the disease metaphor falls apart because campus racism is not exceptional — it is normal, it is how these places are built and maintained. This is what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues when he flips the usual script and names most of our schools HWCUs — historically white colleges and universities. “We never ponder about the whiteness of these places,” he writes, “we rarely question the history and practices that create and maintain these institutions as white. Instead, we conceive of them in universalistic terms as just colleges and universities. These colleges, however, have a history, demography, curriculum, climate, and symbols and traditions that embody, signify, and reproduce whiteness.” After all, as UMD historian Ira Berlin noted in a collaboration with his students on the role of slavery in the University’s mid-1800s construction, “If slaves didn’t lay the bricks, they made the bricks.” At least 16 of the original 24 trustees were slaveowners. The rot runs deep. Racism is not exceptional to our campuses. It is constitutional.
Sean Urbanski’s violence may be extraordinary on Maryland’s campus, but his racism is perfectly ordinary: White nationalists feel safe hanging recruitment flyers, campaigners apparently take part in political debate when they tell their peers they should be deported, nooses are planted again and again, black and brown workers call their offices The Plantation. He is, as Dave Zirin writes in The Nation, “not an interloper or an outsider. He is a homegrown terrorist who grew out of the soil of this college campus.”
What would be extraordinary would be if our campus was truly a safe spaces for people of color, where people could go about their days without fear. But that requires more than dialogue, it requires rebuilding the university. Student activists are clearly committed to this project. As are so many campus workers who keep the school running. As are the many faculty — graduate, adjunct, tenure track — and staff who make Maryland a world-renowned center for critical studies of race, gender, sexuality, labor, immigration, education, and more. They know that another university is possible. In seeking justice for Richard Collins, we must honor that vision and build that place.