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Who’s Allowed to Dance on Graduation Day?

Analyzing the racism on stage at the University of Florida

John Knox
John Knox
May 8, 2018 · 7 min read
Credit: nirat/iStock via Getty

It was appalling, the unseemly entitlement and narcissism of it all, right there on the graduation stage of one of our nation’s great public universities. For 12 interminable seconds, the stage at the University of Florida (UF) commencement ceremonies was taken over by dancers self-consciously showing off in front of thousands. How demeaning, how distracting, how disrespectful to the graduates and their families. Where is the decorum? Where were the marshals?

If you think I am talking about exuberant graduates of UF accused of making a mockery of graduation, you’re wrong. Look carefully the photo above. These were its highest-ranking and highest-paid leaders.

Forty minutes into the ceremony — before a single student had mounted the stage in front of the UF seal to be recognized as a graduate and potential donor to the university — President Kent Fuchs and his entire provostian, vice presidential, deanlet and trustee entourage performed the “stiff-armed dance.”

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Multimillionaires on the platform doing the “stiff-armed dance,” from the 42:34 mark of the 2018 UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Nursing graduation ceremony.

The crowd loved it. A minute later, Fuchs (salary $1.18 million in 2016–17) referred to his “Presidential bling.” Less than a minute after that, he showed a selfie of himself.

The tone was fully set for the UF graduation just before the 57-minute mark of the ceremony, when a UF Trustee led the graduates in moving the graduation cap tassels “the Gator way,” with a two-bite gator chomp.

In this atmosphere, wouldn’t you expect some celebration by the students — especially those for whom a college degree is a dream come true? According to the President himself, over 1,000 of the graduates were first-generation college students. UF is proud of its diversity, as exemplified by its undergraduate population: 57.5% Caucasian or white, 14.6% Hispanic or Latinx, 8.2% non-resident alien, 7.3% Asian-American, and 7.2% black or African-American.

Once the news broke that some graduates of color were being manhandled by a university marshal, I watched not one but two of UF’s undergraduate commencements to get a fuller context of what happened, and a better sense what went wrong — and why. Was this a case of Graduating While Black at a flagship Southern university?

First I watched the morning (9 am EDT) UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences & College of the Arts commencement, held on May 5, 2018. It was fairly boisterous, but it wasn’t the ceremony you’re hearing about. There was no yanking, no manhandling; it was what you’d expect. (There was no video of the VIPs doing the stiff-armed dance at the morning ceremony, either.)

Then I watched the afternoon (2 pm EDT) UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences & College of Nursing commencement, held later on the same day. Overall, it didn’t seem to be quite as energetic — perhaps a post-lunch lull, or perhaps a lack of lunch altogether.

What was different was the marshal in charge of getting the graduates on and off the stage. His actions are why the UF graduation ceremony is now making national news.

Marshals are needed to make sure that the thousands of graduates move on to the stage, stand or move in front of the big university seal while their name is called, and then head off-stage. Some students like the limelight a lot more than others — as anyone who’s been to a modern-era high school or college graduation knows. But it’s not rocket science. This is the students’ big day, and so good-natured escorting is the rule.

The good-naturedness wore thin and then wore out at UF on Saturday afternoon. As the students moved through the hour-plus procession, many did the gator chomp, some with more than two bites but without punishment from the marshals. The appearance of cameras for selfies, however, triggered an automatic but gentle escorting from the stage.

At the 1:37:43 mark, a student originally from Panama executed a perfect backflip in front of the UF seal, but this did not lead the marshals into yanking him off-stage. The crowd oohed and ahhed at his physical feat.

One of the marshals, rumored to be a lecturer at UF, clearly lost patience as the ceremony neared the two-hour mark. Following the backflipper, there were about 16 students, about half of them students of color, who were gently escorted off by the marshal — I’ll call him “the Bespectacled Bouncer” — for spending too much time on-camera.

After that, things seemed to die down temporarily. But the enforcement of decorum was somewhat selective up to this point, partly because there didn’t seem to be any enforcement right after someone “acted up.” The Bouncer apparently couldn’t be in two places at once.

Trouble ensued at the 2-hour 6-minute mark of the video. A dancing student — wait, hadn’t all the VIPs been dancing onstage a little over an hour before? — got a push from the Bouncer. This led to boos from the audience for the first time in the entire ceremony. The very next graduate was grabbed and shoved off by the Bouncer, amid even more boos. But the climax came two minutes later, at the 2:08:14 mark. The penultimate graduate, a woman of color, was grabbed and pushed by the Bouncer amid an indignant chorus of boos. The boos were silenced by the announcement of the final graduate, a student in a wheelchair, who elicited smiles and applause from the Bouncer — who, just 40 seconds before, had been sternly hauling students off-stage.

Watch the video for yourself at the link above — skip to the 2-hour mark to save time. It seems obvious enough that the rough treatment was reserved for students of color. But before we let the VIPs off the hook and demand that the Bouncer be fired, let’s consider what’s really going on here.

Look at the photo at the top of the stiffly dancing stiff-armed dancers. Where’s the diversity? The State of Florida citizenry is nearly 17% black. UF is half that. The VIPs on the dais? Probably about a quarter of that.

According to the New York Times, the median family income of a UF student is over $100,000, compared to a median household income in the state of Florida of $48,900, according to U.S. Census data. Most of the people on the platform make 4–9 times that, based on publicly available data on UF salaries. The Bespectacled Bouncer, by contrast, makes only a little more than Florida’s median household income, if rumors of his identity are accurate — and he lacks the job security that others on the platform have.

Framed in socioeconomic terms, UF and its graduation take on the familiar contours of the Southern plantation — never mind all the higher degrees and platitudes of “community” made from the podium shortly before the Bouncing occurred. The monochromatic rich run the show and are allowed to do things (like dance onstage) that the multi-hued, poorer (and likely indebted) younger people are not. And when the latter try to assume even some of the status of the privileged few, there’s always a precariously employed white person nervously situated between the two groups who enforces discipline. Same as it ever was — whether you call him “overseer” or “lecturer,” the social and economic dynamics are nearly identical. The racial dynamics, as always, put African-Americans at the most risk. This is, after all, the Florida of George Zimmerman and the late Trayvon Martin.

Anyone who would assume that such dynamics would magically go away in the Ivory Tower is simply unfamiliar with the landscape. Public universities such as UF feel they are in a desperate race to ascend the U.S. News rankings; see the UF Alumni Association President’s remarks just after the 39-minute mark here for a sense of the desperation to ratchet up the alumni participation rate for U.S. News purposes. That ascent is based on exclusivity, not access to higher education; this is simply a function of how U.S. News rankings are made. The South of yore was fundamentally rooted in a similar kind of exclusivity, and a bitter opposition to access — to the voting booth, to the front of the bus, to the pools and water fountains, and of course, to higher education.

It is hardly surprising that UF, in a moment that should have been PR gold, managed to find the reverse Midas touch and turn it into a PR disaster. This, too, is emblematic of the South. While racism is not limited to the South, it flourishes a bit more luxuriantly and outrageously in Southern institutions. And from Birmingham in 1963 to Gainesville in 2018, this racism photobombs America: here for all of us to see, and for all of us to contemplate.

Written by

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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