I hesitate to write a column concerning the racial incident on campus this past week, but ultimately I feel compelled to add my opinion to the discussion, despite the abundance of more qualified analyses that already exist.
The events of last Tuesday will forever remain somewhat unclear and inevitably influenced by individual perspective, but that does not mean they can be ignored. We need to ask ourselves why people reacted this way, and what this protest says about the culture of The University of Mississippi and the perception of that culture from a national or even global view.
Initial reports of the event from students on campus introduced the word “riot” to capture the incident, which larger media outlets immediately adopted in their coverage. Undoubtedly, the history of the school encouraged this perception.
There is never an appropriate time for racial slurs, but the protest’s alignment with the university’s 50 years of integration celebration disturbs the image of the school as racially redeemed and reminds us of the nonlinear progress of race relations.
This university’s administration must now incorporate this incident into an otherwise largely positive representation of the school as far removed from the 1962 riots with the election of a black homecoming queen and a significant black student population.
The media attention given to the protest forced the chancellor and the school to respond in the form of a message to students and faculty, as well as with a candlelight vigil. Are these actions appropriate?
Some suggest that the university overreacted by acknowledging the actions of a small number of students in such a prominent way. Both the message and the vigil provide space to condemn racist language (which I view as necessary), yet ultimately they fail to examine the underlying causes of the protest.
This election represents the first time an elected president did not capture a majority of the white vote, which cannot be ignored when white students use racial slurs to protest a political election. This is not just about Republicans and Democrats, but also a deeper discomfort concerning the notion of being displaced by minority voters.
A student involved in the protest told Mississippi Public Broadcasting that he had no regrets about his participation and through the protest hoped to defend his Confederate heritage.
Part of the overblown media coverage of the incident can be attributed directly to these lingering sentiments on campus.
Is there a way to memorialize the school’s involvement in the Civil War and simultaneously respect students who, understandably, consider themselves opposed to Confederate ideology? Last Tuesday’s white protesters feel marginalized, asserting that they have lost their political voice. Some white students feel similarly when symbols connected to the Confederacy disappear from campus, as evidenced by the Colonel Reb debacle.
The fact remains that the campus retains a plethora of Confederate symbolism. Participants in last week’s candlelight vigil walked past a monument to Confederate soldiers as they gathered, serving as a stark reminder of the symbol’s presence on campus, which exacerbates negative perceptions of the school.
This is not to imply that I favor removing every vestige of the Confederacy from campus, but rather to remind those upset with national media coverage of the event that there are reasons The University of Mississippi receives immediate attention at the first sign of racial strife.
Most important is the acknowledgment that maintaining monuments to the Confederacy denies black (and white) students’ justified objection to symbols connected to slavery. We can remember Confederate dead without commemorating the cause of the Confederacy, and the best way to do this is by eliminating institutional symbols of slavery from our campus while respecting the unfortunate deaths on both sides of the conflict.
As a community, we should acknowledge and respect all positions and remember that symbols provide different meanings for different people.
Meghan Holmes is a second-year graduate Southern studies student from Arab, Ala. You can follow her @styrofoamcup.