Editor’s Note: This editorial was written by Celia Hiorns, with contributions from other editorial board members.
Since the recent surfacing of a racist video of a University of Wisconsin student, The Badger Herald Editorial Board seeks to follow our recent piece about free speech with more information and clarification. Though we stand by the accuracy of our interpretations in the article, it was written before the current situation unfolded, so it is our responsibility to add more context.
First and foremost, The Badger Herald Editorial Board extends its support to anyone who has been impacted by the video, particularly the Black community. We are deeply disturbed by the words in the video, and we wholeheartedly condemn speech that targets, discriminates against, degrades or hurts any group of people.
Further, we know UW’s statement condemning hate speech is not enough. We hear Black students who feel frustrated by this response. Ultimately, placating words begin to feel empty when students continue to experience racism in their everyday lives.
Though the speech in the video is protected under the First Amendment, that does not detract from the pain, harm and fear it has created in many of those in our university community. Students are right to feel threatened by the speech in the video, given the history and impact of the language used to attack Black students.
We do not claim the legal protection of such hateful speech is right or just. We view it as a fundamental flaw of the First Amendment that to have broad speech protections, we must legally tolerate such unacceptable language.
Therefore, in understanding the impact such language has on members of the university and Madison communities, UW has a responsibility to act — if not legally, then through other avenues. It’s frustrating when such intolerable speech is shielded from sanction by UW, but taking this into consideration can empower us to direct activist energy toward goals UW can implement within legal parameters.
In the April 3 Associated Students of Madison meeting, an open forum revealed students have many ideas for how UW could better support students of color. Beyond the bare minimum of condemning white supremacy, these conversations are a great starting point for implementing feedback from students of color.
One concern raised during the meeting was that many students of color felt the framing of UW’s most recent statement prioritized the white student in the video’s ability to grow over their safety on campus. While growth through education can be valued, it should not be a burden placed on students who have been harmed, nor should it come at the expense of their feelings of safety and support from UW.
Students of color also called on white students with institutional power from their positions on ASM to amplify their concerns and priorities. They also asked to be included in more conversations with administration, calling on Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin to follow through on her earlier promise to meet regularly with leaders of marginalized groups on campus.
We stand by students at the meeting who said UW should dedicate financial resources to the support of students of color and their union organizations on campus. For example, ASM approves the allocation of segregated fees, which could be redistributed more equitably to benefit students of color. The Grant Allocation Committee, also under ASM, could be redesigned to account for the fact that multicultural student organizations face additional barriers to obtain resources and funding.
UW could also address racial injustice through an examination of curricular requirements. While students are required to take three ethnic studies credits during their time on campus, some students at the ASM meeting proposed this requirement be adapted into a social justice requirement. This change could require students to engage more actively with course materials and acknowledge how understanding the broader context of injustice is necessary to combat it outside the classroom.
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Another action item students requested at the ASM meeting includes the removal of racist memorabilia on campus. The Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom has been the subject of controversy over the past few years — not only for Lincoln’s ethically questionable political history, but for the origins of the statue itself, which was largely funded by Richard Lloyd Jones, a known racist and journalist.
The unfettered admiration of Lincoln is disappointing when the names of Black leaders during the Civil War — such as Abraham Galloway, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Robert Smalls — have been forgotten or overshadowed. The Chazen Museum of Art is currently exhibiting re:mancipation, a critical response project examining the complicated legacy of another piece of art featuring Lincoln. This reckoning is important, but we agree with students at the ASM meeting that it must also be met with action that aligns with the demands of students of color.
UW’s Public History Project’s “Sifting and Reckoning” has led the charge in some of this critical examination. Through an uncovering of UW’s exclusionary history as well as documented acts of resistance, the project revealed much about UW’s room to grow and learn moving forward. Now, the findings of this historical research must be translated into action that reflects the dynamic needs of marginalized communities on campus.
More broadly, UW has a responsibility to reckon with the ways it contributes to oppressive power structures. Even when harmful speech is spread off campus, as an educational institution UW should strive to build a student population that does not tolerate bigotry. UW must listen to Black students and tailor resources that not only make them feel welcome, but that make them feel like the campus they attend is actively working to dismantle systemic racism.
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Under historical power structures that perpetuate racist conditions, an institution like UW has to recognize that with every action it takes, there is an impact. Policies that are not actively anti-racist are susceptible to producing racist impacts by failure to equitably consider social disparities.
Looking forward, activism should continue to center the needs and demands of Black students, with a clear understanding of what we can feasibly accomplish. In our own lives, we must continue to speak out against language that reflects racist attitudes. As we push for change, we should call for the creation and fostering of safe spaces for Black students to learn, grow and thrive. We should ask UW how its classes are building a student body that values acceptance and equality. And we can continue to use free speech to hold people and institutions accountable when they fail to maintain an environment of anti-racism.
UW is not legally compelled to act to dismantle racism. But, in accordance with its own Wisconsin Idea, we would hope that listening to the needs of the Black student population to strive for anti-racism on campus and beyond would be one of its primary objectives.
The Badger Herald Editorial Board serves to represent the voice of the editorial department, distinct from the newsroom and does not necessarily reflect the views of each staff member.