During the second week of my sociology class this semester, our professor Joshua Price brought to the class’s attention a racial incident that had occurred in a discussion section. A student had said a string of slurs while referring to a teaching assistant (TA), who is a woman of color. My initial reaction was how horribly ironic it was that in a class devoted to the unpacking of patterns of oppression, a student would say such a disgusting and racially charged statement. I also wondered what consequences the student would face. Unfortunately, it is unknown whether the student has faced any consequences besides dropping the course.
Instead of briefly addressing the incident and moving on, Price, the TA and Gladys Jiménez-Muñoz — an associate professor and undergraduate director in the sociology department — contextualized the incident by discussing the racist history of Binghamton, the power of words and the discrimination that Black students and teachers face in predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Price shared that he was in the process of reaching out to resources on campus to seek guidance for further disciplinary action.
Price made it clear that racial harassment is not tolerated in class, and other professors should take note. The 2021 Binghamton University student handbook states that “the Binghamton University community does not condone the use of insensitive, discriminatory or other disrespectful comments.” On February 27, a B-Line News Addition following the incident emphasized that racist incidents will not be tolerated at BU, condemning racism as “antithetical to our core values.” However, when overtly racist incidents occur with no known consequence, racism is passively being tolerated. Subsequently, the University’s words become hollow.
I am embarrassed to admit that before our discussion in class, I was not fully aware of Binghamton’s racially charged history. From 1923 to 1924, Binghamton served as the state headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Because of pushback from the high immigrant population in New York City, the KKK traveled upstate for recruitment. At the time, Binghamton was the perfect place, having very few foreign-born residents and a highly conservative population. The KKK attained a headquarters space at the intersection of Wall and Henry Street — less than five miles from where BU’s campus now stands — but left Binghamton a year later because of conflict with the national organization over the space. Binghamton’s racist and conservative history should put extra pressure on the University to open up communication about the city’s past, which should be acknowledged and reflected on with students.
BU is a PWI, with a student body that, as of 2019, is 55 percent white and 4.75 percent Black or African American, according to Data USA. Prior to the 1950s, Black students were almost exclusively educated in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In the past few years, PWIs have begun conducting research into their history with slavery, finding that profits from slavery and related industries funded several prestigious colleges in the Northeast, including Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, Princeton and Yale, and that students and teachers on campus were even served by slaves. The Princeton & Slavery Project found that there were slave auctions held on the Princeton University campus. Because BU is a newer school, it does not have such an intimate history with slavery, but it still has a racist history. The Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science is named after a publicly known Nazi sympathizer who Adolf Hitler honored in 1937, and the University has not made any effort to change the name. Additionally, Black staff and students at BU have repeatedly reported and endured racial harassment and discrimination on campus. BU’s ignorance sends a message that’s loud and clear — responding to racism is not a priority.
An open letter to Harvey Stenger on June 12, 2020 signed by over 200 faculty members, students and alumni stated that “67 percent of Black males, 57 percent of Black females, followed by 25 percent of Native American females reported that they have experienced some form of discrimination, harassment or incivility” on campus. The creation of the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship and refunding of the Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellowship, although positive, failed to address the issues that permeated the Black student body on campus. The staff and faculty expressed frustration with the lack of action and responsibility, writing “we remain gravely concerned, because these measures do nothing to address the pervasive racist climate on campus that has been on the rise and that students, faculty and staff have spent years telling you about.” Stenger’s inaction has also been a source of disappointment in the past, as he walked out of a meeting in March 2015 during which Students for Change questioned him about how he planned to respond to racism on campus, and racist pictures and slurs found on a campus whiteboard in 2017 were followed by an email where Stenger promised to react “forcefully” but no significant change was made.
How can students of color feel safe and comfortable at BU when there are no serious consequences for racial harassment and there has been no effort to educate students about the history of Binghamton and PWIs? Minority students do not get an equal educational or social experience to white students because they have to deal with the pressure and emotional trauma of racism. A majority of Black students report feeling alienated and discriminated against in PWIs. A phrase in the code of conduct condemning racism is not enough — BU’s empty words do nothing to protect minority students.
There have been some steps in the right direction, though, including a proposal by the Student Association (SA) Congress for a required race and diversity education program at student orientation. Hopefully, this course will distinguish itself from the performative actions of the University so far and thoroughly address the history of PWIs and racism in Binghamton. Additionally, it is crucial that BU publishes guidelines mandating and describing concrete consequences for racist acts so that when an incident occurs, the University and the perpetrator can be held accountable. BU should also make an effort to hire more diverse faculty members, as College Factual reports BU faculty as 71.7 percent white and only 3.6 percent Black or African American. The open letter to Stenger called for the resumption of a cluster hire initiative for professors of color that the University halted. Furthermore, counselors of color could provide extra support and guidance to students of color. The University of Maryland, for example, has a drop-in hour during which students of color can meet with counselors of color.
For now, BU’s overused statements of intolerance are just a formality. It is traumatic enough to be subjected to an act of racially charged hate speech, but to have the perpetrator face no clear serious consequence is painful for the victim and is not constructive for the perpetrator. Without any consequences, the student is just as likely to do the same thing again, because they have not learned from nor been impacted by their actions. As an institute of higher education, BU has the responsibility and the power to shape the minds and actions of students, affecting how they view and treat other people. When the University does not respond to racist incidents vehemently, it disempowers the victims and sends the message that acts of racism are of lesser importance. It is imperative that BU works to remedy the performative nature of its activism, and students reflect on their individual biases and the impact of their actions. As an institution where Black students have historically been excluded and are a minority, BU must respond to racism earnestly and productively.
Doris Turkel is an undeclared freshman.