Jalin Jackson ‘19 and Lucas Weals ‘19
If you would believe the common narrative, overt acts of racism are on the wane: no longer are confessed Klansmen marching white-robed down the street, and gone are the days of cross-burnings and Church massacres. While true and false in some regards, we should interrogate the perspective more deeply.
What constitutes racism, especially the unseen kind, varies depending on who one talks to. For example, one might conclude that a dark-skinned man walking by a white woman at night can be scary for her because he is a man. Another might attribute her fear to his skin color. The same goes for discrimination against people based on sexuality, gender, religion and so on. Regardless, the absence of overt discrimination does not mean discrimination is absent in other forms.
Glaring or subtle, Davidson College has experienced it all. In light of the exposing of alleged neo-Nazi supporters on campus, a number of students have communicated feelings of exclusion from Davidson communities and experiences of frequent discrimination since long before Wednesday.
Members of Davidson’s administration and student body alike have not only perpetuated acts of discrimination in various ways, but so too have they been intentionally discriminatory for much of Davidson’s history. Ku Klux Klan cartoons have graced the pages of Davidson yearbooks (members of the Klan felt comfortable enough to hold a demonstration down Main Street over sixty years after those cartoons were published). Leaders of Davidson’s administration argued against the admission of black students in the late 1950’s for reasons that may appear unbelievable in contemporary times. Davidson students publicly fought against including their fellow community members based on racial and sexual identity throughout the 1980’s.
Perhaps this campus thought it would be on the path to learning from its history of exclusion and discrimination following a 1995 institutional reflection, mostly consisting of student interviews conducted by administration and faculty. Yet, in this past Thursday’s countless flashes of the exhaustion, eloquently voiced by a handful of marginalized students, the language of that document was plainly and traumatically recognizable.
Students are frankly communicating Davidson’s historical inadequacy at making them feel like actual members of the college community.
After the protest in the Union on Friday, Davidson’s administration, as it usually does after student-led events, affirmed that it stands “together against anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry” and posted a photo of the demonstration. This is the same language that the institution has relied on for decades, even as the most overtly racist acts on its campus appear to be fading.
Combating people who relish in images of the lynching of minorities is easier for white people to handle. Abstract threats like hate, racism, homophobia, and bigotry are low-hanging fruit for universal disavowal: they seem so distant, in space and in time.
At Thursday’s community meeting in the Lilly Gallery, our administration erred by stating Davidson is not the Davidson of old. This college may superficially look and act differently, but the place that nurtured the intellectual enrichment of white racists and homophobes in the past is the same one that allowed it to ferment in these last three years.
This is because year after year, a majority of the Davidson community has developed a culture of complacency—what one Davidsonian writer, arguing against a counter-protest to a Klan rally in town in 1986, glowingly called “a policy of apathy”—and extreme toleration, one that merely takes a casual trek through our archives to understand.
1928 — Quips and Cranks
Artwork from Quips and Cranks, 1928: a Klansman announces the section on Fraternaties [sic]; on the cover, the traditional sword and snake of Davidson’s seal are replaced with the hat, gloves and saber of a Confederate uniform.
We debated the wisdom of including such explicitly racist materials, which can risk alienating students from the more subtle realities of racism on campus—see, we’ve made progress: no more Loyal White Knights in the yearbook! But the relevance of these images, especially given the Klan nostalgia pervading last week’s Twitter revelations, is difficult to ignore. The front cover is important for similar reasons: the seal of Davidson, dressed up—perhaps not for the first time—in the regalia of a slave-holding rebel army, is not an image from which minority students can freely and willfully dissociate. These are images that require our attention, exposition, and forceful rejection. White students may feel content with this explicit bigotry exiled to the humble shelves of the Davidsoniana room, but for many minority students, artifacts like 1928’s Quips merely give a louder voice to that which always lingers in institutional silences: a distinct and well-illustrated history of racism at Davidson.
1986 — The Davidsonian
From The Davidsonian, April 25, 1986: an op-ed writer argues vociferously that Davidson should “not support Gay movement”; editors advise that students treat an impending Klan rally with “a policy of apathy.”
Searching for the Davidsonian’s coverage of a 1986 Klan march in town, we found a slew of objectionable op-eds and editorial notes. It’s difficult to explain the homophobic op-ed—which equates homosexual sex and rape, and which invokes the college’s Christian roots to demand that gay students “look for [their] support elsewhere”—as merely a function of its time. This piece was penned in 1986 and, it should be noted, as an explicit response to a call from faculty who hoped to form a Gay Support Group on campus. We were also struck by the editors’ suggestion that “a policy of apathy” is sufficient to address violent racism and hatred in town. Critiquing this policy of apathy begins in understanding and investigating its place in Davidson’s own publications.
1995 — Self-Study
Selections from a 1995 Self-Study on Student Experience, conducted by a faculty committee to present to administration: black students express feelings of “intense alienation” and a desire “to escape” Davidson due to lack of social activity and pervasive acts of subtle racism; the study’s authors report intense homophobia at Davidson in the early 90’s, including death threats and public humiliation.
These quotations may provide context for remarks made at Friday’s rally in the Union, especially the sentiment that members of minority communities at Davidson are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This report, presented by faculty over twenty years ago, describes a minority experience on campus that sounds tragically similar to the one presented by some of Friday’s speakers.