'All of us are also suffering': Syracuse University professors join student sit-ins to protest racist incidents

Students at Syracuse University entered their seventh day of sit-ins on Wednesday, demanding action for at least 11 bias-related incidents that have occurred on or near the campus since Nov. 7. The incidents — targeting African-Americans, Asians and Jews — have brought a decades-old pattern of racism at the university to a fever pitch.

Determined to make change, students are now turning to a powerful set of allies: their professors.

“There’s not a lot we can do because the administration has the final say, but we’re able to open up dialogue and ensure that students have somewhere to go,” Jenn Jackson, PhD, a professor of political science who tweeted about the incidents on Monday, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Students are overwhelmingly gracious, because a lot of the time, they’re just looking for someone to affirm their experiences.”

The affirmations are likely going a long way to comfort an increasingly terrorized student body at the university, where the mounting number of incidents has caught the attention of actor Gabrielle Union; pushed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call for an investigation; initiated a Twitter page called @NotAgain_SU (an account and movement led by black students); and prompted the school, through a generous donor, to offer a $50,000 reward for the culprit or culprits behind the string of incidents.

“Students are stressed and missing classes for the protests — despite end-of-semester demands,” Jackson says. “So, at the sit-in, multiple teachers from different departments offered services like proofreading and office hours.” 

With instances of racial discrimination on the campus dating back as far as the ’90s, students, and professors are bringing power in numbers in standing up to what Jackson calls “a cultural problem at the university.”

The most recent incident occurred on Tuesday morning when a white supremacist manifesto was air-dropped to students’ cellphones at Syracuse’s Bird Library, according to an email sent by the school’s Department of Public Safety (the department is currently investigating, and has notified the Syracuse Police Department, New York State Police and the FBI). The manifesto, a 74-page document, was reportedly written by the perpetrator of the March Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings, and includes neo-Nazi symbols and anti-immigrant sentiments.

While the school says the manifesto includes no direct threats to SU students, it’s still prompting some students to stay home “in fear for their lives,” and affecting faculty as well: Genevieve García de Müeller, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric who is Mexican and Jewish, told the New York Times that she got a message to her work email in which she was reportedly called an anti-Semitic slur and told to “get in the oven where you [she] belong[ed].” She canceled her classes that day.

Two days before the airdropped manifesto, on Saturday night, a black student was verbally attacked by members of a fraternity who reportedly yelled the n-word at her as she waited for a bus. The school’s Department of Public Safety has since investigated and, in an email sent out on Sunday, Chancellor Kent Syverud announced that the school has “substantial evidence” regarding the incident, including camera footage, eyewitness accounts and interviews.

In a letter to both students and staff, Syverud says, “This report of an affront to our student’s—and our whole community’s—safety and well-being is the latest incident of several against Jews, Asians and African Americans... I am deeply angered by these events, including this latest incident.”

As a result, Syracuse University’s Interfraternity Council wound up expelling the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity indefinitely — despite its declaration of innocence.  

Still, some black student activists believe such incidents “are being swept under the rug by the administration.” Syracuse University did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.

Jackson, as a teacher of color, says she “does not feel safe” on campus — and that faculty are banding together by “physically being in the space with students and checking in with them to see what they need.” Through students, Jackson says she heard about another professor who took a group of Asian students out to dinner — a way to get them out of the Day Hall residential area, where graffiti that disparages the Asian community was discovered last week

The school has recently attempted to offer “safety escorts” to students and faculty that feel threatened, but staff and students alike are now requesting the campus be shut down instead, to allow for some de-escalation. Jackson says she’s canceled all classes for the week, so that “students feel free to attend protests or avoid campus for their safety without being penalized.”

She explains that “the students of #NotAgainSU have put together a list of demands that are reasonable, but there seems to be reluctance by [administration] to react aggressively,” and to instead reduce the amount of attention brought to these issues. Garcia de Müeller agrees, telling the New York Times, “I consistently see this narrative on campus that’s trying to diminish what’s happening,” she said. “I don’t see a plan, a very clear plan, for any sort of systemic change. And I think that needs to happen.”

Jackson continues, “There’s not a lot we can do, because the administration has the final say, but we’re able to open up dialogue and ensure that students have somewhere to go,” she continues, adding that she has also encountered students who seem to express apathy towards the movement. To that, she says, ”If the campus is unsafe for your peers, then those are your stakes. Learning in a homogenous space isn’t good, so “when any of us are excluded, then all of us are also suffering.”

According to various reports, this recent string of events is only a fragment of a larger pattern of white supremacy that has plagued the students of color for years.

Just last year, 15 Syracuse University students were suspended for participating in fraternity videos described as both racist and anti-Semitic by the school’s chancellor. The video sparked both an investigation and student outrage, resulting in protests and sit-ins.

On Tuesday morning, one Twitter user recalled an effort by students to combat racism on campus five years ago, noting, “…racial violence has remained constant at SU & Administration has done NOTHING.”

She refers to the General Body — basically the 2014 version of #NotAgainSU — which is a Twitter account created by “a coalition of students, faculty, and staff at Syracuse University.” Its mission is to promote “Transparency, Heterogeneity, and Equality” or, as they call it, “THE.” The account has since spoken out in solidarity with current students, also referencing the student sit-ins in 2014.

Another investigation, of an email sent out in 2011, was written by a member of USC's Kappa Sigma chapter and addressed to “the Distinguished Gentlemen of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity.” It described how to be an effective "cocksman,” and contained explicit material, advising the men to refer to women as “targets,” and to document their sexual partners — including the “quality” of each in great detail. The email gives grotesque nicknames to targets, based on their race, and notes that “non-consent and rape are two different things,” advising just how drunk to get a target before they become too sick — and therefore, “useless entities.” 

But the reports of discrimination date back even further.

In 1997, a group of 10 SU students — six Asian, three black and one white — filed a lawsuit against Denny’s for a hate crime that took place in front of their establishment; though it occurred off-campus, student activists include the incident in the troubled history of racism affecting the school — as 100 students protested after a DA dropped the case.

Ten years after the Denny’s incident, SU students were still hopeful about the campus’ future,  encouraging students at the time “to continue to work with the university and community at large to ensure the respect and civil rights of all people.”

But today, Jackson says, “There is a culture of bigotry, exclusion and isolation, and until they are serious about dismantling it, these problems will continue to emerge.”

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