Three summers ago I took my first step onto Boston University’s campus as an accepted student in mid-July; when I stepped into the Metcalf Ballroom for new student orientation, I was just thankful to have finally found a way to escape the unrelenting Boston heat. I still had that stupid new-student grin on my face and the naive belief that campus would look something like the brochure the school had sent a few months ago inviting me to attend “multicultural weekend.” By the time I sat down and looked around, I realized that there were decidedly fewer black and brown faces than I’d anticipated.
Before I could think about what that might mean, a couple of deans and representatives of the BU Police Department got up on stage and told us about all of the things they were doing to keep us safe.
After being raised in Georgia, my first three years of college in a major US city located in the Northeastern United States has taught me that Northern white liberals really do believe that their region’s historical identification with the Union (as opposed to the Confederacy) absolves them of their complicity in American slavery as well as the systemic and institutionalized racial oppression that followed and continues to this day. Those in Boston often conveniently forget that the city violently resisted desegregating their separate and unequal schools; they ignore the fact that, in the span of only a generation, Boston public schools went from being 65 percent to only 13 percent white, as white people decided that they’d rather leave the system than send their kids to school with black children. By the time Northern white folks were done rioting and fleeing to the suburbs where black and brown folks couldn’t touch them, Boston schools were once again separate and unequal. And Northern white liberals seemingly view racially discriminatory policing tactics developed in their own region—like “broken windows” policing and the now-illegal stop-and-frisk tactics—as aberrations from their otherwise “colorblind” racial utopia.
Somehow, this brand of liberal views their racial consciences as somehow cleaner than those of their Southern brothers and sisters. But they aren’t.
Exactly 588 days after Trayvon Martin was tailed and then killed by George Zimmerman while walking in his own Florida neighborhood, a cop car followed my black boyfriend for two blocks as he walked down the street. He was coming from a Chinese place in Allston—where wealthy students who are often white and can afford to pay for an off-campus apartment usually choose to live—just west of the outermost BU dormitory, headed to a supermarket only a block away from campus. A cop car was following him, driving backwards down the six-lane road that runs through much of the university’s campus.
When he stepped out of the market, two Boston police officers were outside waiting for him.
One of the officers asked him what he was up to, where he was from and where he was going. He told them that he’d just come from the Chinese place up the street and that he was a BU student who lived about a mile away in on-campus housing. They didn’t believe him and asked to see his identification. As he reached into his pocket to grab his student identification card, he saw another cruiser roll up while the second officer watched him in silence with one hand on his gun holster. As the first officer scanned the ID, he explained to my boyfriend that they’d stopped him because he’d supposedly been looking over his shoulder into parked cars—something they said that thieves usually do before stealing them—and told him that he shouldn’t look so suspicious walking down the street late at night.
My boyfriend later told me that the reason he kept looking over his shoulder was because a cop car was slowly driving the wrong direction up a major thoroughfare without its lights or siren on.
The year before, some white guy with too much alcohol in his system, and nearly 400 years of white supremacy and racialized violence backing him up, threatened to lynch my black friend at a party on campus. Without any evidence to support his claims, the white guy suggested that my friend wouldn’t talk to him because he “didn’t like white people.” The confrontation escalated, a crowd grew and the drunk guy was escorted out of the party as he said: “Back where I’m from, we lynch niggers like him.”
As is often the case, my black friend didn’t see the point in reporting the incident to our apathetic administration and so the student never faced any consequences.
For black students, every day on campus is a reminder that we aren’t welcome. When “I support Dylann Roof” posters were hung up in high-traffic areas near our campus chapel and student union the night after Roof sat and prayed with nine black people for an hour in Charleston, South Carolina, before allegedly murdering them in cold blood, we knew that we weren’t welcome. Our school isn’t in the South and nooses aren’t being hung from our trees, but the message is the same: We don’t belong in their hallowed halls or on their finely manicured lawns.
The administration spits in our faces when they use the messages of Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Thurman as little more than pullquotes and figureheads for a university that’s only 3 percent black and shows few signs of working to increase that percentage. It has sent us our acceptance letters and conjured up financial-aid packages that have put us in crippling amounts of debt.
President Robert Brown has shown that he clearly is not interested in improving the diversity of students or instructors on campus. He once decided that he had more important things to do than attend a mandatory hearing on the dangerously low numbers of minority teachers he employs and students he enrolls. When given the chance to defend Dr. Saida Grundy (one of the few teachers of color that he has hired) against right-wing attacks on controversial tweets made on her personal Twitter account, President Brown instead chose to insinuate that a black woman’s words could in some way oppress a group of young white men; this week, a black student witnessed three white men posting fliers on campus that declared “BLACK PRIVILEGE means not being fired after saying that white college males are a problem population. #FIREGRUNDY”
At orientation, the deans and the police told us a lot of things about how to stay safe both on and off campus. They fed us visions of a liberal university with “good” white people who believed in progressive and diverse education and perspectives. They told us to lock our doors, travel in groups, and be vigilant when walking on the streets. They taught us how to protect ourselves from people existing outside of the BU community…without ever telling us how to keep ourselves safe from those within it.