Since protest last spring, university strives to squash racism

Since student-organized protest last spring, university strives to squash racism and bias


Photo by File Photo

Story by Nate Beck, News Editor

A hundred-odd protesters — students, faculty, community members — snaked across the campus mall, May 7.

The demonstration, dubbed We, Too, Are UWEC, mirrored a similar movement on UW-Madison’s campus that year aimed at deflating “microagression,” or backhanded bits of bias against minority groups.

Mong Xiong, then a sophomore active in Eau Claire’s Hmong Student Association and other activist groups, helped organize the march across campus that day.

Xiong now lives with relatives on a farm nestled in Eau Claire’s northwest end — a departure from the mainly black neighborhood in Minneapolis where he grew up.

Leaders from campus student groups echoed similar incidents of microagression on Eau Claire’s campus last spring, he said Monday, shaded from fluorescent lights of an empty classroom by a flat-brimmed Minnesota Twins cap.

Although Eau Claire has hosted public conversations on race since last spring, Xiong said he and other campus groups feel Eau Claire administrators need to do more to discourage outbursts of racial intolerance on campus.

“It’s just PR,” Xiong said through a smirk. “It’s still one of the whitest campuses in the UW System.”

Bias continues

Last semester Xiong served as a student board member on Eau Claire’s Bias Incident Response Team, a committee of students and administrators that reviews bias and hate incidents and drafts a university response.

BIRT is a necessary tool, Xiong said, but he’s concerned that the university isn’t doing enough to dissuade intolerance on campus.

“They handle it on a personal level and it’s off the radar,” Xiong said. “People don’t know about it.”

Because students don’t see consequences, these incidents will continue, he said.

This year, BIRT responded after a student wrote “white power” on a wall in Horan Hall. Another student crossed out the prophet Muhammad on a world religions poster.

Last spring, protesters rallied after a student taped a note to a photo display of Hmong students in Hibbard Hall.

That incident compounded raw anger around a November 2012 incident, when a student in a dorm hung a note with racist comments directed at Hmong students on that floor.

Minority student groups on campus haven’t rallied around outrage yet this year. But a single incident could change that, Xiong said. Student groups talk more, listen more and aren’t afraid to yell.

“Ever since last year it’s more open,” he said. “Everyone has their own individual missions on campus, so it’s kind of hard to collaborate. Unless something happens, then we come together.”

Eighty-nine percent
A 2011 Equity Scorecard report conducted by University of Southern California, Center for Urban Education found Eau Claire doesn’t attract an “equitable” number of applicants from college-bound students of color.

In July 2008, 90 percent of students that applied to Eau Claire were white — the highest percentage in the UW System, according to the report. Currently, 89 percent of students are white.

Students of color also believe less strongly that Eau Claire creates a respectful environment for minority groups, according to the report.

The scorecard found 41.7 percent of African American students strongly agree or agree that Eau Claire “fosters an environment where racial and ethnic diversity is respected,” while 79.4 percent of white students agree or strongly agree.

Eau Claire does retain minority students, though, according to the UW System’s 2013-2014 Institutional Memorandum on Retention and Graduation.

That UW System study found a higher percentage of African American and Southeast Asian freshman chose to return to Eau Claire for their second year of college.

According to the Equity Scorecard: “UW-Eau Claire is well poised to meet the challenges presented by our report, largely because much institutional capacity for equity, diversity, and inclusiveness has already been added.”

Jeremy Hein, sociology professor, said in the 20-plus years he’s worked at Eau Claire, the university has made strides toward creating a tolerant campus climate.

Among other programs, Eau Claire created an American Indian Studies department and sponsors trips like the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a faculty-led trek through southern states and a tour of flashpoints from the Civil Rights Movement.

But Hein said it’s too easy to opt-out of classes and programs that expose students to different cultures.

And he’d like to see some form of diversity training for incoming dorm students.

“It’s how to respond to behavior that the university hasn’t really figured out,” Hein said. “It takes one insensitive note to eliminate years of work.”

Forward motion

Demetrius Evans, senior, said Resident Assistants dictate culture on each floor. An RA that clamps down on harmful language creates a more welcoming culture.

And Evans is no stranger to dorm life. She’s lived in Towers, Oak Ridge, Governors Halls and others.

Over winter break, Housing and Residence Life drafted a manual and -hour training course tailored to educate RAs on how to use inclusive language on their floors.

That’s part of preventing problems before they emerge, she said. When RAs clarify what language is off-limits, students on those floors feel safer.

“That shows housing is improving here,” Evans said. “We’re able to see the cogs in motion.”

But Evans is concerned that the “tiny bit” of progress Eau Claire has made since last spring could evaporate under a proposed $300 million state funding cut to the UW System, she said.

On Feb. 3, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker unveiled the 2015-17 biennial budget, which includes state funding cut to System schools.

Evans is worried high-impact programs that expose students to new cultures could be cut to preserve basic classes students need to graduate, she said.

“With budget cuts we may not see some of these programs fully growing to fruition,” Evans said. “If there’s no money to attain and attract a Hmong studies professor, yeah, it’s a concern.”

Jesse Dixon, director of Eau Claire’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said expected budget cuts force the university to decide which high-impact programs are most valuable — and that may not include diversity related projects.

“As my dad used to tell me, this is where the rubber meets the road,” Dixon said.

And, of course, there’s more work to do, he said.

Dixon, as a BIRT board member, said he’s seen an uptick in reported incidents of microagression, bias and racism.

“I’ve seen more incidents in recent years, but I’ve also seen more displeasure with that.”

More reported threats might mean minority students are no longer tolerating outbursts that have been happening for years, he said.

That signals a step forward, Dixon said. But changing minds — and culture — takes time.

“As with most things,” Dixon said. “The answer is usually more