WashU, you failed your students and the greater St. Louis community in “The Story That Never Ends” vandalization incident
The defacement of “The Story That Never Ends” mural in the South 40 Underpass, a painting that depicted prominent African-American figures such as John Lewis, Chadwick Boseman and George Poage, was a tragedy. Over a year and a half since George Floyd’s dying words of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for systemic change regarding this country’s — and the greater global community’s — treatment of Black people, we are reminded yet again that the societal cancer that is white supremacy never went away. But at a university whose mission statement’s goals include “welcoming students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds to create an inclusive, equitable community” and “contribut[ing] positively to our home community of St. Louis,” how did this happen? How did a white supremacist group infiltrate our campus and vandalize the faces of Black icons who, in many ways, paved the way for some of us to be on that campus today? WashU, you have failed both your students and the greater St. Louis community in your inability to meet your own mission statement’s goals. At a time when both of these communities need you the most in our continuing fight against the COVID-19 virus and the virus that is racism, you have failed to step up and be the leader you proclaim you are.
Earlier this semester, an incident took place on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack that saw an individual attempt to protest America’s War on Terror through flag removal. While the individual was disciplined (through sanctions that I believe went too far), Muslim students on campus were left to fend for their safety as a series of online hate speech and both verbal and physical harassment toward the individual prompted many to skip classes in fear of physical assault and discrimination. Is this what you call “welcoming students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds to create an inclusive, equitable community,” WashU? At a time where you had the choice to both honor the lives lost on the tragic day that is September 11 and vehemently denounce Islamophobia on our campus, you chose to stay silent on the latter, Chancellor Martin. But now you and the University’s leadership are “shocked and saddened by this hateful act on our campus”? You emboldened this incident! The Patriot Front and their white supremacist agenda didn’t infiltrate South 40 on Dec. 18; they’ve been enabled to invade our home since September when you decided that your students were overreacting when they begged for protection against racism and discrimination. Your condemnation of the individual who protested the planting of the flags brought great national press coverage to our College Republican friends, but I only wish the same could be true for those of us reminded yet again, through this defacement incident, that American college institutions have never been welcoming to us. This much was clear when your inaction, Chancellor Martin, left WashU College Republicans with no obligation to the safety of their fellow Black, brown and Muslim students in their chase for Fox News and national media spotlight.
Our school is called Washington University in St. Louis, but from the looks of it, we are not living up to that name. And at this point, I might as well stop correcting people that we are not based in Washington state or Washington D.C., because we don’t deserve this beautiful place. St. Louis is a city that is about 45% African-American. Home to the Gateway Arch, the St. Louis Cardinals and Forest Park, this city of ours has a lot to offer. But despite its richness in culture and opportunities, St. Louis is still haunted by America’s favorite pastime: racism. Let’s not forget: the 2014 death of Michael Brown Jr. that sparked national outrage took place in our backyard. Ferguson, Missouri is only a 16-minute drive from the Danforth campus. The Old Court House resides in St. Louis. And may I not be the first to remind you, WashU, that this is the place where the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford was heard, arguably the most heinous Supreme Court case ever in the U.S. As a Black student attending WashU, it is still so mind-blowing to me that the place where the case that ultimately decided that people with my skin color were not entitled to citizenship, as they were no more than three-fifths of a person, was first heard only a few miles from where I study. And may I not be the first to remind you again, WashU, that the Old Court House was also once home to slave auctions that saw the humanity of Negroes violated and sold as a property.
In 2015, Harvard Professor Walter Johnson wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “Ferguson Fortune 500 Company.” Known for his book “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” Professor Johnson shined light on the fact that Emerson Electric is a multinational company that makes billions of dollars every business year. But despite that fact, they paid only $68,000 in property taxes in 2014 to Ferguson, a city that is 67% Black. Ironically, WashU, you are in that boat as well. On her campus visit in early November, Mayor Jones called on us to do better for St. Louis through a payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) program. We could use the money we generate from such a program to assist University City, more specifically its school district — which has a majority Black body enrollment of 89% — with educational developments. While your WashU Pledge was a great move for the future of this University, Chancellor Martin, education doesn’t begin when we enter WashU.
St. Louis — to be more specific, University City — is also home to the Delmar Divide. Considering that the Delmar Loop hosts many of your students’ dining and night-out interests, WashU, you have an obligation to tackle this 21st-century racial segregation line that is in our literal backyard. There’s no other way to put it: The Delmar Divide is another manifestation of the white supremacy structure that we saw plague our campus on Dec. 18. WashU, if you are truly opposed to such a structure, develop a PILOT program to stop this racial cancer from spreading into University City further than it already has. Simply put: Denouncing white supremacy doesn’t begin nor does it end with your opposition to the mural vandalization. Paying PILOT taxes is one way to begin chemotherapy for this cancer, but from the looks of it, you love your 501(c)(3) privilege too much to do more to support your community. I ask you again, is this what you call “contributing positively to our home community of St. Louis”?
Chancellor Martin, my greatest disappointment is that often, when my friends and I venture into the city, our association with WashU is met by despondency by St. Louis locals rather than a warm welcome. This university has built a culture that is so obsessed with catching up to the likes of Harvard, Princeton and Yale that it has forgotten what’s important: our home and the people that reside in it. This toxic culture is even spreading to your students. I cannot tell you how many times this past semester I’ve heard my peers state how they secretly hate St. Louis, as it is a crime-infested city, and how there’s nothing to do here.
WashU, “welcoming students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds to create an inclusive, equitable community” and “contribut[ing] positively to our home community of St. Louis” are great goals, but act on them! Like many of my friends, I am frustrated and angry about your failure to do so in the vandalization incident. But make no mistake — in writing this, I do not entirely seek condemnation of your failure to act on your guiding principles, WashU. I also seek allyship and cooperation during a time when the entire WashU community and the greater St. Louis community need to come together and rightfully denounce white supremacy. People are angry and demanding justice; they’ve been protesting all semester for you, WashU, to do something.
But they do all of this because they love WashU. The great James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” And for many of us, that is the reasoning behind our anger, protests and calls for action. We love WashU, and for this reason, we insist on the right to shape her into the university we know she’s capable of becoming: a university that is committed to its mission statement goals, and realizes that without St. Louis, there’s no WashU. Chancellor Martin, my friends and I want to integrate ourselves with St. Louis because, for some of us, this city holds the key to our academic and career-related successes here at WashU and beyond. But this city’s dark history of racism, white supremacy and segregation –– a history you’ve helped shape, WashU –– is simply too great and painful for you to continue disregarding your own mission statement goals. But regardless of your inability to carry out those goals, we will stand up against this hatred toward our community, we will stand up against St. Louis’ dark racial past and we will fight. Because if the lives of John Lewis, Chadwick Boseman and George Poage taught us anything, it is that in the face of adversity, you rise up. And rise up we will. We won’t let hate win, and I hope you won’t either, WashU.