“That Could Be Me”: Students and Faculty at Syracuse University Aren’t All That Shocked by the Racist Incidents on Campus

“I was verbally harassed for being a woman of color with disabilities,” said one former student.
November 22, 2019, 7:19pm
The entrance to the Barnes Center at The Arch where the sit-in was held​.

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Syracuse University freshmen living in Day Hall woke up one morning in early November to an appalling scene: the n-word scrawled across the walls of both bathrooms on two floors of the residence hall. Name tags attached to the doors of students of color had also been ripped away and torn apart.

The act of racism shook the private university in central New York and sparked an eight-day sit-in demanding that the chancellor protect minorities on campus — or resign. But for some students and faculty at Syracuse, the hatred came as no surprise.

“I was verbally harassed for being a woman of color with disabilities,” said Angie Mejia, who spent nine years at Syracuse earning her Ph.D. in sociology starting in 2010.

In 2018, Mejia was walking down a street with many of the university’s Greek houses when members of the now-banned Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity called her a “Mexican pig” and made fun of a limp she developed after a car crash. She reported the incident to Syracuse’s Title IX office, responsible for handing bias-related incidents. But the process took months longer than expected.

“Everything bad that could happen, happened,” said Mejia, who identifies as Chicana. She now works as a professor of civic engagement at the University of Minnesota-Rochester.

“The lack of stories, the lack of people willing to talk on the record about things, is a symptom of how institutional racism works.”

When the racist graffiti appeared in the dorm bathrooms on Nov. 6, students, once again, accused the university of dragging its feet. Five days passed before the administration announced the incident to the rest of the school. And although Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud denied the window being used as a cover-up to protect the university’s billion-dollar fundraising campaign, adequate transparency became a central demand for students.

The movement, known as #NotAgainSU, took over the Syracuse's recently built multimillion-dollar health and wellness center on Nov. 13 in hopes this type of insidious display won’t happen in the future. But the students also want the university prepared if it does. During the sit-in alone, SU’s Department of Public Safety reported 14 hate crimes, including a 3-sq.-ft. swastika drawn in the snow and derogatory graffiti toward Asians.

Tangible instances of hate on campus are hardly unique to Syracuse. Just this week, swastikas appeared in residence halls at the University of Georgia, and the University of Wisconsin is investigating a string of racist Snapchats that became public. As white nationalism and extremism have become more of a national threat, campuses haven’t been immune.

Still, in his four and a half years as chief of the department of public safety at Syracuse, Bobby Maldonado has never seen as large a number of reported incidents. “This is clearly an uptick,” he said.

Religion professor Biko Mandela Gray has met a number of students who say they’re afraid to report racism to the university. Even when some have tried, they’ve faced unusual pushback from public safety officers. Grey said one student of color told him an officer asked, “What did you do to escalate the incident?” after the student reported a noise complaint.

“Because people are out to save their reputation and not out to do justice, there’s always someone that can end up on the chopping block, and that could be me,” said Gray, who, as a black man, supports the #NotAgainSU movement. “Many people of color have been concerned for their jobs when they spoke out against racists, so this is not anything new in our climate."

If individuals have issues with the Department of Public Safety, Maldonado encourages them to file a report, and the situation will be reviewed via video from the officer’s body-worn camera. Despite those precautions, students involved with #NotAgainSU don’t trust public safety officers and called for Maldonado’s resignation, along with other members of the administration.

“The lack of stories, the lack of people willing to talk on the record about things, is a symptom of how institutional racism works,” sociology professor Jackie Orr said. “I know some stories about the experience of student athletes of color that I can’t say but that I want to say, but I can't say them because that individual student-athlete was told not to report it.”

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Syracuse University students at the Barnes Center preparing to end the sit-in. (Photo by Alex J. Rouhandeh)

As the editor-in-chief of Renegade Magazine, Syracuse's only black general-interest publication, senior Jalen Nash has heard the university profess its commitment to diversity. But he’s seen little of it in the most visible student organizations during his three and a half years at Syracuse.

“I know for a fact when I was at The Daily Orange, out of 60 people in the house, I was the only black male,” said Nash, referring to the university’s student-run newspaper. “In Student Association, I was one of two or three.”

Nash isn’t the only student who feels Syracuse has done little to make him feel comfortable. One black senior in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, also felt alone.

During her freshman year, she was one of two black individuals on her floor of roughly 100. She said that the white students on the floor would only speak to her when they were drunk and then forget who she was the next day.

“The craziest part was the girls appeared to be scared of me,” she said. “They’d clench every time I walked by and look terrified.”

One of the central goals of the #NotAgainSU movement is to make the university a place where individuals from marginalized groups can feel safe and comfortable. On Wednesday, #NotAgainSU demanded Chancellor Syverud sign a list of demands calling for the creation of additional campus services for minority groups in addition to transparency and assurances of student safety. He agreed to 16 of the 19 demands and is working to revise the remaining three.

“It’s clear that the members of the leadership team should have communicated more swiftly and broadly,” Syvured wrote in an email to students, referring to the lag in making the graffiti incident public. “I am disappointed that didn’t happen in this case.”

Cover image: The entrance to Syracuse University's Barnes Center at The Arch, where the student sit-in was held. (Photo by Alex J. Rouhandeh)