Boston College Students Receive Disciplinary Warning For Protesting Racism

CREDIT: Steven Senne, AP

Students at Boston College raise their arms during a solidarity demonstration on the school's campus, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in Newton, Mass.

Like many universities and colleges across the country, Boston College is currently having a conversation about institutional racism — and a lot of people don’t want to have it.

The group Eradicate Boston College Racism has been organizing since the spring of last year, holding potlucks, weekly meetings, and retreats to discuss the problems they see on campus and how the administration could potentially resolve these issues. But they’ve encountered some resistance. Student organizers say they have been criticized for releasing infographics on how to address racism on campus, for the name of the group itself, and most recently, for a demonstration the group held in which students sang Christmas carol-like songs about how the college needs to confront institutional racism.

Last month, some protesters wore Santa hats and brought adapted song lyrics to a board of trustees meeting. Although they were not allowed in the room, the group gathered outside and sang, “Dear Trustees, are you listenin’? A real plan you are missin.’ Until you agree, and change do we see, we’re walkin’ through a white man’s wonderland.”

Members of the administration later met with some of the people who protested, warning them the caroling was a conduct violation because they didn’t ask for a permit, according to students involved in the group. They were told that further actions could result in consequences, such as suspension. Student activists also said that administrators called the protest “disruptive” to student learning.

boston college caroling1

CREDIT: Courtesy of Eradicate Boston College Racism

The activists say that calling them disruptive is an example of the administration trying to shift focus away from the campaign’s message and toward the campaign’s tactics — allowing the college to avoid answering questions about how to correct the problem of racism on campus.

“The conversation around tactics is a way to sidestep the issue that so the administration will respond with disciplinary warnings. It’s super effective,” Kevin Ferreira, an applied developmental and educational psychology Ph.D. candidate who is involved in the ongoing student protests, told ThinkProgress. “In the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ [Martin Luther King Jr.] was responding to people criticizing his tactics and he said, why are we not criticizing white power structure that gave us no alternative? So we’re saying, why has Boston College given us no alternative but to go to the board of trustees, to carol this way?”

Plus, activists say that institutional racism is quite disruptive to student learning.

Back in November, the group sent a list of demands to administrators. Some of the demands included appointing a diversity officer at every college to sit on a university-wide diversity council; reducing the Eurocentric focus in classroom curricula; increasing the recruitment and retention of students, faculty, staff and board of trustee members of color; and requiring diversity and anti-oppression training for the entire Boston College community.

Since then, the university announced it would convene a university committee on race. The Undergraduate Government at Boston College set a January 19 deadline for the administration to release a plan to “create a more racially inclusive campus,” but the administration missed the deadline and didn’t release any statement as to when an action plan would be released.

“The fact that nothing has been released is not only disappointing, it also embodies the larger Boston College administrative inclination to be passive and largely inactive in confronting institutional racism,” UGBC wrote on its Facebook page this month.

Ferreira said he’s been discouraged from some of the statements released by Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn that suggest there isn’t any problem that needs to be addressed. In November, Dunn stated, “The supposition that BC is an institutionally racist place is a difficult argument to make … I think that’s a false assumption, an unfair assumption, and impugns the integrity of so many good people on this campus who’ve joined this community precisely because they’re people of good will who oppose all elements of bigotry,” according to an article in the college’s independent newspaper, The Heights.

Cedrick-Michael Simmons, a sociology Ph.D. candidate involved with Eradicate Boston College Racism, told ThinkProgress that it’s not unusual to get complaints that the group’s name goes too far to emphasize the existence of racism.

“They say, ‘Well that’s not fair. That’s not nice. You should say something like, ‘Create an inclusive community,'” Simmons said. “What we’re saying is that when groups do take that approach, what happens is that instead of talking about racism, they end up talking about difference and all these euphemisms that don’t actually talk about inequality.”

caroling inside

CREDIT: Courtesy of Eradicate Boston College Racism

Dunn’s response to the student protesters came not long after Simmons spoke at a podium for 10 minutes about the college’s racial hypocrisy during a visit from Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of Between the World and Me, who has written about mass incarceration and the importance of reparations. According to The Heights, about 30 people stood with signs and duct-tape over their mouths after Simmons spoke. Coates responded, “I don’t know what’s going on but… in my days as a student, speaking up was very important, resistance was very important.”

So far only one student group, Climate Justice, has explicitly supported Eradicate Racism at Boston College, Ferreira and Simmons said. Although they said the group has received support from many student groups privately, groups are often concerned about supporting the group publicly. Ferreira and Simmons said it has also been a challenge to get faculty members involved because some of them have received veiled threats and warnings about being associated with the group.

During meetings regarding conduct violations through caroling, for example, Ferreira and Simmons said faculty members were instructed not to advocate for the students in question. Faculty were allowed to be in the room with students and administrators, as some students wanted a third party to observe, but were told they would be asked to leave the room if they attempted to speak up on behalf of the student protesters.

“It’s so crazy that so many faculty either brought up a fear of retaliation with associating with us or said, ‘You know I can’t put myself out there,'” Simmons said. “Or professors who, before they met with us, brought up how other people who have institutional power on campus met with them prior to warn them not to meet with us — and so they have decided to keep our meetings on the hush.”

Dunn did not respond to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment about the events the Boston College students described.