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Maryland’s black students mobilize in wake of school’s treatment of Jordan McNair’s death

"The blatant disregard for the safety of black students, and students of color in general, is beyond me."

CREDIT: Photo by Lindsay Gibbs, design by Diana Ofosu; ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Photo by Lindsay Gibbs, design by Diana Ofosu; ThinkProgress

COLLEGE PARK, MD. — On an unseasonably warm first day of November, hundreds of University of Maryland students gathered for a rally that began in front of McKeldin Library calling for respect, unity, and justice for football player Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman who died in June, 15 days after suffering exertional heatstroke at a practice.

In August, President Wallace D. Loh announced that the University accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death. In doing so, the school conceded that if McNair had been treated properly by football staff when he began showing signs of heat stroke, he’d most likely be alive today. This was a preventable tragedy.

The rally was scheduled on Tuesday night, after the Maryland Board of Regents — in an unconscionable decision that violated the spirit of the University’s acceptance of responsibility — announced that it intended to reinstate head coach D.J. Durkin immediately, despite a lengthy report released a week ago which detailed a toxic culture within the football program. Students from across campus planned to gather and demand Durkin’s firing.

However, the backlash to the board’s decision was so swift that Loh fired Durkin on Wednesday night. Which meant that suddenly, the planned rally had lost its primary focus. By the time the ever-growing group marched across McKeldin Mall to the Administrator’s Building, it had devolved from a “Justice for Jordan” rally into a tense debate about what, exactly, that justice should look like.

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The Student Government Association repeatedly called for students to show support for their fellow students on the football team by showing up for the marquee game against Michigan State on Saturday. But every time the game was mentioned on the megaphone, dozens of students shouted, “Boycott!” and “Black Lives Matter!”

The death of Jordan McNair has been told almost completely through the lens of football. It’s been a story about the dangers of football, the corrupt power of big-time college athletics programs, and the real-life consequences of valuing a game over a human life.

But on Thursday afternoon on campus, it became clear that to many students, this isn’t a football story at all.

Instead, these students gave voice to the overwhelming feeling that if Jordan McNair was not black, the dire health condition that manifested itself during that fateful practice might have been taken more seriously, and he might be alive today. And even if he had still tragically died, many students shared a deeper suspicion: that if McNair had been white, his preventable death would have resulted in swift accountability and action; not months of silence and finger pointing.

“The handling of this whole situation has to do with the disregard of black students at the university,” Nwando Ahar, one of the leaders of the Black Student Union, told ThinkProgress. 

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“If you don’t listen to black students when they organize and when they have megaphones and they have a list of demands, then you don’t care what we have to say. It clearly translates to the football program.”

The darker suspicions which arose following McNair’s death didn’t happen in a vacuum. Over the past few years, there have been a string of high-profile incidents of racism on Maryland’s campus.

In May of 2016, police broke up a graduation party full of predominantly-black students using pepper spray and force. Last March, white supremacist flyers were discovered all around campus. Then, in April, a noose was found in a University of Maryland frat house. The school took more than a week to notify students about the incident. After the noose was found, black students at UMD held a march and a sit-in protest to raise awareness about the school’s mishandling of the incident, as well as the general state of racial tensions on campus. Some students met with university officials and gave them a list of 64 demands, but they did not feel like administrators were listening to them.

Then, in May 2017, Lt. Richard Collins III — a black student at nearby Bowie College, who was visiting College Park — was stabbed and killed by a UMD student, Sean Christopher Urbanski, at a bus stop on campus. Urbanski was a member of white supremacist groups on social media.

Ahar’s dorm is right next to the bus stop where Collins was murdered. She is reminded of it every day.

“Being here as a black student, you’re constantly reminded that you’re black. The school constantly reminds us,” Ahar said. “When you’re in college, school becomes your home. But the University of Maryland has not made this a home to black students, to undocumented students, to Latinx students.”

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After Collins’ murder, President Loh created a diversity task force and announced “sweeping reforms” to combat hate and racism. But students are not feeling the improvement. Just last month, the Counseling Center at the University had to pull a flyer advertising a “safe space” for white students to discuss race. The group was originally called “White Awake.”

Just last week, DCist reported that the University of Maryland at College Park has an active contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for anti-terrorism training sessions.

Blanca Arriola Palma, a member of Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society (PLUMAS), told ThinkProgress that PLUMAS had actually originally planned a rally on Thursday to protest the ICE contract. However, they postponed the rally to show support for McNair. That’s one of the reasons she was so upset that the SGA seemed determined to make this a rally calling for students to support the football team, and supporting President Loh. That’s not what she views as justice.

“There’s issues on this campus that have been happening for years, and it’s not just about this football scandal. It goes beyond that. There has been consistent racism and hatred in this campus, and they need to be held accountable,”  Palma said.

“I don’t feel safe, and I honestly can’t imagine what it feels like to be a black student on this campus and to walk around knowing that a black student was killed here because a white supremacist killed him.”

The 2018 freshman class has the smallest proportion of African Americans that the school has seen in decades, according to data released this week. Only 344 first-year students — 7.3 percent of the 2022 undergraduate class — are African American. Last year, that number was 10.8 percent. This is the lowest since such data was first collected in 1992.

Provost Mary Ann Rankin said on Wednesday that the school “would be naïve to think that the tragic incidents of the last two years on our campus have not contributed to our African-American student enrollment decline.”

PLUMAS, BSA, and 24 other student groups are holding another rally next week, and they have provided a list of fundamental changes they want to see at the institution. They want to ensure Loh will retire at the end of this school year, and make sure the Board of Regents involves students in the selection of the next president. Furthermore, they want the state legislature of Maryland to ensure that students will be a part of the process for selecting board members in the future.

“The death of Jordan McNair is part of a pattern of negligence and disregard for students by UMD administration, led by President Loh,” the pattern of demands reads. “This pattern of neglect on the part of the University of Maryland has been hypocritical and disrespectful, and has repeatedly endangered all marginalized people of this campus and its affiliated communities.”

The minority students at Maryland have had enough. To their mind, this isn’t about whether or not students attend a football game on Saturday. Rather, it is about using the microscope provided by the tragedy of McNair’s death to make lasting changes at the school they love so much, but that doesn’t always love them back.

“The school has done us a great injustice,” Ahar said. “Waving a flag that says ’79’ at a football game, that’s great for PR, but that doesn’t really amount to anything at all.”