Jessica Ellis
November 14, 2015 8:24 am

American universities have long been the site of important, exciting, and sometimes tragic moments in the civil and human rights. From the 1960s protests at Atlanta University with Martin Luther King Jr, to the Vietnam War protests that defined the University of California at Berkeley as the symbol of hippy activism, to the controversial and brutal pepper-spraying of peaceful Occupy protesters at UC Davis, protest movements loom large in the lore of campuses and the country.

A new wave of protests based on racial prejudice began in late October of this year. The movement began at the University of Missouri, when protesters responded to several recent racist incidents with strong tactics. Student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike in early November as a response to several key racial attacks, including black students having racial slurs shouted at them and an unknown student drawing a swastika on a dorm wall in excrement.

 The protests gained traction when several members of Missouri’s football team refused to play as a gesture of support for Jonathan Butler’s protests, calling for the removal of the University President, Tim Wolfe. They were joined by a large group of teachers from the English department, who disliked Wolfe’s policies on a wide range of issues. Coaches and other teachers quickly backed the football team and the protesters through social media statements, and on November 9, Tim Wolfe resigned. While student protests are nothing new, the effectiveness of the Mizzou movement was a sea-change for the racial justice protest movement. That a protest of less than a month had led to the resignation of a University president was nearly unprecedented, and created an upswing in campus protests across the map. Speaking to the LA Times, Tyrone Howard, associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at UCLA, said, “A president stepping down is a huge step. Students elsewhere have to wonder, ‘Wow, if that can happen there, why can’t we bring out our issues to the forefront as well?'” Within days, protests had begun at Yale, Princeton, Occidental College, Lewis and Clark University, and several other schools. The issues at stake ranged from removal of officials seen as lazy about racial justice, to the renaming of school buildings that honor racist or controversial figures. Walk-outs, sit-ins, and rallies have all been used to create support and gather momentum for these movements.

Of course, where there is protest, there is also backlash, and opponents of the movement have been quick to speak up as well. While many claim to support the importance of racial justice, a narrative has emerged in the right-wing press that the protesters are overly sensitive or even attempting to stifle free speech.Conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly recently announced “It’s no question that unruly students at”Mizzou,”as it’s called, are running wild.” He went on to suggest that the protests ring of facism and intolerance.

What O’Reilly and other conservatives find fodder for controversy is that the protests frequently focus on microaggressions. Microaggressions are a broad category, but typically involve harm caused by assumptions, privilege, and the effects of a racist history, rather than more overt, intentionally malicious racist acts. Buzzfeed recently asked people to write  examples of microaggressions they face daily; many of these take the form of insulting questions or assumptions about race.

Many of the protests seek to curb microaggressions by instituting specific school officers to improve diversity and oversee racial justice on campus, as well as policies that will ban certain acts, such as Halloween costumes seen as culturally insulting. Leaders of the protest movement find the conservative response hardly surprising; getting opponents to even admit that microaggressions are real is a frustrating experience. DeRay McKesson, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is closely associated with the campus protests, has spoken about the frustration of having to even explain why microaggressions are such a concern.

As the protests continue to grow, spreading to more than 100 universities, more and more issues of overt racism, microaggression, and the enormous, exhausting gulf between minority students and those benefiting from centuries of white privilege are coming forward. While criticism of human rights protests are inevitable, focus should never be lost on the key issue: racial injustice on campus is a microcosm for injustice in America, and the fact that so many marginalized students are making their voices heard and having their concerns addressed is a triumphant moment in American protest history.

(Image via Twitter)

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