Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

The crisis of leadership in times like this

Morrill Hall, University of Minnesota
Morrill Hall, University of Minnesota

I am not alone, I know. Searchingly, I am looking to find paths out of a truly American nightmare, for the American concept of freedom will get even more terrifying under the Trump presidency. It has emboldened the basis of white nationalism.

Yet one thing is certain in this moment of danger. We who are committed to justice need to call out the crisis of leadership — where race and racism are concerned — in places both small and large. I speak of the University of Minnesota’s flagship, the Twin Cities campus. This crisis runs deep. 

The new academic year began as the 2016 presidential election entered the last stage. This election year, like no other, was polarizing. The election fueled the debate over “what America is” and “what America is not,” and drew sharp lines. We all struggled over the meanings of democracy in America and the future of the republic itself. As expected, hateful speech and bias incidents cropped up on campus, and the administration responded.

Clumsy response to racial hate speech at the U

Yet the response to racially motivated hate-filled speech on the Twin Cities campus, coming from the office of the president, has been clumsy. It all started with the controversy over the “Build the Wall” mural on the Washington Avenue Bridge. President Eric Kaler condemned anti-racists who spray-painted “Stop White Supremacy” over the “Build the Wall” mural and defended free speech, all the while stating he was concerned about the well-being of Chicanx-Latinx students, faculty, and staff who were deeply affected by this hate-filled speech.

His response did a double move in service of elision. First, it never declared “Build the Wall” as categorically racist, and hence hateful speech. Second, it activated the rubric “free speech for all” as a subterfuge to uphold, in the end, the right of racists to rally behind the vision and policy of “Build the Wall.” He validated them.

White racism on the campus of the University of Minnesota — now in full swing nationwide at schools and colleges — was not caused by the 2016 presidential election. Nor is it a consequence of all the unrepentant things said by President-elect Donald Trump. These perverse political realities marked by bigotry, misogyny, and widespread intolerance preceded the election and will not go away any time soon. 

Such is the bitter truth President Kaler does not ponder. After each racially-motivated-hate-filled incident, he has addressed the members of the Twin Cities campus to make known a host of values that are foundational to American higher education — free speech, diversity, equity, and respect. Yet he does so without any semblance of what commitment to these values might actually look like.

Islamophobia on campus

Now in the most recent response to the cases of Islamophobia on campus, one involving the defacing of the Muslim Student Association’s mural on the Washington Avenue Bridge with the word “ISIS,” Kaler has issued condemnation against what he refers to as “targeted hate.” He wrote, “Such hateful speech runs counter to the values of our institution, which must include a climate that encourages the thoughtful and respectful exchange of ideas.” All the ways in which he draws the contours of our conscience to articulate an institutional character, however, do not neatly line up. This has everything to do with things left unsaid. 

Yuichiro Onishi
Yuichiro Onishi

To begin, this monstrosity called “targeted hate” is straight up white terror. It has a very long history in this country. It affected indigenous peoples and folks of color the world over; they were subjected to the violence of settler colonialism, slavery, imperialist wars, disenfranchisement and other exclusion laws, round-ups and deportation, and criminalization. And this world of dispossession, condemnation, and punishment still remains, both small and large. Kaler can’t deny it.

Countless times, on the Twin Cities campus, students of color and their allies who support the Whose Diversity? and Differences Organized! campaigns have brought this issue to the administration, both in words and through nonviolent direct actions, to apprehend “historically white institutions” like ours. They pushed back policies and actions that further their marginalization, most recently increases in tuition. The administration’s response, without fail, has been to call the police, not “the thoughtful and respectful exchange of ideas,” as he proclaims.

The broader community

Just outside of our campus, Jamar Clark in North Minneapolis, the neighborhood that is majority black and Asian, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, predominantly white municipality — both black and male — were shot at close range by the police. Their deaths peeled the veneer of white innocence, “Minnesota Nice.” These killings exposed, among many things, the reality of hyper-segregation in the Twin Cities, especially the deadly coupling of the deep racial wealth divide and criminalization of the very life of the urban poor.

And now, daily, the Native struggle at Standing Rock in North Dakota, a little over five-hour drive westward from the Morris campus, the site of a U.S. government-administered American Indian boarding school, is in the news. We are all becoming witnesses to still-present settler colonialism, the force of naked oppression that assaults Dakota and Lakota people’s rights to their land and sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the administration has spent thousands of dollars, nearly $550,000, drawn from the university fund of tuition and state money, to hire the locally based firm Fredrikson & Byron in order to orchestrate resistance to faculty unionization on the Twin Cities campus, the same law firm currently representing Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company carrying out the construction of the Dakota.

Also tellingly, St. Cloud State historian Christopher Lehman has recently made known the University of Minnesota’s ties to slavery in the late 1850s, just before the Civil War, as it struggled to stay afloat financially in its nascent years. Lehman’s findings of South Carolina Gov. William Aiken Jr.’s role as a benefactor, a slave owner who profited from the exploitation of black labor, bring Minnesota’s flagship into a broader national conversation about the relationship between institutions of higher education, slavery, and the “color of wealth,” as my colleague Rose Brewer calls it.

At least, The New York Times understands how to align race, colonialism, and injustices, a perspective in need of reckoning at a place like Minnesota’s flagship, the land grant institution built on the Dakota and Lakota people’s land. In “Time to Move the Standing Rock Pipeline,” the Times minced no words, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to consider a new pipeline route — away from the sacred land. And rhetorically, too, the editorial did move away from the wrong side of history when it pronounced that this struggle “came wrapped in historical injustice.” Kaler has yet to make that move.

The truth is one cannot appeal to the conscience of the community from such a place of evasions in times like this. And the administration’s refusal to acknowledge that Minnesota’s flagship is “wrapped in historical injustice” feeds directly into this broader trend that buoyed Trump ascendancy in the first place. If we were to begin re-assembling all those values Kaler has invoked as central to higher education, then we must infuse the concept of racial justice into his lexicon and act upon it.

System of denial

The Bias Response Team (BRT) that he set up in January 2016 is cloaked in this very system of denial. It has done nothing to reverse white racism on campus. BRT merely tabulates incidents and, worse, lends itself to a pretense that something is being done by the administration. The eradication of “targeted hate” begins with looking straight into the ugly racial past throbbing in the present.

We ought to take heed from young people that took to the streets in the wee hours of Trump’s victory or walked out of classes to disavow everything that he represents, from racism, xenophobia, and contempt toward women and LGBTQ people to rapacious greed and aggrandizement. Their commitment, at its core, is to the undoing of all that is “wrapped in historical injustice,” doing so with hope and determination to make this country anew. Will the University of Minnesota cross over into the right side of history or stay in the dark?

The day Kaler responds to the chant “Not My President” and joins the chorus of dissent will be at once symbolic and conversation-changing, as far as how to address the problem of race and through it, however unsettling, move to resolve the crisis of leadership in higher education.

Yuichiro Onishi is a scholar of critical race studies, teaching in the Department of African American & African Studies and the Program in Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Trained as a historian, he writes about the relationship between race and social movements in America and beyond, particularly in the context of the African American-led freedom struggle and cross-racial coalition building. He is the author of Transpacific Antiracism: Twentieth-Century Afro-Asian Solidarity in Black America, Japan, and Okinawa, published by NYU Press in 2013. 

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox