clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

One year after race protests, Missouri is ... we’ll call it a work in progress

New, comments
University of Missouri Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

It kind of feels like it’s been a month and kind of feels like a decade. But the calendar says it’s been almost exactly one year since Missouri’s announced football boycott began.

Honestly? I thought I’d have more profound things to say right now. This was a massive moment. It was peaceful, and it was organized. It was everything a protest was supposed to be. And it changed everything ... sort of. It also changed very little. Missouri has always been a state at odds with itself, and the fall of 2015 didn’t change that. It only magnified it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s not instantly good either.

There’s really not much I can say that you don’t already know.

We know that Tim Wolfe resigned the day after Gary Pinkel’s tweet above. We know that R. Bowen Loftin was pushed out the door soon after. We know that the turnover and the volume of interims running the university has been almost comical. And we know that just six days ago, Missouri named a new president: Dr. Mun Y. Choi. Chancellor is up next. So are plenty of high-ranking positions.

We know that the issues Concerned Student 1950 wanted addressed — and here’s your reminder that there were some incredibly worthwhile wishes on this wish list — are slowly being addressed. Nothing moves quickly within university bureaucracy, but among other things, Mizzou unveiled a plan to boost faculty diversity this past September. Other goals, like increased funding for outreach and aid for marginalized students, are both harder to address and vitally important.

We know that the Missouri legislature — the same group that has helped to whittle away at higher education funding, which played a direct role in a lot of Missouri’s problems — spent months forcing Missouri’s collection of interims to jump through hoops to apologize and agree that protests will never happen again. Nobody came away looking any better, and Missouri was happy to only have its funding cut a little bit further.

We know that the football team isn’t very good. It’s hard to tie that to the protests in any direct way — Missouri lost a football commitment and probably had other prospects look in other directions but still landed a few high-impact youngsters late in the 2015-16 signing calendar (Damarea Crockett and Dimetrios Mason, arguably Missouri’s best running back and receiver this year, to name two).

Meanwhile, if you believe a lack of buy-in is part of the defense’s surprising regression this fall, you might be right. And if you want to believe that lack of buy-in is tied to the empowerment that the players felt last November, there’s really no way to prove you wrong. But the team has remained mostly united in public, and we’re all guessing either way.

We know that no one’s showing up to football games. But we also know that happens when you lose.

We know that the protests became part of the 2016 campaign cycle, at least in the primaries, as verbiage like LAWLESSNESS AT MIZZOU rolled across our television screens. (As luck would have it, that wasn’t a winning message. The last couple months of campaigns, as well-funded and commercial-saturated as they have been, have not featured Mizzou prominently.)

I have had countless friends and acquaintances from outside of Missouri asking me how the hell this happened here ... and why it happened here. My answer always begins the same way: Mizzou was dry brush waiting for a match. Throughout the country, higher education has seen its funding cut at public institutions. What happens then? Recruiting becomes harder for high-level jobs, and that ends up working a lot like recruiting in sports. You sometimes end up asking less qualified people (or, in this case, fewer people) to overachieve. Sometimes that works out great; other times, it doesn’t. Less qualified people don’t perform as well on average, and they might be more likely to promote other less qualified people as well. And suddenly you find yourself less readily equipped to handle crises.

Is that an over-simplification? Certainly. There are a lot of wonderful people staffing important positions at Mizzou. But it’s hard to even begin to disagree with the fact that a massive deficiency of quality leadership overtook Mizzou. It could have happened anywhere; Mizzou drew the short straw.

A year ago, I wrote a piece that probably earned me more compliments and more derisive emails than anything else I’ve ever written. Such is life when you dabble in politics, race, and sports all at the same time. I’m really proud of it, though. Allow me to sample from it liberally.

Columbia prides itself on being livable. Rare is a list of best college cities, medium-sized cities or Midwestern cities that doesn't include Como near the top. It has nearly doubled in size since I moved here in the fall of 1997.

When the football team reached No. 1 in the BCS standings in 2007, it sparked an applications surge, one that has been more or less sustained ever since. In the fall of 2014, the school boasted its largest student body, freshman class, and yes, minority enrollment. The only things going up as quickly as new student housing in Columbia are retirement communities.

So you'll forgive some people for getting a little confused at the thought of Columbia becoming the sudden epicenter of racial tension in the United States. It feels like quite the contradiction. Picture Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington walking around the quad and hugging strangers; now picture the student body president walking down the street being yelled at and called a nigger. Doesn't really make sense.

But maybe that makes perfect sense. Maybe it takes a certain level of tolerance for intolerant people to so publicly lose their self-control. Maybe it takes a university that elected a black, gay student body president, then elected him Homecoming king, to bring out the hatred.

And maybe it takes a place with high standards to house protest like this. Maybe it takes a place worth changing for people to fight for change.

That's a lot of maybes. We're all asking questions and making guesses right now. The only certainty is that Columbia has the eyes of the country at the moment. [...]

There have always been two Missouri campuses, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that isn't unique for college towns. There has always been unofficial segregation, and most of it comes by choice. You gravitate toward that with which you are familiar, even (or especially) when in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that means people from your high school. Maybe that means people of your color.

I was lucky. Mizzou attracts a pretty diverse population, in part because of the journalism school. My dorm floor was made up almost equally of students from Kansas City, St. Louis, rural Missouri and Chicago. I came from a small Oklahoma town that had more Native Americans than African Americans, but I was on a floor with quite a few black students. One became my roommate. Others became good friends. [...]

It didn't take much empathy to realize the experience of any member of any minority population is simply different. It could still be good or mostly good, but it was going to be different, and there was no way around that. And while every black student gets exposed to a white world while attending college, not every white student gets the same experience.

Columbia and Mizzou were never without tension. You could see fault lines, a misplaced accusation of vandalism, cotton balls at the Black Culture Center, "Them crackers shaking." [...]

General campus morale is another part. Wolfe, a Mizzou and Harvard grad who had a three-decade career in information technology, replaced former Sprint CEO Gary Forsee. Business acumen is an important thing for a university; so is actual campus experience.

And when chancellor Brady Deaton announced his retirement in late 2013, he was replaced by former Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin. The bow-tied Loftin is a natural politician. He has also lost the faith of quite a few faculty members with his appeasement of actual politicians. (The English Department recently rendered a 26-0 vote of no confidence in Loftin.) A behind-the-scenes battle between Wolfe and Loftin had become public knowledge. [...]

A combination of poor leadership and minimal pay increases has led to a depressed environment. Insiders and outsiders have noted morale on campus feels like it's at an all-time low.

Anger built. Incidents came to light. Those with minority status -- be it race, gender, or income -- felt the brunt. [...]

Fifty years after Meredith and company attempted to break down literal barriers, there is still a battle. The battle today is not for rights, but something as important: Dignity. There is no question that at Missouri and just about every other campus in this country, the minority experience still features more obstacles, required adaptation and ridicule. That's reason enough to fight.

Columbia, about a two-hour drive from Ferguson, is in the spotlight, but it is not alone. You can question the demands. You can question players' motives. If you're feeling cynical or closed-minded, you can question whether the team would have gotten involved had it been 9-0 instead of 4-5. (My retort: Wouldn't the team have even more leverage at 9-0?)

In the wrong-side-of-history responses — since Saturday, since September, since Mike Brown, since they were born — these students have received all the encouragement they need to realize they are fighting the right fight.

A year later, Missouri is a work in process. “Work in progress” sounds optimistic, and I am an optimist, but we don’t really know what the state is progressing toward yet.

That probably makes sense. For 100 years, this was a bellwether state, all but one time voting for the person who ended up winning the presidential election. Now it votes redder than the rest of the country on average (for the last few years, anyway — we’ll find out soon enough about the 2016 election cycle), but it still reflects divisions we find everywhere else.

This has been a discouraging year, for both state and country. Honestly, this is a discouraging time. But time presses forward anyway. Eventually it’ll get better, both here and everywhere. Then it’ll get worse. On and on. Progress and pushback, progress and pushback. There was quite a bit of pushback 12 months ago, but my hope is that it becomes part of a story of progress, for this place and for everywhere else.

University of Missouri U. Missouri Campus Back To Work One Day After President And Chancellor Resign 
 Resigns As Protests Grow over Racism Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Sports Illustrated: How Missouri football has changed 1 year after boycott

Post-Dispatch: Monday marked anniversary of Mizzou boycott

The Missourian: A 'radical form of resistance': MU activists on looking back and moving forward

The Missourian: A year after 'The Day' at MU, the call for more dialogue continues

The Missourian: Understanding the Missouri football boycott's legacy and the issues that remain

KC Star: Mizzou remains vigilant one year after football team’s boycott