Breaking Down The Terms Surrounding The Mizzou Protests

Nov 20, 2015

The University of Missouri-Columbia made national headlines over the past few weeks amidst rising racial tensions and resulting protests on campus.

As the conversation unfolded, a handful of terms have taken the spotlight online and in the media. Like safe space, systematic oppression and the First Amendment, to name a few.

On KCUR's Central Standard we spoke with a panel of experts to better understand the words and how they are being used. During the program, University of Kansas American Studies professor Randal Jelks said it is important to remember that race is arbitrary — it's what we attribute to race that matters.

"We are not discussing race, we're discussing racism," he said to host Gina Kaufmann.

Jelks and other guests helped break down and define the terminology.

What is a safe space?

In September, MU student body president Payton Head reported an incident in which he was called the N-word. A month later, MU's Legion of Black Collegians (LCB) reported a similar incident during a late-night rehearsal in an area the group otherwise felt was a safe space.

According to Charles Burt, University of Missouri-Kansas City student and president of the LGBTQIA Affairs Council, a safe space is a place where a marginalized group can go to avoid microaggressions, which are insults, intended or not, directed against an individual based on that individual's membership in an overall group.

He is careful to explain that safe spaces can be open to individuals who do not identify as marginalized, but that those individuals must understand they are entering to learn.

"It can become uncomfortable, but if you say something problematic, you're going to be called out for it [in a safe space]," Burt says of including people outside of the marginalized identity. "You're there to learn, not to educate [yourselves] at the expense of others."

What is systematic oppression?

MU students have been frustrated by what they consider to be insufficient response from the institution to the racism that persists on the Columbia campus, where black students account for 7 percent of the population, while white students make up 77 percent.

Protesters called for the resignation of UM System President Tim Wolfe. The activity seemed to climax when UMKC and MU protesters confronted now former-president Wolfe in downtown Kansas City, and asked him to define systematic oppression.

 

"Systematic oppression is because you don't believe you have the equal opportunity for success," Wolfe said.

The crowd erupted and one protester asked, "Did you just blame us for systematic oppression?"

You have to understand that everyone doesn't get the same opportunities to enhance or 'better' their lives.

Race and class shape our lives, KU professor Randal Jelks explains, and historical and cultural patterns reveal that there are laws and policies that maintain privilege and power as associated with hierarchy. This is considered systematic oppression.

Historically, Jelks says, the white population has constituted this hierarchy, and the black and African American population by contrast has experienced discrimination by these systems. He gives examples of systematic oppression playing a part in the extent of difficulty a person of color might face when trying to buy a house, or applying to a school.

Often, people are simply unaware of the way the system is working against minorities. A common misconception Burt cites is the idea that black people should just work harder to help themselves.

"You have to understand that everyone doesn't get the same opportunities to enhance or 'better' their lives," Burt says.

What is the First Amendment?

Throughout the protests and the developments they brought about, media involvement increased exponentially, and new tensions arose around upholding each citizen's rights under the First Amendment

Protesters attempted to keep their campground on the University of Missouri, Columbia campus free of the press. Both protesters and press claimed 'First Amendment' rights.
Credit Credit Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA

A video captured by MU student Mark Schierbecker captures MU communications professor Melissa Click attempting to remove the press from the campground.

"There is, for good reasons, long-held mistrust on the part of minority communities toward the institutional press," KU journalism professor and attorney Jon Peters says. "The press has not done a very good job representing [the black community]."

But, from a legal standpoint, neither the protesters nor the press was violating the First Amendment.

[The First Amendment] is not a shield or a sword for an individual to use against another private individual.

"You, as an individual, have First Amendment rights only against the government," Peters says. "It is not a shield or a sword for an individual to use against another private individual."

He says universities are in an unenviable position. Public educational institutions are bound by requirements of the Constitution, and as such they are not supposed to suppress speech based on its content, but they are supposed to regulate harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion and national origin. If a school doesn't take action to address or prevent psychological damage to a certain class, they could face a federal investigation.

Peters, Jelks and Burt all agree that institutions should strive, no matter how difficult the task may be, to promote productive dialogue and disagreement, while also protecting all community members by addressing and taking action against mistreatment.

"The lack of civility that now inhabits campuses speaks to the lack of civility in our society," Jelks says.

Andrea Tudhope is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.