Commentary: The University of Mississippi’s latest ‘incident’ brings both pain and illumination

The desecration of the James Meredith statue goes to show that while the university has been desegregated, the work of integration is unfinished.

Statue of James Meredith
Statue of James Meredith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it goes.

Another day, another incident at the University of Mississippi.

This one, as you’ve no doubt heard, involved a noose and Confederate flag tied around the statue of James Meredith, the man who desegregated the university in 1962 by the force of will, courage, and 30,000 federal troops deployed by President Kennedy.

Perhaps it’s a Southern thing, but we euphemize these acts of campus hatred so quaintly — an “incident” — as if they were some sort of verbal faux pas. “Incident” implies something accidental, unpredictable, a one-off occurrence. The type of thing that might become funny after the statute of limitations for embarrassment has passed.

I can remember back to my sophomore year when we had the Deke incident. Next came the Michael Hudec/YouTube incident. Then the KKK incident. The Election Night incident. The Laramie Project incident…

At a certain frequency, incidents cease to be incidental. They become habits. And in Mississippi — no less the rest of America — racism is a habit so ingrained, so systemic, that it often takes a disruptive incident to bring it to our attention.

Racism is like the phosphoric coating on the head of a match that waits to release a furious burst of energy. Incidents occur when the match is rubbed the wrong way, against the wrong surface. It sparks an instant combustion that burns hot and fast.

We naturally fear being burned by the flame. The reaction to incidents inevitably involve the shame and scorn heaped on the university by the national media. As I write these words, news of the incident is no doubt spreading to The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and other online outlets. In a few days time, the New York Times will publish a piece about the incident’s aftermath and the university’s struggle to shed its Old South image.

More importantly, these incidents cause deep emotional pain for members of the university community. Only 50 years after federal marshals were required to escort Meredith around campus, black students and faculty at the university must wonder whether the noose was meant as a warning. A community whose members fear for their safety — physical, intellectual, or otherwise — fails to perform its most basic function.

But before we seek to extinguish the flame that burns us, we should recognize it also has the power to illuminate. The light from the incident should show us that while Meredith desegregated the university, the work of integration remains unfinished.

The campus that has elected multiple recent black student body presidents and a black homecoming queen is still socially and politically centered around the all-white Greek houses, dutifully managed by their black “help.” In the state with the country’s largest black population, nearly all of the university’s most prominent faculty and administrative positions are held by whites. Touchdowns by black football players are still celebrated with strains of “Dixie.”

Just as good health is not merely the absence of illness, integration cannot be defined merely as the absence of racial incidents. Integration means equality, measured in positive, practical ways: Shared spaces, organizations, symbols, and experiences for all students. A student body and staff representative of state and national diversity. Opportunities for career advancement among faculty, administrators, and coaches of color.

In each of these areas, the university has made progress. By far the clearest sign of that progress is how many of Mississippi’s brightest minds now graduate from the university with the skills and desire to critically analyze the institutions around them.

As for those who still stand in darkness, let’s hope the light from this incident helps them see their surroundings more clearly.

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  • CJtheRebel

    I’m actually pretty proud of the “KKK incident.”

    If you piss the Klan off enough that they hold a rally just for you, you’re probably doing something right.

  • HottyToddy

    It’s time for us students to stand up and take a stand because this is our campus but these “incidents” continue to happen!!

  • Mike

    Why do things like this continue to happen at Ole Miss despite the university’s progress? It’s time to have a SERIOUS conversation about these continued “events” and take preemptive action. This didn’t happen at the University of Alabama, which has a history just as shameful as Ole Miss. This happened at OUR University and it’s past time it STOPS!

    • CJtheRebel

      I guess the opposite question is, short of massively beefing up police patrols on campus, what can you do to stop this kind of thing?

  • EarlVanDorn

    You forgot to mention the racist graffiti at Kincannon. They caught the guys and did nothing to them! Probably the same type of thing going on here.

  • Matt Williams

    Well said, Jake. I really appreciate your point on how the very language used to describe such acts of hatred diminishes the frequency at which they occur and precludes any progress that could be achieved by facing the situation honestly. This is such an important point that you continue to raise. Recalling one of your previous posts, this seems like another kind of “reflexive” reaction. What will you call this reflex?

    • Jake McGraw

      Thanks, Matt. I think it’s rooted in that same old “Positive Mississippi” reflex that tries to disown blame for our problems: first by saying that Mississippi gets singled out for things that happen everywhere, then by trying to change the subject to the things we do well.

      Maybe it’s just self-selection, but something feels different this time. I’ve heard more reflection and less reflexiveness — among students, administrators, and alums alike. I sincerely hope we’ve reached a tipping point where people realize that these “incidents” are part of a pattern of racial inequity and injustice that must be actively upended at UM and in the state of Mississippi. I sense from the responses I’ve gotten that many people are ready to lock arms behind such a movement. I think MCJ and the Winter Institute are positioned to help organize it. Don’t you?

      • Matt Williams

        I certainly do, Jake, and we are ready. We are also making sure every outlet we’re in touch with sees your post and understands that honest conversation is going on in Mississippi. Let’s talk soon.

  • Andrew L

    This article speaks clearly about racism in a refreshingly non PC way. As a white man who has grown up between LA and MS I’ve known racism all my life. It’s ever present in various guises even as we celebrate the progress that’s been made. As the writer so eloquently states integration is most certainly not finished. The sooner we all acknowledge this then perhaps we can talk about the things that keep us artificially separate and bridge those cultural and economic gaps through our common struggle for a decent life.