This past spring, Emory administrators and students alike stood against the recent killings of unarmed Black people by the police. Pledges to work toward greater equity for students across Emory, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color, flooded social media. The rejection of racism came in the form of infographics, promises and well-intended statements of support. Bolstered by calls to action, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), composed of various groups across campus such as Young Democrats and Planned Parenthood, sent a letter to the Emory administration in June 2020 outlining a series of demands intended to create safer spaces throughout campus.
But what came of this letter? How did Emory react to hundreds of students and organizations demanding change for Black students across Emory’s campus and culture? SJC’s initial letter highlighted four major items students wanted the University to address. The first demand focused largely on creating and maintaining both offices and spaces for students of color around the University. Next, focusing on the aftermath of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the letter called for the expansion of rights for student protestors. The coalition also requested more rigorous implicit bias training for Emory Police Department (EPD) officers, as well as greater transparency regarding the use of physical force. In addition, they requested more accessible reporting services for those who have experienced police abuse. They concluded the letter by asking for updates on each individual demand as well as a plan with how the University will meet them.
On June 16, Emory University’s NAACP chapter followed up on the original letter with additional actionable items. These demands drew on not only on the SJC’s letter to administrators but also on previous demands created by long-ignored Black students and Black student organizations. The Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs (CBOC) demanded that Black students should be able to directly speak to the University administration rather than through non-Black intermediaries. Nine points were listed, many of which repeated or slightly modified the initial demands.
The first demand called for a public apology to Black students for the “University’s history of racist violence,” particularly within the last 60 years. Another demand was undedicating different landmarks around campus that are dedicated to Confederate slave holders and working to acknowledge Emory’s legacy of African American subjugation. While a statement of regret was issued in 2011 by the Board of Trustees regarding slavery, it did not acknowledge the University’s long history of other racial abuses. Among these larger demands, requests for more frequent diversity training and routine meetings with University leaders were also made. NAACP and CBOC created each demand in part with the legacy of previous Black student demands throughout their 60 years on Emory’s campus. They concluded the letter with a request that the University address each of these items within 48 hours.
According to CBOC founder Ronald Poole (23C), administrators did respond within the time frame requested and began to work with numerous Black students and organizations across Emory. Poole expressed that, at the time, Black students “didn’t think it was sufficient” and “felt like it was just an institution doing what an institution does.” While there was a response to the initial letter, substantive changes have not manifested as quickly. Half a year later, little to nothing has come to fruition that is remnant of these student demands.
Even so, Poole and other Black student leaders have felt more positive over time about the University’s commitment to addressing Black students’ demands. Poole acknowledged this change of heart comes from the internal meetings CBOC has had with advisers and the University’s responses.
“Over time, a lot of things have materialized that are very forward-looking and positive,” Poole explained.
On Aug. 13, University President Gregory L. Fenves issued a statement explaining Emory’s actions against racial injustice in the current moment and within the University’s history and legacy. The message, detailing eight University actions and coming two months after NAACP and CBOC’s statement to administrators and students, addressed several of the organizations’ actionable items. Yet large portions of the demands created by students were addressed either minimally or not at all. The University opted to appease the student population and those with a stake in the endowment instead of striving for meaningful change.
Fenves began his statement by highlighting the University’s 2011 apology for its involvement in slavery. The apology addressed the fact that the Oxford campus was largely built by enslaved persons and the necessity of renaming several buildings commemorating Confederate historical figures. In the statement, Fenves also reconstituted one task force focused on addressing previous student concerns: the University Committee on Naming Honors. In October, Fenves issued an update, which announced the revival of the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations.
The second task force was reappointed to tell the stories of enslaved peoples and Indigenous peoples who were persecuted by Emory. The task force was initially created in 2019 after racist yearbook photos of students in blackface from the 1960s were discovered, and it was intended to reflect on Emory’s historical failures and their modern implications. Fenves revived the task force in fall 2020 to focus more readily on CBOC’s demands. The task force seeks to acknowledge Emory’s history of both racial subjugation of Black students and enslaved people as well as its exploitation of Indigenous peoples. The task force was also instructed to create educational experiences and opportunities, along with creating the process for awarding two scholarships each yeah to the descendants of enslaved persons with ties to Emory by the Fall of 2022. Fenves will receive findings and developments from this task force by April 1, 2021.
To reconsider the Confederate names of several buildings throughout campus, such as the first-year residence hall Longstreet-Means Hall and Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, Fenves revived the University Committee on Naming Honors. Its task is to review the histories of buildings with contested names to determine if they should be renamed.
Poole emphasized that building renaming is one of the most pressing issues Emory needs to address in regards to Black student demands, especially as it pertains to Longstreet-Means.
“Freshmen are oriented into college through racism and anti-Blackness,” they said.
As first-years cannot choose their housing, Emory forces Black students to sleep and rest in a building whose namesakes directly opposed their liberation.
Both task forces were first created in 2019, and their original work was necessary in the administration fighting for racial justice. Yet each of these committees was disbanded without substantive changes, only being revived after the summer’s racial strife. Instead of Emory being dedicated to long-standing actionable items in order to achieve racial justice throughout campus, they have created temporary solutions to institutional problems.
The task forces were created with good intentions, but their disbandment after one year is evidence of a lack of care for long-term solutions to systemic issues across Emory. Rather than a cause for the committees’ disbandment, their initial findings, which have not been made public, should have inspired years of continued work necessary to remedy injustices across campus. Furthermore, in order to remain accountable, Emory should continue these task forces while publicly publishing their findings so that the community may hold the University accountable for their proposed changes.
The committees’ initial disbandment indicates the University’s real focus: surface-level racial justice. While Fenves was right to reinstate them, his and other administrators’ willingness to act on their findings will be a better indicator of the University’s progress on racial equity.
Also in his August statement, Fenves outlined a plan for Dean and University Librarian Yolanda Cooper to compile a history of Black student activism at Emory. Highlighting Black student activism is paramount to recognizing both the contributions and legacy of Black Emory students, but acknowledgement is not enough to remedy the treatment of Black students across Emory in the past and present.
Cooper and the students’ four articles published on the Rose Library’s Scholar Blog, compelling as they were, failed to fully describe the racial injustices faced by Black students, and this insufficiency demonstrates the University’s long-held apathy to racial subjugation. Instead, they focused more broadly on Black student activism responding to national events, instead of Emory’s broader culture surrounding the injustices faced by Black students throughout the years. Articles with more acknowledgment of the racial injustice throughout Emory should be written in order for Emory to face its history of racial subjugation and the legacy thereof.
Student activism has skyrocketed across the country in response to the unjust and racially motivated killings of unarmed Black people by the police. Following Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks’ murders by police officers last year, calls to defund the police and replace them with mental health professionals became rampant nationwide, including at Emory. While SJC’s initial open letter focused on implicit bias training, CBOC’s follow-up called for disarming and defunding EPD. Instead of law enforcement, the latter argued, EPD’s funding should go to crisis-trained professionals like psychologists and social workers.
Refusing to outright disband and disarm the EPD, Fenves addressed these concerns by contracting Justice and Sustainability Associates (JSA) to independently examine the state of policing at Emory. JSA did so and is currently investigating new avenues for community input on policing, following one of the demands of SJC’s letter. JSA specifically examined use-of-force policies, training and transparency. According to Fenves’ later statement in October, EPD Chief Rus Drew and other administrators were expected to present a model for developing community-based policing in response to JSA’s findings by the end of the semester. They never did.
In late October, EPD released a statement addressing JSA’s review and the changes they would make thereafter. There were only four. Each of these revisions were from former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on Justice in the 21st Century Policing Commission – policies that EPD should have implemented over five years ago when they were released. A new model for community-based policing hasn’t been released, and EPD has failed to address how they wish to shift their policing practices. Enough is enough. The University should uphold the demands of CBOC and disarm and defund EPD.
Many of CBOC’s actionable items have been muted and appear reworked to appease student activists rather than directly address students’ concerns. Implementing CBOC’s demands is necessary for Emory’s progress, but the University has been insufficient in addressing inequality in both the past and present. Emory continues to disregard the legacy and impact of Black students, especially as they continue to delay progress throughout campus.
Poole noted that one thing the University has done particularly well, especially compared to some other universities across the country, was inviting Black students to discussions and into leadership positions. But that is not enough to change the current situation of Black students on campus. These positions and discussions are crucial for substantive change, but they do not substitute action the University should and could take to change for the better.
In the October announcement, Fenves issued another statement to update the community on the work done since the summer. This update says little more than the initial August information, providing only small updates such as task forces’ specific, day-to-day tasks. The update relayed no new or notable information about changes to protect Black students.
Emory has tried, but it has fallen far short of Black students’ demands and rights. Administrators have certainly made some progress, such as implementing a new general education requirement that focuses on race and ethnicity starting in fall 2021, but the Students Against Racial Inequality made this demand as early as 1990. It took 31 years for Emory to act on it; current Black students at Emory shouldn’t have to wait three decades to see their demands met. Emory should work with vigor to rectify past injustices and satisfy current demands as they arise.
Even worse, numerous demands by Black students from 1969, 1990 and 2015 remain ignored to this day. In 2015, students requested updates to faculty evaluations to reflect professors’ racist actions. The updated evaluations would include two extra open-ended questions regarding microaggressions and inclusivity. A simple call for accountability was refused. None of those students saw their demands come to fruition. The University didn’t help or advocate for them. Why? Why does it take decades for Black students to be heard, for their voices to matter to Emory? Why won’t Emory take substantive action on a swift timeline? Black students deserve to receive the fruits of our own labor, not merely fade into the background of Emory as an institution.
For decades, Black students have called for equitable treatment and justice both on and off campus, but their demands have been watered down by the tides of academia, forestalling substantive change and running into administrative red tape. Committees and task forces only acknowledge problems and do not solve them. Emory’s Black students deserve better than meaningless reports and words about our lives and our spaces on campus. We deserve an attentive ear, an understanding environment and a campus that doesn’t compound our historical trauma.
Emory is failing to remedy the injustices of the past, and its lackluster performativity needs to shift toward immediate and substantive change. Listen to Black students beyond temporary committees and task forces. Create a swifter timeline so students can benefit from the better future they seek rather than have their work be ignored for decades once again. Act now.
Rachel Broun (23C) is from Carrboro, North Carolina.
This article is one part of “1963,” an investigative opinion project. Read the rest here.