On May 25, something snapped in the American psyche. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people nationwide have united in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
While some responded with looting and rioting, a vast majority have practiced courageous nonviolence and peaceful protest in the face of police brutality and state-sanctioned racism. In a world simultaneously paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and a centuries-old, institutionalized pandemic of racism, the message has never been clearer: Black lives matter.
This Board stands firmly with the movement to end police brutality and systemic racism. White supremacy is endemic to the American experience and higher education in particular. Accordingly, the Emory community must undergo a paradigm shift in its handling of racism.
This editorial board is not exempt from this imperative. As a majority-white group of writers, we must seek the perspectives of Black students, faculty and staff more proactively.
Former Managing Editor Shreya Pabbaraju’s (21C) letter to the editor is a necessary wake-up call: we have failed to elevate the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) on this board and within the Wheel as a whole.
The Wheel’s Failures
To understand why the Wheel has failed to recruit and retain Black writers, we interviewed several of the latter about their experiences at Emory and with the paper. Their testimony demonstrates that being a Black writer within a predominantly white institution is discomfiting and alienating.
Joelle Wellington (20C) stated that she wrote two pieces for the Wheel as a first-year and found the paper to be, “so … white?” She felt that Wheel staff members were unwelcoming and admitted that her initial experience caused her to withdraw from the newsroom.
Chrislyn Sterling (21C), editor-in-chief of BLACKSTAR* Magazine, Emory University’s first and only Black student publication, echoed these thoughts. Sterling believes the Wheel is a “very white space” and, compared to BLACKSTAR*, does not make an effort to retain Black writers. Sterling lamented that when she applied to write for the Wheel, her name was added to a Listserv, but she never received any follow-up.
What does it mean to be a white space? According to Sterling, it is writing pieces that cater to the University’s white majority. She notes that Wheel content does not often feature Black students or a diverse slate of stories that reflect the wide breadth of the Emory community.
We believe that the Wheel is markedly different from all other clubs on campus — as an independently-funded school newspaper, our responsibility is to represent our school in its entirety. No group on campus should feel marginalized in our coverage.
Channelle Russell (22C), a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow who writes for the Wheel, described an experience similar to Wellington’s and Sterling’s. She pointed out that she only joined the Wheel because former Arts & Entertainment Editor Adesola Thomas (20C) advertised the opportunity in a Black Emory group chat.
“If Adesola hadn’t reached out specifically to the Black community, I probably wouldn’t be a Wheel writer because it comes off as (and is, when you’re in the room) a very white space,” Russell said.
In her interview, Sterling also mentioned that BLACKSTAR* recruits aggressively through Black group chats. Even with its small budget, BLACKSTAR* maintains a devoted staff. It is deliberate.
In making a concerted and sustained push for a more Black staff, the Wheel would benefit from a wellspring of untapped stories that exist across campus. More importantly, however, we would finally be fulfilling our duty to cover the full story of our campus and its many voices.
The institutions in place are entrenched yet nonetheless require rapid change. In professional newsrooms nationwide, revelations of mistreatment of BIPOC writers are forcing newspapers to seriously reconsider their reporting and staffing practices.
These reckonings are reshaping American journalism. Former The Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery’s story of alienation as a Black writer in a majority-white newsroom should help guide us in where we go from here. Lowery left the Post after the paper’s executive editor threatened him with reprimands and potential termination over his social media posts addressing racism.
His is an experience that the Wheel must consider as we work to overcome what Editor-in-Chief Madison Bober (20C) called “complicity” in failing to give Black voices a home in its Editorial Board, staff writers and executive board.
The Wheel’s alienation of Black writers has not merely failed to prioritize Black individuals. We have also actively perpetuated a culture of upholding whiteness at the stated expense of accurately covering our school community.
As a student newspaper, we are a training ground, and we should address the problems surrounding objectivity and neutrality with which professional newsrooms must now grapple. As Lowery writes, “the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.”
The University’s Future
The University recently announced a new race and ethnicity general education requirement (GER), effective Fall 2021. It comes as a result of the Black Students at Emory demands from 2015, a campaign launched after former President James Wagner made a racist statement about the Three-Fifths Compromise. To be clear, this GER would never have existed if not for Black students’ efforts and Wagner’s ignorance.
This is a step in the right direction, but administrators must guarantee that future classes will benefit from this requirement in perpetuity. In a good-faith measure, President-elect Gregory Fenves and the Emory College Faculty Senate should promise that this new GER will enter into force as planned, regardless of any future budget cuts or hiring freezes. They should also promise that this GER will never be cut as long as the Association of American Colleges and Universities states that, “diversity and equity [are] fundamental goals of higher education.”
We believe the University must also educate its students about the city that it fought tirelessly to join. Atlanta’s majority-Black demographics and its legacy of civil rights activism warrant a concerted effort on Emory’s part to educate its community about the city’s rich history.
Thousands of incoming first-years matriculate every year from around the world, and many graduate without piercing the bubble of Druid Hills. The University should incorporate visits to and workshops with The King Center, National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Atlanta History Center into the First Year at Emory (FYE) program. Orientation could, for example, include field trips to these institutions and incorporate discussions of Atlanta’s long, complex relationship with race.
A reassessment of the University’s own history is also overdue. As monuments of slave owners are thrown into rivers and statues of Christopher Columbus are vandalized across the country, the University must sever its own ties to white supremacy.
Emory has made efforts in the past to address its links to slavery. The Transforming Community Project, capped by the seminal “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies” conference, sought to address the University’s historical ties to the slaveholding American South and racist incidents brought to light by Black faculty in late 2003. The project ended with the 2011 conference, but its work remains unfinished in unpacking Emory’s past involvement with slavery and shortcomings in confronting racism.
Oxford College hosts a Confederate cemetery surrounding a large obelisk engraved with a caption reading, “Our Soldiers,” a description that merely sentimentalizes lost lives without context about for whom and why they fought. Administrators should supplement the monument with accurate, additional information about the history of the Civil War and its ultimate cause: the right to own slaves.
On Emory’s main campus, many students are likely unaware that Longstreet-Means, a first-year residence hall, is named after Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, the University’s second president, a Methodist minister and an author who fiercely defended slavery, and Alexander Means, the University’s fourth president and another supporter of the Confederacy. These are facts curiously excluded from the University’s “History and Traditions” webpage describing its founding leaders.
Longstreet-Means needs either a marker denouncing and explaining Longstreet’s writings and Means’s views or a new name altogether. The University’s motto is “a wise heart seeks knowledge.” If they wish students to live up to these words, Emory should acknowledge its intimate history with a slave-owning South and renounce accordingly.
Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade’s killings, among others, have ignited a global movement. These tragedies may very well reshape the American identity. But that cannot happen unless complicit institutions, the Wheel and the University included, commit to sustained action against racism.
Outgoing President Claire Sterk and Fenves’s letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp lobbying in favor of a hate crime bill is a necessary step against institutionalized racism. However, dismantling white supremacy on campus and statewide will require more than a single letter to the governor or a series of emails to community members.
The time has come for the Wheel and the University to hold themselves accountable for upholding racism. Predominantly white institutions must listen to and value Black voices, and actively work to internally change beyond performative allyship and the transient incentives of this moment. We must shirk our responsibility to the Black community no longer.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Brammhi Balarajan, Zach Ball, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey, Boris Niyonzima and Ben Thomas.