Racial conflict on campus

    The Kellogg incident felt different. Each time before, it had been something small, so Communication senior Josh Williams wouldn’t let it bother him. He was not always sure the evidence would be adequate. But Williams went on “pure instinct” this time. He was “infuriated.” The minute he got to a computer, he started composing the email that eventually found its way into students’ inboxes. Williams was walking through Kellogg looking for a professor when three different people asked him what he was doing in the building. Williams felt racially profiled.

    The story from last spring has become a familiar one. It’s the token incident people bring up when talking about racial profiling on campus. But this was not the first instance Williams had felt targeted for being a young, black male at Northwestern.

    “It happens every day, whether in a small capacity or a big capacity,” Williams said of racial profiling at Northwestern. “The attention the Kellogg incident received … [gave] more focus to it.”

    One thing soon became clear — Williams was not alone in feeling like he was a victim of racial profiling on campus.


    “I’ve definitely had my fair share of racist encounters…I just don’t expect it to happen when you pay so much money to a school to be respected there. Experiences like that will completely alienate you and separate you from other students.” — Kamau

    Weinberg sophomore Kamau*, like Williams, is no stranger to racial profiling. But when he came to Northwestern last year, he was surprised by an incident with the NUPD. He had been walking home to Allison at night, surrounded by “groups of [his] white peers, stumbling around…having a good time.” So when Northwestern Police rolled up, Kamau thought they were stopping the group of students because of his friends’ drunken behavior. They stopped Kamau instead and asked for his WildCARD. Kamau was sober.

    “I’ve definitely had my fair share of racist encounters,” he says. “I just don’t expect it to happen when you pay so much money to a school to be respected there. Experiences like that will completely alienate you and separate you from other students.”

    Kamau learned to navigate it. He conditioned himself to watch for the police. He never left his room without his WildCARD, which came in handy when NUPD asked him for it several more times over the year. He thought it was absurd.


    Over the course of the past year or so, dialogues surrounding race have emerged from singular, controversial incidents, experiences that many consider to be symbols of failure on the university’s part. Kamau’s tale occurred long before Williams’ did. This Halloween’s controversial blackface incident revealed an ignorance that had already showed itself just two years ago. And the mere 87 African American freshmen last year, a number that incited student protests, did not represent a sudden drop. That number had already been in decline.

    Student reaction to these incidents put pressure on the university administration to improve race relations on campus. On September 17, President Morton Shapiro sent an email to students and staff entitled “Diversity initiatives at Northwestern” which outlined efforts to celebrate diversity and make the campus more inclusive.

    As the heat of controversy faded, the energy of action seemed to fade too. The push for the university to make changes may not have been for nothing. At the beginning of the quarter, more specific details about the initiatives mentioned in President Shapiro’s email, such as a timeline, were unclear due perhaps to factors such as adminstrative transitions. But now, at the end of the quarter, some administrators have begun to reveal what kind of change will result from the initiatives. But will it be enough?


    “This is ugly,” Dr. Harold, Kamau's father, says of racial profiling at Northwestern. When Kamau told his dad about that night outside of Allison, Harold says his “spidey senses were tingling.” His experience growing up in segregation during the civil rights era and his studies in organizational behavior and psychology (he holds a doctorate in it) were telling him that Northwestern had some core cultural problems in its system.

    Then the Kellogg incident happened, and Harold decided to take action. He sent letters to the black members of the Board of Trustees. He contacted key players in the administration. At first, the only person to return his phone calls was Northwestern Police Chief Bruce Lewis.

    “Generally speaking, the response from the administration outside of [Chief Lewis] was lacking,” he says. “It was being relegated to a policing matter. They’re definitely not the entire problem.”

    Harold explains it like this: The police serve the social status quo of the community. If the community feels threatened when they see a black man, regardless of how illogical it may seem, then the police will be forced to act on it. Or in other words, if a receptionist in Kellogg calls up campus security, the police cannot ignore her call.

    Harold, along with his son Kamau, Williams and Chicago activist Philip Jackson did eventually meet with university administrators, including Vice President of Student Affairs Bill Banis and Provost Dan Linzer. Unsurprisingly, conflict pervaded the initial moments of the meeting, but the Kamaus, Williams, Jackson and Banis all thought the ultimate discussion was productive.

    Banis maintains that it was just a private meeting with a concerned parent; it wasn’t meant to be a forum. He declined to comment on the specifics of it. For the non-administrators in the meeting, the success of the meeting lies in the feeling that the university actually listened to the students, Williams and Kamau Kamau. Williams says another meeting is planned to continue the discussion, but neither the Kamaus nor Jackson have heard anything from the university. Nothing specific is scheduled.

    “Word’s gonna get out — don’t go to Northwestern…then when students are looking for a university and college community that is welcoming and will expose them to different cultures so they can be equipped for a global world, they’re going to go elsewhere.” — Dr. Harold Kamau

    “In terms of transforming the culture into a more welcoming, multicultural institution of excellence for all faculty and staff, [the administration has] some work to do,” Harold says. And in that vein, he says racial profiling and Northwestern’s history of low black enrollment are “not a distinct phenomenon.”

    “Word’s gonna get out — don’t go to Northwestern,” he says. “Then when students are looking for a university and college community that is welcoming and will expose them to different cultures so they can be equipped for a global world, they’re going to go elsewhere.”


    Weinberg sophomore Tyris Jones led the Freshmen Advisory Board of the African American Student Affairs office last year, spearheading the protests over the “ridiculous number” of black freshmen in his class. One Monday, he and about 20 others gathered by the Rock, which they painted black. They passed out pamphlets about the low enrollment and its effect; they performed spoken word; they gave speeches about why they thought the university should try harder to increase diversity and combat racial conflict and suggested strategies to go about it, like forming student advisory panels. “It was a good start to raising awareness about the issue,” he says.

    In spite of his experience with it, Jones hesitated when asked whether he thought racial profiling drove prospective black freshman away. “I’ll say it to this extent: People are uncomfortable. There are people who are really heartbroken that this has happened to them,” he says. “If Northwestern doesn’t deal with this problem, you have no choice but to tell people about it if they ask.”

    Like some other current students, Jones had heard stories about racial profiling when he came to visit as a prospective student. “I really overlooked that. I was really concerned with just the school,” Jones says. For him, being honest about racial profiling is kind of a filtering process: “I want people who can take it to be here.” And ultimately, the academics of Northwestern trump getting stopped by the police two or three times in the year. “You have to think about what you’re here for,” he says.

    Similarly, in spite of his negative experiences, Kamau finds it’s worth it to stay at Northwestern. “It’s too much money and too much work to stop thinking that,” he says. “[But] I also think it shouldn’t have to be like that. It shouldn’t be a choice that needs to be made.”

    The correlation between low black enrollment and problems of racial profiling is hard to quantify. Each black student who felt victimized in this story says he or she knows that racial profiling would happen no matter school he attended. Prospective black students such as Jones may continue to hear about instances like Williams’ or this year’s Halloween blackface costumes.

    But if it falls on the administration to make changes, then all hope may not be lost.


    “[Things] really picked up last year after the fall, after we realized that only 87 black freshmen were on campus,” says ASG President Mike McGee. McGee is an old friend to the cause of minority enrollment; he has been invested in the issue since his freshman year; he’s a senior now. When he first started talking to the admissions office, he was surprised at their ignorance to basic recruitment techniques, such as maintaining contact with particular people or offices.

    “You expected them to know things that you knew,” McGee says. “But instead of hearing things like, ‘Hey we’re working on that’ it was, ‘Oh, should we be doing that?’ Yes, duh!”

    McGee says the difference between now and then is “almost like night and day.” And efforts of the university resulted in a nearly two percent increase in black students who made deposits for enrollment this year.

    Associate Provost of Undergraduate Admissions Mike Mills credits the progress to a couple different things. For one, Northwestern joined a program called QuestBridge. Mills explains it as the “common application for low income students with high academic ability”: students rank schools in the program (options include Northwestern, University of Chicago, and Stanford among 24 others) and agree to attend the top ranked school that accepts them. In addition to that, the admissions office began flying Northwestern students to high schools to promote the university. They sent out postcards to prospective students, written by current students.

    What Mills says may be the most important addition, though, is the start of a program called “Why Northwestern?” The event happens on campus and targets students from public schools in the greater Chicago area. For a half day, prospective students listen to speakers, including students and admissions people. They get a taste of Northwestern.

    “It seemed like they cared about us already,” Walton says. “We were already part of the Northwestern family and we didn’t even apply.”

    Lauren Walton attended the event last year. Now she’s a freshman studying journalism. Walton’s from a predominantly black public high school in Country Club Hills, Ill. She was third in her class, and college has always been part of her life plan. As a journalism student, she was looking at the University of Missouri, Georgetown University and Howard University. Northwestern didn’t really cross her mind even though physically, it’s much closer. The “Why Northwestern?” program was the first time she stepped onto campus, and the friendliness, passion, and honesty of those she interacted with at the black house convinced her to apply.

    “It seemed like they cared about us already,” Walton says. “We were already part of the Northwestern family and we didn’t even apply.”

    Like Tyris Jones, her visit meant she heard about the dark side of being black on campus. Before she even applied, Walton knew that that some students felt victim to racial profiling from NUPD. She heard about the Williams’ Kellogg incident, to be exact.


    At a forum after Williams’ experience at Kellogg in the spring, students suggested the creation of a Police Advisory Board, and Northwestern Police Chief Bruce Lewis listened. The board, to be composed of students, faculty and staff, “will give students a direct voice in the ability to have input on policies, procedures and practices of the police department.”

    “[It’s] a clear opportunity to work closely with the students,” Lewis says, “and to participate in the education of the community, especially in recognizing suspicious behavior, not fixating on what might term suspicious persons.”

    The students working on forming the board feel the respect for student opinion. “There’s a mutual understanding that we’re in this planning processing together,” says Weinberg sophomore Abby Chu, who represents the Asian Pacific American Coalition. “They definitely take everything into consideration.”

    The board will have four purposes: awareness — educating the campus about what to do when stopped by the police, communication — an integral part of awareness education, reporting — essentially race and crime statistics, and monitoring.

    “[Monitoring is] the one that people are really disputing over,” Chu says. “The answer we always get [from the administration] is ‘Oh, it’s still in the planning process.’”

    For “monitoring,” Chu and other Coalition of Colors members are pushing for a more active board, one that could enforce diversity programs with the police and be a safe space for students to report racial profiling incidents. Chu says the administration wants “a passive board,” one that will simply monitor. The details of what this means remain shaky. With something so new for both the administrative side and the student side, everything sounds tentative. The formation of a preliminary board is not expected until next year at the earliest.

    That doesn’t mean things haven’t already changed. Students who’ve felt they’ve experienced racial profiling like Tyris Jones, Josh Williams and Kamau shared the consensus that Lewis’s engagement with students in pursuing a solution to the discomfort has been sincere. Kamau feels the difference in his day to day experience already, and he attributes that to Lewis’s hard work.

    As of time of publication, Kamau has not been stopped by the police this year. And at the end of October, Lewis revealed another plan in hopes of increasing the comfort of students — all police officers will soon be required to carry business cards that must be given out any time they stop a student. “The purpose of the card is if someone has a compliment or a complaint, they can file it by the officer’s name,” says Chu.

    As for Dr. Harold's assertion that the police department is not the only source of the problem? He may be right — at this point, time seems to be the ultimate issue. In an email interview, interim Director of Multicultural Student Affairs Tamara Johnson explained some of her office’s plans to help make the minority experience on campus more comfortable: marketing student-unifying programming to a wider crowd; meeting with students, faculty, staff and administrators to discuss diversity needs in other campus offices; organizing an MSA Advisory Board to address student feedback. But like with the Police Advisory Board, Johnson did not have any specifics, and most initiatives remain in the planning process, with the only given timeline being “a considerable amount” of time.

    “It is important for everyone to understand that MSA is in the early stages of our transition,” Johnson says. “It takes time to develop effective plans and obtain feedback from multiple sources.”

    Perhaps knowledge of the slow moving nature of administrative planning is what prompted President Morton Schapiro to express a sentiment of individual student effort toward diversity at the beginning of this year. “[Celebrate] the diversity of our student body by introducing yourself to someone who looks or sounds different than you,” an email sent out early fall says.

    Then at a forum discussing the blackface incident, Schapiro reiterated the message of student accountability in addition to an administrative one. “You have as much responsibility as I do as President,” he said at the end of the forum. “Go out there and put yourself in uncomfortable situations. If it’s just me working on it, then nothing’s going to happen.”

    * Kamau's last name has been withheld to protect their privacy.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.