UNC Has a White Supremacy Problem
Last Sunday, the Unsung Founders Memorial on McCorkle Place — dedicated to the enslaved and free persons of color who helped to build UNC — was desecrated with urine and defaced with racial slurs. This episode comes only three weeks after several members of North Carolina’s “Heirs to the Confederacy” white supremacist group brought guns and other weapons to campus (a Class I felony) and faced no arrests or consequences. These incidents occurred against the backdrop of months of protests around the fate of UNC’s felled Confederate memorial, protests at which UNC police have been accused of regularly brutalizing anti-Confederate demonstrators, instances of campus police pursuing false charges against anti-racist protesters to the point of lying under oath, and mere days following a blog post from the chairman of the Heirs to the Confederacy — who was among those armed on campus — declaring that he was “ready to kill” for the things that he believes in.
In other words, the defacement of the Unsung Founders Memorial, and all of the other brazen acts of white supremacist violence on the UNC campus over the past several months, have occurred with no surprise to those who have been sounding the alarm. They have occurred, and will continue to occur, because Carolina’s administration and police are active agents in the propagation of white supremacy.
This conclusion, though nearly unthinkable to most who proudly identify as Tar Heels, is the only reasonable understanding that remains given the incriminating lack of response from University leadership amid these crises. UNC has failed to arrest or trespass any of the neo-Confederate demonstrators who have come to its campus armed and threatening, opting instead to target the students who oppose them. The University continues to issue lukewarm responses to incidents of genuine violence and intimidation, showing no intention to seriously reform campus policy or policing. Let us not forget, also, that the grand proposal of the Board of Trustees to settle this unrest was to construct a multi-million dollar mausoleum to enshrine the relic of white supremacy which played a large part in stoking it. This behaviour is beyond indefensible. In fact, the indifference of the UNC administration to the white supremacists who covet its grounds amounts to a flagrant violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which promises all persons equal access to public goods and facilities without discrimination based on race or color. It is abundantly clear that those on this campus who are black — let alone those who have the audacity to be anti-racist — have no guarantee of protection from the powers charged to protect.
As several black faculty implored back in August, there is no moral equivalence to be had in these demonstrations. There are forces pushing for violence against and exclusion of black people on campus. Failure to oppose or stem this action is not indifference. It is violence in and of itself.
This campus cannot be, and has not been, equally accessible to all for this reason.
This campus cannot be, and has not been, safe, for this reason.
The Chapel Hill community has been inundated with constant threat, and more recently the physical presence, of illegal and dangerous activity by individuals who move to preserve a outwardly false interpretation of history. And the leadership of UNC-Chapel Hill has played no small role in the cultivation of this worldview by offering a venue for them to display it and legitimize it.
While one may argue that even neo-Confederates retain freedom of speech on public grounds, and a public university like UNC ought not shut its doors on those exercising a constitutional right, the actions of these non-university-affiliated hate groups have moved far beyond any claim of legality which they may once have hid behind. Most recently, the graffiti on the Unsung Founders Memorial included targeted threats to two UNC graduate students, Maya Little and Lindsay Ayling, who have been leaders in anti-racist activism on campus. Before that, as cited above, a man who openly declared to the world that he was prepared to kill and die for the lost cause narrative — the kind of threat not covered by First Amendment protections — sauntered on to campus with a handgun and the full knowledge that the police would not challenge him. Whatever constitutional defensibility these groups (or their sympathizers here on campus) might have retreated to is a farce. And so too is a farce the tacit permission which UNC police and leadership give them, on the basis of freedom of speech.
If there is one charge which a public institution of higher learning might be held to, it is the simple ask to make its grounds and its education as accessible as possible to the people of the state it serves. North Carolina is a diverse state, full of vibrant communities and rich cultures with a great deal each to offer to our home here in the Triangle and to the whole state over. The inaction of this state’s flagship public school to confront the demonstrably racist and violent “heritage keepers” who harass its students and siege its campus is more than a moral failing. It is an abandonment of the covenant UNC makes to each student who comes here, to provide them with a safe environment that encourages inspired learning. It is an abandonment of the responsibility which the University holds to the public, to make its efforts a force of good for all kind. It is, all things considered, a concession that the University of the People is only for some people, in 2019.
So yes, UNC has a white supremacy problem. It is manifested in the Heirs to the Confederacy, who come around to shout every so often. It is manifested in the Confederate statue which remains somewhere on campus to be assigned a new place next month, in the pepper spray canisters of campus police, and in the deafening silence of UNC’s leaders, who invite back the Confederates each time they leave. And with an alarming surge in white supremacist violence over the past few years, following episodes like those we have seen here, and on campuses and in spaces like ours, one might be tempted to ask: what will it take for these threats to be taken seriously?