A petition created Sunday calling for USC and President Carol Folt to acknowledge anti-Black racism in light of nationwide protests of police brutality has amassed nearly 5,000 signatures to date.
Rising senior Jephtha Prempeh, who started the petition, said they decided to write it after growing frustrated by the absence of a message regarding the demonstrations from the University administration, campus organizations and media outlets. Prempeh created the petition before Folt sent a letter about the protests to the USC community Sunday afternoon — six days after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked public outcry.
“Everybody in the country is seeing what is going on right now, and I think it’s wildly irresponsible to be in leadership of so many young people and to not have already felt the need to say something,” said Prempeh, who is majoring in nongovernmental organizations and social change. “A statement should have been made initially, just seeing all this turmoil.”
Born in Minneapolis, Prempeh said they felt a connection to the city, where protests broke out last week after Floyd’s death. Prempeh said the incident, which catalyzed demonstrations across the country, prompted them to reflect on Black students’ place at USC and the experience of being Black at a predominantly white institution.
“As a Black student at USC, I felt like I’ve had a lot of times where my voice has been silenced, where I’ve been underestimated and undervalued and undersupported,” Prempeh said. “Now that we’re all home, and so many people are angry and unemployed and going through so much, I think it’s become a time more than ever to really speak about how to reform this nation.”
Justice Schiappa, a rising senior majoring in writing for screen and television who signed Prempeh’s petition, said the University should have taken more actionable steps toward supporting its Black community.
“It’s very easy [for USC administrators] to say that they support their Black students, but it’s clear that without taking action and being open to the conversation, that they’re not doing things the way they should be,” Schiappa said. “I’d be disappointed in the administration but not completely surprised.”
Ayoni Thompson, a rising senior majoring in popular music performance, also believed Folt’s letter would seem more sincere had it enumerated specific changes in policy and inclusion that the University would enact to better advocate for Black students. Thompson said she would especially have liked USC to clarify whether it would provide financial support to local and national efforts, such as Black Lives Matter and protester bailout funds, dedicated to supporting the demonstrations.
“Long before this conversation even began, we’ve tried to make our voices clear,” Thompson said. “[Folt’s letter] felt very performative, and I’m seeing a trend of … our leaders at school or brands coming out and issuing these blanket statements but not actually doubling down and committing to policy changes, which is what we need.”
Alia Atkins, a rising senior majoring in political science and creative writing who signed the petition after the communitywide email, said she was glad Folt addressed the ongoing protests but hopes the letter marks the beginning of a broader commitment to continuously address racism on and off campus.
“[I] hope … Folt doesn’t see it as a one-time thing — she made her statement, so she doesn’t have to talk about this ever again,” Atkins said. “In today’s world, you have to be actively and vocally anti-racist.”
Prempeh said they believe USC’s response to the protests is especially important given its large proportion of Black student-athletes, whose programs generate a significant portion of the University’s revenue. They also cited students’ historically prominent roles in demonstrations and movements for social change and the responsibility of schools like USC to stand with the individuals they educate.
“We look back at the most tumultuous political times and see that college students have often been the ones to incite the change,” Prempeh said. “In a lot of ways, college students are the future of the communities that they live in because you bring so many minds together that are looking to learn and paying to learn. There’s an incentive to actually do something better.”
When reached for comment, the University referenced Folt’s Sunday letter to the USC community and declined to speak further on the petition.
After the University opted not to elaborate on its response to the petition beyond citing Folt’s letter, several students said they found themselves distrusting the USC administration’s alleged dedication to supporting its diverse student body.
“This is one of the rawest times in my life; I feel completely exposed as a Black person, and I only know that I can trust in places by seeing what they have vocalized about the movement so far,” Atkins said. “Whether or not [organizations] have spoken at all, it’s been my way of acknowledging, ‘This is either a safe place right now, or I’m going to have a hard conversation and then I have to assess whether or not I want to still exist in that space.’”
Not responding to the petition should not be an option for USC administration, Thompson said. As the University continues to provide limited action toward addressing police violence and anti-Blackness on campus, she said the student body will be more adamant to push for these issues.
“The longer they wait, the louder we’ll be, so they can wait as long as they want to release a statement — it’s not going to stop us from garnering world attention to what’s going on,” Thompson said. “USC has a big Black community, and USC is in a gentrified area, so their silence is not an option — it’s simply not. There’s no way that their silence isn’t violent against us.”
As student organizations have begun to release statements on their social media platforms, Atkins said she hopes current conversations will broaden education on privilege and racial inequity across USC’s varied populations, particularly campus organizations, like those in Greek life, that hold significant influence within the student body.
“A lot of orgs on campus are vocal about a lot of social justice issues, like the Instagram pages of the sororities always do something for International Women’s Day or they consistently speak up about sustainability, other issues like that,” Atkins said. “You can’t go silent on a race issue just because it’s more uncomfortable for you.”
Along with providing mental health resources to the student body at this time, Atkins, although not enrolled in summer classes, said she believes the University should consider how protests against police killings of Black people affect students in virtual courses.
“I hope that [for] people who are enrolled in summer classes, then [USC] figure out some kind of way to be understanding — even more understanding than they have been about COVID,” Atkins said. “Right now, people are having a really hard time concentrating. They need to make sure that professors understand that this is a valid excuse for students to be taking mental health days and to be taking off from class during this time.”
In writing the petition, Prempeh said they wanted to bring attention to USC’s responsibility for ensuring its students feel safe and heard. Prempeh said they hope to see the University continue to advocate on behalf of its Black population after widespread protests and collective outrage subside.
“We have to continue to play an active role in fighting this anti-Blackness, and we have to continue to be on the side of Black students in our student population at large,” Prempeh said. “If any one student doesn’t feel like they are empowered, then that means that we’re not doing a good enough job to all of our students.”
Shaylee Navarro contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Jephtha Prempeh’s preferred pronouns. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.