Letter to the Editor: Justice delayed is justice denied

On June 11, amid the national uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality, President Carol Folt announced in a missive to the USC community that the Board of Trustees voted to remove the name and bust of noted racist and eugenicist Rufus von KleinSmid from a historic University building. 

Folt further acknowledged that the USC community had been fighting for the name change for years. The removal of his name from a building memorializing him is certainly a good thing, but this acknowledgement begs the question: Why is the Board just now voting to rid USC of this obvious monument to hate? Were they searching for a sense of occasion? Did they just now finally awaken to the scourge of racism in this country? On our campus?

Earlier this month, I wrote a letter to the editor to the Daily Trojan listing 10 commitments the administration could make to support Black Trojans. Student activist Jephtha Prempeh created a Change.org petition titled “Carol Folt and USC MUST Acknowledge the Fight Against Antiblackness,” which has now amassed more than 7,000 signatures. The Black Student Assembly wrote a letter calling the USC community to action with eight specific requests. USC’s Latinx Student Assembly, Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation and United Black Student-Athletes Association are among other student organizations and organizers who have made similar demands surrounding representation and equity on campus.

No person or organization is asking for anything that student advocates and community members haven’t been organizing for and demanding for years. To rename VKC in the wake of one of the largest uprisings against anti-Black racism and police brutality in the United States, all while ignoring and side-stepping other pressing demands, is a failed attempt by USC leadership to pacify Black students and allies seeking justice. Maybe the pacification would have worked had this moment been simply a moment, but this moment is also a movement.

To meet this moment — one of unprecedented recognition of the reality of violent systemic racism — USC must commit to reimagining the Department of Public Safety and disinvesting from the Los Angeles Police Department. In her letter, Folt announced her intention to create a Community Advisory Board to advise “the university on best practices regarding safety, policing, and the engagement of DPS with our community.” The name gives it away, but this Advisory Board would be simply that, advisory — meaning no teeth, no real mandate to get anything done. It is also worth noting this Community Advisory Board is the almost-forgotten brainchild of a 2015 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce, which in and of itself was a toothless committee. 

The 2015 DEI Taskforce recommended more than 20 changes, and according to Folt “it brought about a number of changes.” That number appears to be two: diversity liaisons and online diversity demographic data. Former graduate student Philana Payton served on the 2015 DEI Taskforce and detailed her frustrations working on the committee in a Twitter thread soon after Folt’s June 11 message. Payton noted that 10-20 students met weekly for the entirety of the 2015-16 school year, devoting countless hours to the committee, only for the vast majority of recommendations to go unimplemented. 

It is then truly something to see Folt acknowledge this fact and in the same breath announce her intention to revive the taskforce “to evaluate and strengthen our support for DEI programs” and “to identify the structural and institutional processes that perpetuate racism and inequality.” We are past the identification stage. So many of the main institutional problems at USC are not ambiguous, and they are definitely not new. As I noted in my previous op-ed, to think so is to ignore and erase the actionable demands Black community members have consistently brought to the administration well before the recent protests.

On Tuesday, as an initial draft of this op-ed criticizing USC leadership’s penchant for committees, surveys and platitudes over action was being edited by the Daily Trojan editorial team and I, Folt released a second letter to the USC community. The letter addressed experiences of racism on campus shared by Black Trojans through the recently created Instagram account @black_at_usc. In under a week more than 300 testimonials were shared, and the page has since garnered more than 10,000 followers. 

I don’t think @black_at_usc is a page for Black Trojans because Black Trojans already know racism is pervasive on campus — these are our lived realities. It’s for everyone else. The courage shown by students, staff and faculty who shared their experiences has made the page into a true cultural juggernaut. The administration could not ignore it. And yet, parts of me wish it did. That is how truly disappointed the Black community at USC and I feel about Folt’s June 30 letter. 

The letter, true to form, delivered a few platitudes (beautiful as always), named anti-Black and systemic racism (at least there’s this) and announced a few non-initiatives to supplement the other non-initiatives posed in her June 11 letter. 

These are the four non-initiatives:

  1. Interviews and community recommendations to hear more about racialized experiences from Black members of the Trojan Family. The listening part is over.
  2. Public Forums? No reasoning attached, but even if there was, the listening part is over.
  3. Surveys of our entire community to hear from all USC undergraduates and to know how every racial and ethnic group uniquely experiences our campus climate. THE LISTENING PART IS OVER.
  4. Multi-year professional learning opportunities focused on equity, diversity and inclusion for all USC employees. Make it mandatory and then this one can count as an initiative.

To meaningfully address the demands of the movement, USC must listen to and act on behalf of Black Trojans rather than pay lip service. The listening part is over. Black Trojans have spoken. A new DEI task force will not come up with anything that hasn’t been said before and without power it will have little to no impact beyond wasting students’ time. The same goes for student interviews, public forums and community surveys. 

Black students are not at USC to be diversity, equity and inclusion advisers. It is time to end the endless cycle of committees and surveys. If USC leaders want to put an end to the structures that perpetuate racism and inequality, they should take a look in the mirror. It took the public killing of Black folk just to remove the name of an infamous racist from a building. I wonder what it will take to admit more Black students or to hire more Black professors? 

Michael Mikail

USC Class of 2021