Call to action: Confronting racial injustice on campus

The graphic features ten demands made by USC students and campus organizations.
(Samantha DeNicola | Daily Trojan)

Amid national unrest over police brutality and racism across the country, the USC community has been experiencing an internal confrontation of campus anti-Blackness over the past few months. In the wake of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in late May following the killing of George Floyd, USC students, faculty, alumni and staff began mobilizing and creating lists of demands related to racism, sexism, affordability, diversity and inclusion, and more for the University and its programs to address. 

These demands, which have been compiled from student organizations, academic departments, faculty and student activists, began after hundreds of Black students, faculty, staff and alumni anonymously shared their experiences of racism and microaggressions through the Instagram account @black_at_usc. The account has inspired action from student organizations and faculty that demand concrete and systemic change from the University moving forward.

After Sol, a senior who uses a pseudonym for fear of retaliation, created the digital space and platform for Black Trojans to share their experiences, the University’s Instagram page issued a post acknowledging the shared testimony. One day later, President Carol Folt’s anti-racism initiatives were released, outlining programs USC would implement in response to hundreds of allegations of injustice, including focus group interviews with Black students, faculty, staff and alumni, public forums to discuss grievances, campus climate surveys and professional learning workshops for University employees.

Though the University pledged itself to action, many Black Trojans and community members at-large felt the plans fell dramatically short of what was needed. Some students took to social media to express their frustration and felt that forums and focus groups were further traumatizing and unnecessary.

In line with this frustration over the University’s allegedly lackluster response, more than 380 faculty members and three faculty councils from Concerned Faculty of USC sent a letter to Folt and other administrators July 8, which criticized USC’s plans for addressing systemic racism and anti-Blackness.

While the letter compared USC’s response to peer institutions, alleging that UCLA and Stanford University’s action items were more comprehensive and appropriate, the letter also acknowledged the ongoing work of students.

“We have read hundreds of moving testimonies from our students and staff members on the Black_at_USC Instagram account about their experience of racism on campus,” the letter read, critiquing Folt’s initiative to survey students about such experiences. “Our students do not need to further educate us on their experience; they need our active support through material change to USC’s campus structures and culture.”

Concerned Faculty’s letter comprises a comprehensive list of demands, including addressing racial profiling, Department of Public Safety funding and practices; focusing on diversity and trauma support for Black students with increased mental health resources; improving curriculum diversity and requirements; hiring, retaining and tenuring more Black academics and women of color and considering how USC’s previous fall reopening plans adversely impact Black and Indigenous people and people of color, all of whom are at the highest risk of infection.

The list of demands from faculty was released at the same time Sol decided to compile a list of communal grievances after believing University administrators were not committed enough to real change. In a post on @black_at_usc, Sol invited Black students to submit demand ideas to present to USC; she received more than 300 responses.

The demands were posted to the account July 9 and called for Folt to reevaluate her earlier initiatives. The demands include divesting from DPS, refunneling funds to community efforts that support Black and Indigenous students and students of color, reevaluating the necessity for officers to carry lethal weapons and the requirement of de-escalation training for all officers.

Similar to calls from Concerned Faculty, these demands also asked USC to hire and retain more Black faculty and launch investigations into professors named in testimony of racism experienced by students. Sol also received demands for USC to publish salary reviews and increase the Black student and faculty population to better reflect the demographics of the United States. According to USC’s 2019-20 Facts and Figures, approximately 3% of all faculty and 5% of students are Black — 13% of the U.S. population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

In addition to increasing USC’s Black student population, the demands further elaborate on the requisite steps the University needs to take in order to do so, including funding Black cultural spaces; reviving plans for a space for Black students in the USC Village; reestablishing the Awujo House resolution, a 24/7 cultural space for Black students; improving admission outreach and merit scholarship granting; reviving the Historically Black Colleges and Universities exchange program and dismantling Greek life. 

Efforts to increase spaces for Black students have been ongoing. In October 2014, students drafted a resolution in the wake of campus racial tensions to build the Awujo House. These efforts also sparked the “I, Too, Am USC” digital project that created a safe space for marginalized students on campus to share their experiences.

In her most recent address to USC on these concerns, Folt said that while the University has already started addressing ongoing issues, such as the removal of former USC president and eugenics leader Rufus von KleinSmid’s name from the Center for International and Public Affairs and the hosting of numerous webinars and forums, other initiatives are proceeding. 

Some ongoing actions include the reporting of incidents to the new Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX, the completed formation of a DPS Community Advisory Board, the continued creation of the Task Force on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the search underway for USC’s first chief inclusion and diversity officer. Folt also announced the launch of the First Generation Plus Success Center and expanded programming for marginalized students.

Student organizations and assemblies have also joined the fight for change, releasing their own petitions and lists of demands to the University. Undergraduate Student Government, in particular, has been at the center of discussions of exclusivity and racism on campus.

On July 7, USG President Truman Fritz resigned after multiple students came forward via submissions on the @black_at_usc page to accuse him of engaging in microaggressive and anti-Black behavior. USG Sen. Isabel Washington also resigned after crude text messages and conversations with former USG assistant director Nathaniel Manor about racial and religious groups surfaced on social media. Manor, who ran in the 2020-21 USG Senate elections, placed 13th in the race for 12 positions and would have succeeded Washington. However, in a letter to the undergraduate student body July 1, USG stated that the open position will not be open for Manor and will be filled at the beginning of the academic year. USG Vice President Rose Ritch stepped down after students alleged her complicity and silence in supporting Fritz.

USG said it is currently working on initiatives in response to student demands, including reevaluating USC’s relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department and DPS. USG also said Fraternity and Sorority Leadership Development has been discussing the revival of a Black House on Greek Row. Sen. Lennon Wesley III is in the initial stages of working on a project to foster office-student interaction through forums centered on the Black and Indigenous student and student of color experiences. 

“We know that as Student Government, we have a powerful platform to address things such as racial injustice, national issues, and discrimination,” USG wrote.

Work without compensation

A post on the Black Student Assembly's Instagram account detailing the demands of Black students to the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The demand featured calls for the recruitment of Black professors, for the school to highlight Black students achievements and the creation of better resources for enrolled Black students. The post is displayed on a MacBook Air with other posts detailing demands to other schools and to USC in the background.
School-specific demands, compiled by the Black Student Assembly,  include increasing the number of Black faculty and outreach programs. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

The Black Student Assembly, one of the student programming organizations under USG, has been at the forefront of student-led activism for the Black community. According to co-executive director Calvin Carmichael, he and the rest of BSA’s executive board have been working 20 to 30 hours each week to improve the student experience for Black students. 

“I feel like, especially at a large predominantly white institution, a lot of time, a lot of the work to improve the BIPOC student experience comes from BIPOC students doing that work, and I think USC needs to pay a lot of attention to that because at the end of the day, it’s something that we aren’t being compensated for,” Carmichael said. 

BSA is currently working with the administration to create bias training for DPS, as well as tackling a presented list of demands to DPS. The assembly is also collaborating with Concerts Committee to use the Welcome Back Concert as a platform to talk about current events, creating a fundraiser to raise money for the AmASSI Center for Black Wellness & Culture, a local organization focused on providing resources and information to improve the mental and community health of Black individuals, and working on a solidarity protest for the 2020 March on Washington. However, Carmichael said the University’s actions in response to BSA’s demands are not satisfactory for the organization and “are more performative than anything.” 

“This is the time where [the administration] should be listening to us with open arms, so that’s kind of what we’re expecting, but sometimes, they haven’t been like that,” Carmichael said. “We’re trying to figure out the balance of what we can and can’t get done. They need to be doing more. It’s like … ‘If you really want to put us as a priority, actually listen to us, really think about and understand what’s going on, and what students’ concerns are.’” 

Other programming organizations affiliated with USG have also begun to make internal organizational changes, while also holding the University community to a higher standard. According to Environmental Student Assembly co-director Jackson Fitzgerald, ESA is planning more events focused on cultural diversity, including a speaker panel on environmental justice and racism, and emphasizing working on events with other cultural organizations to share sustainability efforts with as many students as possible. ESA has also reopened its executive board applications to increase the diversity of the organization’s leadership. Originally, there were no Black students on ESA’s executive board, although all applicants were hired. 

Similarly, the Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment has only one Black student on its executive board, while the Latinx Student Assembly has none. 

“Now, more than ever, is the time for organizations to band together and to actually speak on the historic whiteness of the University as a whole, and their organizations,” said SAGE Executive Director Alexia Sambrano. “Us, as a part of USG, have kind of been complicit in the biases or the dismissal of student voices, which is wrong, and that’s something that, as organizations, we need to own up to.”

Evolving education

An arcuated red-bricked building, with its aisles partially lit and the courtyard shadowed by the partially exposed ceiling. Scattered white clouds and a blue sky overlook the building, with flags from various countries hang midway at the inner leg of each arch.
Student petitions have called for the renaming of the Von KleinSmid Center for several years, now known as the Center for International and Public Affairs following the removal of the name June 11 announced in a letter to the community from President Carol Folt. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

However, organizations outside of USG have also called for change within long-standing practices at the University. Delta Phi Epsilon, USC’s foreign service society and international relations professional fraternity, created a petition and letter to USC’s Political Science and International Relations department. The petition currently has more than 300 signatures and outlined demands related to anti-racism initiatives, including increased diversity within the department’s faculty and curriculum. 

“Our curriculum doesn’t focus nearly on developing countries, and if they do, it’s talking about them in conjunction with countries from the West,” DPE Diversity Chair Nana-ama Andoh said. “[We focus on] Europe, the United States and China, and that’s basically it. We rarely focus on Southeast Asian countries, African countries or Latin American countries.” 

According to Andoh, after the presentation of the petition and letter to the department, chairwoman Saori Katada and other members of POIR leadership reached out to DPE and will be having a meeting to discuss the demands presented. 

“I don’t want to leave USC in the same way that I came into it,” Andoh said. “It’s really important that everyone — it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white, Asian, whatever — everyone needs to take the steps to make sure they’re also doing the same thing. You want to see [USC] improve and do better for all students, not just people like you.”

Digital discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion and student-based mobilization have also been taking place within the Schools of Cinematic Arts, Dramatic Arts, Architecture and other programs. Students have also taken to social media to create lists of demands and a platform for students to call attention to closely-tied issues of campus gender-based violence, sexual assault and campus affordability. 

Black students in the Roski School of Art and Design and the School of Architecture posted a list of demands on BSA’s Instagram account, which include mandatory race and bias training for faculty, admiting more Black students, hiring more Black faculty, incorporating community-based initiatives for Black and brown students, integrating topics of class, race, sex, gender and culture into the curriculum and expanding financial aid for students, among other demands.

Students behind the Instagram account also created a list of demands advocating for increased financial aid, emergency grants for low-income students, expanded aid for undocumented students and a decrease in tuition by 35% for the duration of the pandemic. USC’s student-led Affordable Student Housing Initiative has also mobilized digital support through its Instagram account @uscashi to demand housing security for vulnerable students.

“The global pandemic created unstable living and learning environments for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students,” AffordableSC’s letter of demands to administrators read. “Through cutting financial aid, USC is placing disproportionate burden on students of color, undocumented students, and low-income students. The University therefore neglects its most vulnerable groups of students and continues to uphold systemic barriers.”

As the fall semester begins with students taking online classes from all across the world, students are continuing to mobilize with demands for change at the University through social media. Though some departments have met with student leaders and activists to begin addressing demands, a collective University response to these demands has yet to be seen.

Disclaimer: Mia Speier serves on the executive board of Delta Phi Epsilon.