Unless you live under a rock, you know that Tim Wolfe stepped down as President of Mizzou this week. You know the details, I’ll spare you. We’ve heard much about the lessons from Mizzou: the collective power of black athletes for social change, the value of solidarity among races within a struggle and so on. There are, however, a few lessons that we didn’t quite catch from this latest racial happening. Full disclosure: I’m saving the best for last.
In the first place, we should understand that black lives still don’t matter and to a degree, white ones don’t either. The level of protest among students was heightened at Mizzou when Jonathan Butler, a graduate student, commenced a hunger strike in order to force Wolfe’s resignation. The possibility of Butler’s death wasn’t enough to force any action. Further, even the (majority white) faculty had serious qualms about the atmosphere under which they were laboring, going so far as to vote no confidence in the Chancellor. None of it mattered, seemingly, until the football team got involved and of course, money was on the line. Not hard to find a new monkey to run the show but extremely difficult to replace a football team and millions of dollars in a week.
Secondly, most of us missed the level of sacrifice required to bring about real change. Yes, Wolfe resigned but the pressure was applied through tremendous sacrifice. Jonathan Butler’s willingness to literally put his life on the line represents a level of sacrifice few would dare aspire to. The tipping point at Mizzou, however, was when the football team and their head coach decided that they were willing to sit it out. Those young men put it all on the line. This was not merely pressing send as part of an online campaign or writing a letter to their Congressman. Their refusal to play could have led to dire consequences. Many of those young men risked their scholarships and with them their futures when they took that stance. Their head coach, a state employee salaried over $4 million a year, was also putting his future on the line.
We tend to speak of what we’d like to see changed but seldom are we willing to sacrifice one comfort to achieve it. Are we willing to change where we shop, what we drive, where we deposit our checks or go without a number of conveniences to force change? I’ve met many people who complain about the evils of Wall Street and yet, won’t switch banks because they love the convenience of the many ATM’s their evil bank provides. Really? Are we, collectively, willing to sacrifice like the young men at Mizzou did, consequences be damned? Are we willing to, like the maids during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, risk even our jobs if need be to bring about change? If not, no amount of Facebook posts will get us to our goals.
Most importantly, the lesson we missed in Mizzou is that while we do have the capacity to bring about change when we act collectively and sacrificially, that ability must be directed toward ownership and building up black institutions. Black students felt, over time, that they were not being heard or protected. Even so, they continued to attend these schools and hand over untold millions of dollars to do so; this meant continuing to empower an institution that treated them so. Feeling they could no longer tolerate the conditions, they took extreme measures to force the institution to be more considerate of them; an institution that was built by slave labor, in which black students have no ownership stake and continue to exist in a position of vulnerability, from day to day.
This should be a signal to black people that our efforts of solidarity and sacrifice are necessary but must not be directed primarily to that which that will not ultimately build power for us. After a new president is named at Mizzou, black athletes will continue to make millions for a school that many black students are now staying away from because it cannot ensure their safety after the peaceful protests to remove President Wolfe. It will still be necessary to have black student groups to constantly stay on guard for differing forms of racism, all while they continue to hand over their tuition dollars. None of this would be the case at a black college. Perhaps sacrifice and solidarity should be applied to that which will ultimately increase our strength as a community.