The Opportunities and Challenges of #BeingBlackAtClemson

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Students set up tents along the sidewalk and steps of Sikes Hall, the building that houses the administration offices of Clemson University.

Spending a week sleeping in a tent on campus, taking turns with your friends skipping classes so that someone can hold your spot in line, and spending time talking with other students about what changes to expect in the upcoming season is a tradition at Clemson University. But during the last few weeks of this past school year, the cluster of tents could be found around Sikes Hall, not Death Valley; students were saving spots in line to hold protest signs, not pick up football tickets; and the talk was of hopeful changes in the racial climate of campus, not which new recruit would be the latest football great to wear orange and purple.

On April 11th, the Monday before the last week of classes, a group of students defaced a banner highlighting African-American heritage at Clemson by hanging a bunch of bananas from the sign. Being what seemed to be the latest racially motivated incident on a campus more than periodically plagued by such acts, the “banana incident” spurred student action. Yet, according to documents released under a Freedom of Information Act and published by Campus Reform, two students identified themselves as the culprits, and the documents indicated Vice President of Student Affairs Almeda Jacks believed the act was in fact a prank gone unintentionally viral when students intended to throw bananas into a construction project on campus but decided to hang them from a pole instead. In her correspondence Jacks admitted that “Nobody will believe that” (it wasn’t racially motivated) and suggested that the “Dean of Students has the authority to use [this] as a teachable moment.”

The following day the University released an email to the student body confirming that the students responsible for the defacement had come forward, although no punishment would be issued. The email failed to point out that the students would not be punished because the Administration did not believe that the incident was racially motivated, rather they decided to proceed as if the suspicions of many on campus were true. Tuesday evening, several members of the University’s staff held an open forum for members of the Clemson community to voice concerns about racial tensions on campus, specifically highlighting the banner defacement.

In the wake of the forum, and the news that the defacers would not receive punishment, Wednesday, around 100 students, as well as a few professors and staff, marched through campus holding signs and chanting, “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.” The march ended at the steps of Sikes Hall, the building that houses Clemson’s administrative offices. Over the next nine days student protestors gathered in the halls and on the steps of Sikes, and the #SikesSitIn became a fixture on the front steps of Clemson’s campus.

For over a week, a small tent village lined the brick pathway and traveled up the staircase outside Sikes Hall. Among the dozen tents and air mattresses, an area was designated as the kitchen, stocked with a standard college-sized mini-fridge and a sizable amount of food and water. Trash, recycling, and compost bins were stationed to the side. A lending library sat next to the front door of Sikes, and throughout the day students sat along the steps, laptops plugged into a daisy chain of extension cords and power strips, studying for the exams they would soon be taking. Their numbers varied from the several dozen sleeping there full time to upwards of 100 or 150 students during peak hours, and something was always going on.

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Typically students were talking with each other about their experiences at Clemson. For the majority of the protestors this meant recounting the experiences of being part of the minority on campus – black students. And typical of the experiences recounted were instances of racial prejudice. From Confederate flags being hoisted on campus flagpoles and found in dorm windows to “Bloods and Crips” themed fraternity parties and being greeted with racial slurs on social media and in person, the experiences shared ran the gambit of what it was like to be a black student at Clemson. The students shared their experiences on twitter, and in addition to the #SikesSitIn and #BeingBlackAtClemson hashtags, #ReasonsWhy, #WhereAreThey, and #MoreThanBananas catalogued a conversation of examples and questions about the black experience on campus.

But not everyone wanted in on the conversation. Despite the protestors taking up residence on the steps of the administration building in an attempt to involve the university’s leadership, Clemson’s administrators seemed to go out of their way to shut down the protest.

Administrative Resistance 

After arriving on the steps of Sikes Hall around 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, several protestors spent the first night of the sit-in inside the lobby. The following afternoon, at 3:59 p.m., just half an hour before the offices were to close, Clemson University President Jim Clements sent an email to students, faculty, and staff with the subject line “Dear Clemson Family: Diversity Update.” Opening, “This week has seen positive activities regarding Diversity and Inclusion at Clemson University,” the email continued to detail a list of initiatives and “issues regarding Diversity and Inclusion at Clemson over the recent past.”

Although there was no mention of the protestors sitting on the steps of Sikes, there was recognition of various, though unsuccessful or unresolved, diversity initiatives the Administration had attempted to initiate in the past. The fact that Tillman Hall still held the name of an outspoken white supremacist – despite the “actions and views of Benjamin Tillman [being] repugnant to our values” – and the offering of a space within the Strom Thurmond Institute – named for a South Carolina Senator who was opposed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act – as a home for a campus multicultural center were among the items briefly discussed.

Headlining the list was a series of points regarding recent increases in funding to a few programs and scholarships dealing with minority recruitment to the university’s student population. According to the figures within the email, around $2 million in funding was directed towards diversifying student recruitment over the last two fiscal years; $540,000 in 2014-15 and $1.5 million in 2015-16. However, documents from Clemson’s Budget Office show the proposed budget for scholarships and fellowships allotted from the nearly $1 billion total budget for the university, totaled $110.5 million for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and $105.3 million for 2015-16. While $2 million seems like a sizable contribution in the mind of the average college student, according to those numbers, during 2014-15 just less than .5% of the proposed budget for scholarships went to efforts aimed at increasing the diversity of the student population, increasing to 1.4% in 2015-16.

After the email was released, three members of the administration appeared before the protestors on the steps of Sikes to present them with a printed copy. The protestors went into the lobby of Sikes at 4:15 p.m. to discuss a response to the administration’s email while Max Allen, the President’s Chief of Staff, Almeda Jacks, Vice President of Student Affairs, and Doug Hallenbeck, a member of the Student Affairs executive staff, waited outside.

Twenty-five minutes later, Allen and several other administrators entered Sikes and told the students they “need to wrap [this discussion] up in about five minutes.” Jacks added that the Administration wanted to hear feedback and suggestions and that “maybe this is not enough time to read though [the email], but…we are giving you until 5:30 p.m. and you will leave [Sikes].”

Jacks went on to inform the gathered students that should they choose to not leave the building they would face the possibility of arrest, and the penalties that come along with it. “You may get all kinds of sanctions, I’m not saying that you will, but could you be suspended? Yes. Could you be expelled? Yes. Could you get probation? Yes.”

The administration met the student’s call for discussion after nearly 28 hours by giving them an hour to discuss and remember the administration’s previous unsuccessful attempts at diversity inclusion on campus. To the protestors this sent a clear message – they needed to accept their place at Clemson; outside on the steps or be arrested and possibly excluded from the school. After being detained for more than an hour after the building closed, shortly before 7 p.m. April 14th, in front of crowd now more than 200 strong, D.J. Smith, Kayla Williams, Ian Anderson, A.D. Carson, and Rae-Nessha White, later dubbed the #ClemsonFive, emerged from Sikes, having been charged with trespassing on the grounds of a school they pay to attend.

Growth of the Student Community 

Friday morning students reconvened in the lobby of Sikes to finish their discussion of the email Clements sent out the afternoon before. Sophomore Sherman Jones, clad in pajamas with a blanket on his shoulders, helped lead a discussion of gathered students, faculty, and staff, for several hours. Students addressed the ways the administration had attempted to alter the racial climate on campus, and, with the advice of several Student Affairs faculty, and a handful of professors, produced suggestions and pathways towards amending the problems.

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At 4 p.m. that afternoon, the #ClemsonFive and several leaders of the sit-in read a statement they drafted to the gathered protestors. Their statement, also posted on SeeTheStripes.com, called out the administration for failing to acknowledge the presence of the #SikesSitIn by sending the university an email with the subject “Diversity Update” while never mentioning the actions of the students on campus calling for greater diversity.

While reading the response at the steps of Sikes, A.D. Carson, a Ph.D. student and one of the #ClemsonFive, emphasized the administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge the protestors, “as it does not promote honesty, transparency, nor does it resonate with the request of a clear line of communication between administration and students.” Yet despite these challenges, Carson assured those gathered that the sit-in would last until an adequate response was given by the administration, the steps of Sikes would be occupied, and the conversation would continue.

The space in front of Sikes became known to the protestors as the new “Political and Multicultural Center” and was host to several events featuring students from various minority groups on campus over the weekend. Groups from local churches held prayer circles, books about diversity and injustice facilitated conversation, and the winner of Clemson’s #PrideWeek16 drag show performed his winning routine. Many campus minority groups voiced their support for the #SikesSitIn over its duration. Black athletes from many of the school’s teams took the time to appear and give their support to the protestors, as did members of the campus’ LGBTQ community and several minority fraternities and sororities.

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The community that swelled around the #SikesSitIn brought something new to Clemson for a lot of students. Fred Tugas, a graduate student who was invited to perform his winning routine from the #PrideWeek16 drag show was glad to be invited; “It truly makes that statement that it isn’t just a black and white thing, it really is a diversity inclusion issue we have at Clemson.” In the mind of many students belonging to the campus minorities, this was the first time that they felt like they were truly part of the “Clemson Family” the university boasts about in their promotional campaigns. In Carson’s words, “This is not about any opposition to any group at Clemson, this is a demonstration for the idea of a Clemson family being just that.” Yet, due to the actions of Clemson’s administration, some groups that wanted to give their support were not allowed to show it.

The Challenge of the Administration

With a small community thriving in the shadow of their building, Clemson University’s administrators renewed their efforts to contain the #SikesSitIn over the weekend. By Friday night, rumors had appeared on social media that the Clemson chapter of Zeta Phi Beta wanted to hold their new member induction ceremony at Sikes in support of the demonstration, but were told by administrators the ceremonies would have to take place somewhere else.

Vice President of Student Affairs Almeda Jacks clarified these actions in an article appearing in the Clemson student newspaper on Monday, April 18th. According to the article, Associate VP of Student Affairs Chris Miller informed the sorority they would have to find a more suitable location for their ceremony because the crowds expected to attend would number more than 500 students, and having that many students near the road was a “life safety issue.” Jacks’ clarification in the article echoed language she used when explaining the possibility of arrest to the protestors the previous Thursday; “[We told the sorority] You may be put on probation…whatever the student organizations do, as much as revoking a charter, if we have to.”

Yet, sophomore Katie Hilton, a member of Zeta Phi Beta’s most recent class, who filled out the forms requesting the space said, “There was never 500 to 700 people put on [any forms].” In fact, according to their website, the Zeta Phi Beta chapter at Clemson has only had just over 100 inductees since its establishment in 1984.

Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. the #ClemsonFive and several protest leaders had their first, and only, meeting with President Clements during administrative hours. For more than an hour, behind the closed doors of a third floor conference room, Clements’ executive leadership team talked with students about the racial climate on campus and the #SikesSitIn, now deep into its sixth day.

In a campus-wide email sent the next day at 11:56 a.m., President Clements officially recognized the #SikesSitIn for the first time – seven days after students began sleeping on the steps of the administration building. Failing to include the word “diversity” in the body of the email, Clements assured the students that “this issue” was something he could relate to, and something that “goes to the core of who we are as an institution.” He characterized the conversation between his leadership team and the protest leaders as “thoughtful, honest, and candid,” and said that he “believed progress was made.”

The students that attended that meeting told a different version of events. After meeting with administrators Monday afternoon for over an hour, the #ClemsonFive and protest leaders returned to let the students gathered on Sikes’ steps how things had gone. Although the gathered crowd expected the student representatives to come out the front doors of Sikes Hall, perhaps with a statement and some members of the administration, they were shuffled out the side door, reminiscent of a time before the campus was integrated, while the administration never appeared before the protestors.

After a short statement, the protest leaders asked the crowd if there were any questions. One protestor asked, “Did you feel respected as student leaders speaking on behalf of a community on campus?”

Several of the core group shared in a disheartened laugh. An emphatic “No” was issued by others. Carson elaborated; “Actually we felt disrespected, blatantly disrespected.” Other members of the core group added; “Not just as students, but as human beings.” “Not only verbally but non-verbally as well…there was huffing and puffing, and rolling eyes.” “Body language speaks a lot, when people talk to you as if you are not intelligent enough to understand whats going on…[the disrespect] is blatantly clear.”

An Opportunity to be Heard?

Although frustration began to mount as the students felt their voices were still being ignored, there was at last some suggestion of movement down a path. Clements’ Tuesday email closed with details of three community discussions to be held that day and the next where students and community members could come to discuss the topics of campus climate, a multicultural center, issues that affect the workforce diversity, and the support of underrepresented students.

It appeared plans to bring a change to campus climate might finally have been starting to take form. Three community forums were planned, and the administration had promised to deliver a follow up response to the forums on Thursday. Some students, such as sophomore La’Portia Perkins, had cautiously optimistic hopes about the administration; “I understand that as a president, even with an administrative team, you can’t do everything. But if they are in the right mindset and if their heart is in the right place, they will do the right thing.”

However, the record of the administration’s actions in recent years had left room to doubt in the minds of most protestors. “I think they are unwilling to do a lot of things,” A.D. Carson said, “They haven’t given [us] any indication they are willing to do the things they are capable of doing. So if that history is any indicator…it will underwhelm.”

Tuesday afternoon, President Clements hosted a banquet for the year’s inductees into the National Scholars Program. While smiling and addressing this small group of all white students, Clements remarked on how they had overcome the challenges they faced at Clemson, while taking advantage of the numerous opportunities. A few hours later Clements stood in a packed theater room in the Hendrix Student Center before a vastly more diverse crowd, and with a demeanor reflecting inconvenience, opened the first of three “Diversity Action Forums.”

The three forums provided an array of explanations from the administration and feedback from the community. Thursday afternoon a group of more than 250 had gathered on the steps of Sikes in anticipation of an announcement from President Clements and the administration. Yet at 4:15 p.m., just a quarter hour before the offices were to close, there had still been no announcement from the administration. The leaders of the protest decided they would make a statement at 5 p.m. addressing the need for the sit-in to continue into the weekend.

Just before 5 p.m., Clements’ Chief of Staff Max Allen came to address the protestors. He told those gathered that he had heard them and their cry for diversity over the last two weeks. Reading from a prepared statement, he assured them that the “administration is certainly interested in learning more about everything that is going on here,” and that he was ready to share the administration’s response with “plans, dates, and accountability;” though he did not have the plan with him – it would be released via email soon.

When Allen finished speaking, the protest leaders stepped up to give their address. Carson opened by acknowledging the statement they were about to give was prepared with no knowledge of the administration having produced an action plan – the offices had closed for the day before the announcement was made. The protest leaders had thus concluded to suspend the #SikesSitIn, due to the administration’s lack of action and response. Then, minutes after the news the administration had been waiting for nine days to hear, President Clements finally released a detailed plan.

The email laid out eight action points the administration vowed to pursue in hopes of adjusting the campus climate. Finding a permanent location for a multicultural center, increasing minority representation in faculty and student populations, and training employees in better diversity education programs were among the plans outlined and each of the points had a more specific expectation of timeline and which members of the administration would be responsible for overseeing and implementing the steps. And, although no specific details of the plans were laid out, Clements’ email showed a promising first step in the right direction.

How Did We Get Here?

Creating a detailed plan to adjust campus climate was certainly a positive move, yet the critical thing to watch will be what type of followthrough there is with the plan. Racial tensions are not a new phenomenon on Clemson’s campus. Students have held marches calling for a change in campus climate multiple times a year dating back to the Cripmas Party in December of 2014. Clemson’s previous president, Jim Barker commissioned a series of task forces, one of which investigated the campus climate, to examine elements of the Clemson community before he left office. The intention was to have the task forces present their findings and recommendations to the incoming president so that they would be prepared when they took the job.

At a Clemson University Senate Faculty meeting on Oct. 8, 2013, then Chief Diversity Officer Leon Wiles “explained that he was working to craft accessible and inclusive policies…to ensure diversity in student enrollment and faculty employment.” He also reported to the Faculty Senate that the Campus Climate Task Force was reviewing their findings and “will be suggesting ways to improve campus climate.” Unfortunately, this is the last public record of the actions of that task force. One member of the Campus Climate Task Force, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, said that they believed the recommendations were presented to President Clements in early March of 2014, soon after he assumed the role of Clemson’s 15th President, but no mention of the presentation or the recommendations could be found in public record.

At another Senate Faculty meeting on Dec. 9, 2014, following the Cripmas party incident, Clemson Provost Bob Jones reported that over the past weekend there was “an unsanctioned party that greatly offended the African American Community. President Clements is working on the issue with meetings and forums. There is a plan…to initiate campus wide cultural learning.”

This plan had finally been presented, 499 days later, but Clemson’s administration provided a history of actions to give doubt to their sincerity. Their plan seemed anemic – just action points, a person responsible, and the semester/year something was expected to be accomplished. Now as the summer break draws to a close it seems the Administration has met the first of their plan’s points, though the majority of the work is yet to be done. A temporary space has been identified on campus for the student multicultural center and several new signs have been installed around campus telling a more complete version of the school’s history. Although a good step forward, more substantial changes are yet to come. An increase in student and faculty diversity, a “discussion to include the phrase ‘diversity and inclusive excellence’ as one of the students’ core values”, and a restructuring of the university’s CU1000 course (a required course for all incoming students) to “improve students’ understanding of their responsibility as members of a diverse community” are suppose to be addressed and implemented during the upcoming academic years.

This small change only took a handful of campus marches over several years, nine days camping on the brick lawn of the administration building, and an unknown number of forums hosted by President Clements. Literally, the number of forums Clements has hosted (prior to the three in April of 2016) is unknown; a representative of Clemson’s Office of Diversity Affairs (now the Office for Inclusion and Equity) said that the president’s diversity forums were “not the type of thing that we keep on record.” And when asked for any notes taken during the forums, the reply was that “[we] are unaware of anyone taking notes at those talks.”

Hopefully going forward Clements and the Administation will carry a pen and paper when they seek the opinions of the Clemson Family, otherwise Sherman Jones, and the rest of the #SikesSitIn have promised that come August 17th, the steps of Sikes will be occupied once again.

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