After a summer of Black Lives Matter rallies, calls to defund the police and unsatisfying responses from the University of Georgia, Langston Leake said he was nervous to return to a campus where he sometimes did not feel welcome, as a Black student.
Leake, a UGA student returning for his master’s in public administration, spent the past five months social distancing in Atlanta with his family. He was wary of coming back to a predominantly white university.
Black and Brown students may feel bound by the baggage of the summer and feel that weight while returning to a university where they don’t feel acknowledged, Leake said.
According to the UGA Fact Book, there were 66.9% white students, 8.26% Black or African American students, 5.62% Hispanic and 0.10% American Indian students enrolled at UGA in fall 2019.
“I’ve always been a Black man in predominantly white spaces, and I’ve had to process police brutality and killings while in that space,” Leake said. “But this summer I was with my family and Black community, so returning back to these white spaces during these times is difficult.
He said this is a “chaotic” time for any student, but it is specifically for Black and Brown students because of racial tensions, police brutality and the increased risk that the COVID-19 pandemic presents for people of color.
Amid a summer of deaths and protests in the Black community, UGA President Jere Morehead received criticism for the university’s initial statement regarding racial inequality on May 31.
“At a time when we should be united against COVID-19, a common enemy that knows no barriers, we are instead being torn apart by senseless death and violence in communities across our country,” Morehead said in the statement, which did not mention racism or Black students.
The message quickly garnered attention after multiple students and alumni criticized Morehead on social media, voicing that he did not explicitly mention Black people nor the individuals that have been killed by the police.
However, in a second statement on June 1, Morehead readdressed the UGA community and condemned racism.
“To our Black students, faculty, staff and alumni, I want you to know that I stand with you,” Morehead said in his second statement. “I know we don’t always get it right, and mistakes are made.”
On July 20, Morehead established a task force on “race, ethnicity and community” and a planning committee on “diversity and inclusive excellence.” Morehead also announced the creation of community conversations held on campus and a later celebration of the 60th anniversary of desegregation at UGA.
Work for change
During her freshman year in 2018, Jackie Jefferson was called a racial slur on campus. Since then, she looks over her shoulder while walking through the university and in Athens. Jefferson, a junior entertainment and media studies major, said as a Black woman, there is a fear of not knowing what can happen to you or what people will say to you, even just as you’re walking down a hallway.
Jefferson said she saw a “White Lives Matter” poster in the Tate Student Center on Aug. 20, which confirmed her concerns that her non-Black classmates did not protect or support her community.
During the 2018 gubernatorial election between Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, Jefferson saw a divide on campus between white and BIPOC students. She fears she will see this again with students who don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement. Jefferson said she’s aware the administration has to “play politics” and have ties to Kemp, but she wishes she heard more support for BIPOC students from the university.
“I understand the university’s ties politically and to donors, and it’s not in their best interest in terms of money to speak on BLM or other movements,which sucks because money comes before my rights and protection at UGA,” Jefferson said.
Despite the disappointing response from UGA, Jefferson said the Black students on campus will not be discouraged and will not let the administration and students forget the movements and change that occurred this summer.
She hopes to see the university acknowledge and be held accountable for the bodies below Baldwin Hall, the buildings named after white supremacists and as a whole, become more inclusive.
Senior marketing major Cedrianna Davis said she also thinks UGA has valued donors over students’ needs over the years. She said she saw this when the university failed to properly acknowledge the bodies of slaves under Baldwin Hall and the struggles of Black and Brown students.
However, Davis said she feels hopeful and doesn’t allow herself to feel discouraged by the university’s lack of effort. Instead, she and others in the Black community plan to hold the university accountable this fall.
“Black students before me had to endure a lot for me to have the right to attend this school so I don’t want to say how I feel now is difficult,” Davis said. “Instead I’m just going to work for change because we will not be forgotten.”
As president of the Black Business Student Association and a member of Black Student Union, Davis hopes to see a statue to commemorate the bodies buried underneath Baldwin Hall or support for Black students.
Leake plans to focus on being more vocal for the political, economic and general needs for BIPOC students, especially as he works with students in his public administration courses.
Although being vocal can be tiring, Leake said it’s important to not “grow tired” of speaking on the needs of Brown and Black people, whether that’s in everyday life or in the media. Some of Leake’s biggest accomplishments are when he speaks out against injustice and sees changes in his peers, he said.
“Start your own little revolution,” Leake said to Brown and Black students at UGA “Spark the conversation and don’t feel afraid anymore, and never apologize for how others make you feel.”