University of Georgia President Jere Morehead issued two statements regarding racism against black people. The first of which did not address black people or the recent killings of black people specifically and was met with criticisms. The second statement condemned racism and directly addressed the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. (Photo/Gabriella Audi, www.gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

Langston Leake is struggling with the thought of returning to a university where he “doesn’t feel wanted” in the fall.

On May 31, the University of Georgia released a message from President Jere W. Morehead regarding racial inequality. The discussion of racism in society has gained national attention following multiple murders of black people, particularly at the hands of the police.

The message quickly garnered attention after many students and alumni criticized Morehead, voicing that he did not explicitly mention black people, nor the people that have been killed by the police.

“Coming back on campus in the fall, it reinforces the thought that UGA consistently doesn’t know how to stand by and do right by the black students,” Leake, a UGA graduate returning for his master of public administration in the fall, said.

The day after the original tweet, Morehead released a second statement where he said he condemns racism in all forms and mentions the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

“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.”

Students respond

Sydney Phillips, a junior political science and public relations double major, said although she appreciates Morehead later addressing the black community directly, she feels as though UGA was pressured into releasing another statement. As a black student, Phillips said the fact that Morehead had to release a second statement speaks louder than the statement itself.

As for UGA’s original statement, Phillips found it insulting and said Morehead failed to acknowledge the pain of black students.

“It’s insulting for Morehead to say he wants a dialogue to fix systemic racism when he himself refuses to listen to the black community and black students in Athens. We’re tired of being swept under the rug,” Phillips said.

On May 25, a video showed Floyd, a black man, pinned to the ground with a white police officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd told the officer he couldn’t breathe and later died.

The officer involved was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter four days later. The charge has since been upgraded to second-degree murder. Floyd’s deaths, along with the deaths of Arbery, Taylor and others have provoked protests across the country, including Atlanta and Athens, calling for justice in the black community. Since May 31, protesters have gathered and marched through downtown Athens.

As Morehead’s initial statement received backlash, many people exemplified other institution statements as examples of what the UGA president should have said.

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera’s statement is titled with Floyd’s name. Cabrera explicitly mentions Floyd’s death and the pattern of violence against black people, especially alongside the killings of Arbery and Taylor.

“I stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters and all people of goodwill, as we find a path forward,” Cabrera said in his statement.

Morehouse College is a private black men’s college in Atlanta and one of the few remaining traditional men’s liberal arts colleges in the U.S. In his statement, President David A. Thomas comments on why it is wrong to devalue the lives of human beings based on the color of one’s skin, and how African Americans “have been a candle in the dark for this nation for 153 years.”

“The tragic circumstances of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s deaths makes it all the more clear that Morehouse is more than an ivory tour on the highest hill in Atlanta,” Thomas said in the statement addressed to students, parents, faculty and staff.

Amaan Charaniya, a UGA alumnus, found himself disappointed with UGA’s response and wondered about other universities’ actions. He compiled a spreadsheet including 189 different universities and checked if they mentioned murder, instituional racism, anti-blackness, George Floyd, policing and what action they will take.

Charaniya noted 113 schools did not mention Taylor’s name in their statements.

“I thought we [Morehead] sent a message of indifference and dismissal of the issue with some vague language. I wanted to know if this was a trend among all schools or whether UGA was the anomaly,” Charaniya said.

UGA alumna and former student body vice president Charlene Marsh also called attention to the university’s vague language. Marsh said she understood the political pressure against Morehead but said he remained neutral in the face of injustice. She said the university must adopt explicitly anti-racist statements, policies and programs that “go beyond surface level diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

A look into the past

As a black UGA student, Phillips said Morehead’s initial response failed to address the history of racism in the university.

“We have students yelling racial slurs at black football players on game days. Fraternity members have been recorded laughing at and mocking slavery and systemic oppression,” Phillips said. “And the discovery of the remains of slaves under Baldwin Hall was covered up by university administration.”

Nearly four years ago, renovations to Baldwin Hall uncovered remains of former slaves. The remains were moved to Oconee Hill Cemetery, a move that community activists have criticized.

Protesters including students and Athens residents called for the university to publicly acknowledge the role it played in promoting slavery during the time of its construction. However, UGA had not admitted that the remains could be former slaves nor made moves to remedy its history, protesters said.

Morehead wrote a letter to the editor in The Red & Black about the “wildly inaccurate claims” of some activists.

“The University of Georgia handled the Baldwin Hall matter appropriately, and our response actually went far beyond what is required by the law,” he wrote. “However, it is clear that a few individuals, obviously driven by a personal agenda, continue to try to leverage this issue and expand it to promote their own causes.”

In March 2019, a racist video from UGA’s Tau Kappa Epsilon chapter surfaced. Four students were expelled from the chapter after being caught on video mimicking slave ownership, one telling another to “pick my cotton,” followed by a racial slur. Later on, the fraternity was suspended as well.

UGA dormitories Brumby Hall, Creswell Hall and Russell Hall were built where the neighborhood of Linnentown used to be. Nearly 40 African American families lived in Linnentown in 1960, according to the research from the Linnentown Project.

Community activists have called for recognition and redress for Linnentown residents whose homes were demolished to make way for the highrise dorms.

UGA’s colleges react

Since Morehead’s statements, additional colleges at UGA released their own statements — some drawing applause from students and others criticism.

On June 3, the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication Dean Charles Davis published a three sentence statement. The first sentence reads, “We stand by our brothers and sisters of all races in committing to a more just and equal society.”

Laura Nwogu, a senior journalism major, said the statement lacked support and solidarity for the black community. Nwogu said the college acknowledged journalists’ fears and safety but not those of the black community, students and alumni. She felt as if her story and others in her community were being ignored by her dean and college, Nwogu said.

UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences Dean Linda Fox released a statement that read, “I value you, I grieve with you, I support you.”

“I know these deaths and the racism that exists in our society have caused great anguish for you,” Fox said in the statement.

School of Public and International Affairs Dean Matt Auer addressed students in an email that discussed the deaths of Floyd, Arbery and Taylor and his own privilege.

“‘Learn from other people’s pain,’ Oprah Winfrey once advised. There’s so much pain around us right now, it should be easy to do. Frankly, people like me, who enjoy privilege, often woefully miss the mark when it comes to understanding other people’s pain,” Auer said. “The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery highlight some of my basic personal deficiencies — among them: there’s a gap between what I believe in and what I genuinely know.”

As Langston Leake faces his return to campus in the fall, he said the university’s original statement made it difficult to remember his positive memories at UGA. He said although he put time, effort and enjoyed parts of his undergraduate experience at the university, the original lack of support for his community makes him hesitant to return.

“All we originally wanted to hear from the university was we hear you, we see you and we support you. Acknowledgment and some kind of action,” Leake said.