When the University of Alabama announced that a self-identified white nationalist would no longer be speaking, some black students felt like it was a time to celebrate but uncomfortable feelings still remain.
Conservative campus organization Students for America First invited Jared Taylor in late-March for a speech tiled “Diversity: Is it good for America?” in late-March. As junior political science major Teryn Shipman started researching Taylor’s work, Shipman said she was shocked at what she found. Taylor is the founder of American Renaissance, a website publishing research supporting how blacks are inferior to whites. During a recent interview with a Muslim-American female journalist, Taylor explained why her race didn’t belong in the United States and why whites “deserve a homeland.”
Shipman said Taylor’s beliefs made her feel uneasy.
“I watched a video with a few other students and it just really makes you shift in your seat,” Shipman said. “Like, ‘Is this even real?”
But two days after SFAF initially posted about the event on the organization’s Twitter on March 27, the group stated their faculty advisor stepped down. University officials explained in an email to students, faculty and staff that student organizations must have a full-time, UA faculty or staff advisor in order to be active. After giving SFAF time to comply with the university’s policy, officials withdrew the group’s registration status, making the group inactive and cancelling Taylor’s event.
Shipman took the cancelation as a bittersweet victory. Although SFAF is currently inactive, university officials said the organization can re-register if a new advisor is found, giving them the opportunity to host events on campus. University President Stuart Bell stressed in a statement that the school didn’t invite Taylor nor did it support Taylor’s beliefs, but officials couldn’t stop him from coming due to free speech laws.
“A lot of students did think that they would just find another group to host the speaker,” Shipman said.
After the speech was first announced, it was rare to walk around campus and not hear Taylor’s name, students said. Sophomore Alexus Cumbie started to hear rumors about a protest at Russell Hall, where Taylor was scheduled to speak. With that much energy congregating in one place, Cumbie said she couldn’t see it ending well for anyone.
“I’m not sure how the people who make up Students For America First would have reacted to protests,” Cumbie said. “This was open to the public, too. So it wouldn’t have been just students there. Anyone could have come and you didn’t know what energy they were coming with whether it’s violence, peaceful or what.”
Shipman said many students were upset by the university’s response to Taylor’s arrival. Bell encouraged students not to attend the event, but he didn’t identify SFAF as the group who invited Taylor in his statement. Shipman said Bell used the same language in past messages regarding race relations this past school year.
“We receive emails all the time about robberies off campus which always have a black perpetrator but when it comes to race relations and how black students are affected on campus, emails are very vague. They are not genuine or authentic,” Shipman said. “We don’t see our administrators trying to comfort the black student population when things like this happen.”
Student Noah Hawkins felt like the university’s response was genuine and respected Bell’s stress on safety. But he felt a little disappointment that there is a chance for Taylor to come back. Hawkins said students will have to advocate for themselves in a peaceful way.
“If the university won’t stand up for our community, if the systems in place won’t stand up for our community, then the people who care about the situation will have to do it themselves,” Hawkins said. “It’s a shame it has to be that way, but I hope that people will use it as a fire to connect with each other and support each other when things like this happen to promote a more inclusive campus.”
Cumbie, who is a political science major, said free speech usually puts universities and students in a tough position. Auburn University tried to cancel a speech by white supremacist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer last spring due to safety concerns. A federal judge issued an order requiring the university to continue the event. Spencer celebrated the win by saying, “We won a major victory for the alt-right.”
Cumbie hopes students keep one thing in mind if this were to happen again: free speech works both ways.
“Yes, (Taylor) does have freedom of speech, but you also have freedom of speech to condemn that,” Cumbie said. “If you see something that is not right, you have to stand up and say something about it.”
The same day Taylor was scheduled speak, the University’s Black Student Union partnered with other diversity-focused organizations to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The “Celebration of differences” was at first believed to be a counter event against Taylor’s speech. Hawkins, who helped organized the event, said the occasion was planned months ahead of time and the timing was not intentional.
Hawkins said he felt empowered as students and faculty of different faith, races, sexualities, and other lifestyles mingled with each other before the voices of the Afro-American Gospel Choir filled the Ferguson Center Ballroom. Students shared their own narratives through raps, poetry and songs during the open mic portion of the event. Having that much diversity in one area sent a clear message to those around campus, Hawkins said.
“It said that the range of what people care about and how people live their lives is wider than what our local lawmakers, student government and the administration here on campus realize,” Hawkins said “I think that’s important because we’re a part of the people they are supposed to protecting and supporting. I understand that you can’t please everybody, but what are you running the university for if not to better the students? Why run for office if you aren’t there to support your community?”
But Cumbie said creating opportunities for diversity training or celebration is sometimes not enough if those who need to hear those different stories won’t be attending.
“The programs are in place, but the participation isn’t there,” Cumbie said. “The only people who show up are the people who are aware of diversity. If you’re a white person who doesn’t care for that, you’re not going. Your opinion is going to stay the same.”
The announcement about Taylor’s speech came a little over a week after the university condemned a student’s video containing racist language. The president gave little details about the student or what the video contained, but did mention the student was no longer enrolled at the school. In January, Harley Barbour was expelled from her sorority after posting videos of herself saying the n-word and other slurs multiple times on social media. She is also no longer on campus.
Cumbie believes mandatory diversity training could end the cycle of racially charged events on campus. She hopes that after the initial training, students would not only become more aware of what they do or say, but also enroll in other classes and forums focused on diversity and accept a culture that’s different from their own.
“If the goal of UA is to make students better citizens, you start there,” Cumbie said. “You have to start at the injustice and the core of the discrimination that is happening on campus so that it doesn’t continue out into the world when people graduate.”