“I can’t breathe.”
This statement has gained a new meaning since Minneapolis man George Floyd said the words while under police custody shortly before his death.
On Friday, May 29, a video surfaced on social media of two white high school graduates reenacting the scene of Floyd’s death. The video was posted to one of the students’ Snapchat stories, where someone screen-recorded it, then posted the video to Twitter.
At the time of publication, the video has received over 738,000 views.
One of the women involved in the video had received an admission offer from Missouri State.
Along with this video, another incident involving a potential MSU student using a racial slur was posted and shared on social media. Both students planning to attend Missouri State have since withdrawn.
In response to both incidents, MSU president Clif Smart released two statements. The first, released on June 1, condemned racism.
“Racism is abhorrent and wrong,” the statement reads. “It is inconsistent with the values we embrace and try to model. We condemn it in all its insidious forms, and it is not welcome at Missouri State.”
The second statement, posted a day later, addressed the two incidents themselves. In it, Smart said the university will not be barring students from entering MSU because of offensive comments posted as an adolescent.
“I believe in grace, redemption and the probability that a college education can change people for the better,” Smart said. “It did me.”
Smart went on to say in the statement, the video and the social media post are protected by the First Amendment and that the university cannot legally prevent the students from attending Missouri State.
Additionally, Smart said if the students hadn’t withdrawn from attending, they would only be allowed to attend under the condition that they participate in additional education and training to assist them in “both understanding the impact of their actions and in developing cultural competence.”
The university’s response drew backlash on social media, resulting in a Twitter trend #BlackatMoState, a hashtag that students and alumni utilized to shed light on their encounters with racism at MSU. The hashtag was used in over one thousand tweets in under 24 hours.
When reached out to by the Standard, the Office of the President at MSU said they had no further comments to make at this time.
Missouri State senior Armani Eason is the creator of the hashtag. She said the response MSU gave was not what she was expecting.
“As a student, as a black woman going here for four years, I have given so much of my time to the university and expanded diversity inclusion — working in the Multicultural Resource Center, Student Government Association — and just to basically hear ‘none of that matters,’” Eason said.
Eason said she felt the response was putting her and her peers in danger, and by allowing these students to attend Missouri State, it could empower racism.
“It makes me not comfortable enough to even come back to my own campus because you showed not just us that you don’t care, but the people that could be racist that you don’t care,” Eason said.
During the interview, Eason paused to hold up her arms and show her black skin color.
“This is me,” Eason said. “I can’t take this off.”
Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, responded directly to Missouri State’s tweet sharing Smart’s statement, saying the statement was simply not enough.
Missouri State has three pillars of public affairs: ethical leadership, cultural competence and community engagement. Under cultural competence, as said on their website, their goal is for students to recognize and respect multiple perspectives and cultures. However, when it comes to having zero tolerance for racism Sherman-Wilkins said the execution is lacking.
“While these statements intend to move in the right direction, I think they need to be coupled in concrete direct-action steps that’ll move it from rhetoric to actual change,” Sherman-Wilkins said. “It’s better than being silent for sure, however, words are just the beginning.”
However, not all responses to MSU’s statements have been negative. Shamyah Randle, an undeclared sophomore, said she’s happy to be attending a school that has taken action and not ignored the issue.
Randle said she realizes the responses aren’t what everyone wants but is glad they’re doing something to respond.
“I think MSU handled it well because there’s only so much they can do right now,” Randle said.
Randle describes herself as a forgiving person but struggles with forgiving racism. She said she believes good is in everybody but that some people don’t change.
Randle said she’s glad that those who withdrew from Missouri State did, for their own safety.
“If people see them there, I’d be worried for them because people are going to want to fight them all the time and bully them,” Randle said. “Although being racist is messed up, I don’t condone violence. It’s not right.”
Sherman-Wilkins said the most important thing going forward is for the university to learn from the response.
“It really is important, as we reflect on what the university can and should do as an academic institution that prides itself on educating young people, it’s important to listen and involve students in any kind of decision they make,” Sherman-Wilkins said. “It’s easy for staff to make decisions, but if students are missing from that conversation then we are doing more harm than good.”