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The lesson of Tim Wolfe's resignation: You can't ignore racism anymore

The University of Missouri campus.
The University of Missouri campus.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe's resignation on Monday following student protests over campus racism shows a bigger trend about America today: The country is now treating race issues much more seriously than just a few years ago.

The situation in the University of Missouri is complicated, rooted not just in months of reported racism incidents on campus but in years of similar events. But at the center of the protests and hunger strike was one issue: Students felt the university system's president had neglected very real signs of on-campus racism, so he had to go.

While it's impossible to really know whether Wolfe would have resigned in a similar situation a few years back, these kinds of circumstances seem much more likely to lead to protests and perhaps a resignation today. A June survey of 2,000 adults from Gallup found a 15-year low in Americans' satisfaction with how black people are treated in the US. And a July survey of 2,000 adults from the Pew Research Center found a 20-year high in Americans calling racism a "big problem."

A growish share of Americans view racism as a big problem.

Pew Research Center

There are other signs of this broader trend. The media is clearly paying more attention to systemic racism, particularly in the criminal justice system, as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. Government officials are, too: Prosecutors filed charges in the high-profile police killings of black men like Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (While it's unclear if there actually are more prosecutions of cops in the past year, the charges in several high-profile cases suggest so — before Black Lives Matter, these types of charges were very rare, as David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer, told Vox's Amanda Taub.) And many politicians — including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders — have all helped elevate the issue to the national stage through speeches, policy proposals, and presidential campaigns.

None of this is to say that America has fully awakened to its struggle with racism — about 15 percent think it's a small problem or not a problem at all, according to Pew surveys. But Wolfe's resignation shows that it's an issue that a university leader can't ignore without risking his job.

Watch: The racism of America's criminal justice system

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