A black student at the University of Texas San Antonio was sitting in biology class on Monday when she found herself in a situation that is becoming increasingly common: She was approached by police after someone called 911 over innocuous behavior. In this case, HuffPost notes, the student’s professor, a white woman named Anita Moss, called for campus police after the currently unnamed student put her feet up on a chair.
In a video posted to Twitter by a fellow classmate, three police officers are seen speaking with Moss at the back of the lecture hall. Moss then leads the officers to the student, who then stands up and leaves with the officers.
So this happened today in class, a girl had her feet up and the professor called the police after calling our class uncivil pic.twitter.com/spq0ShXiFU— Apurva Rawal (@ApurvaYRawal) November 12, 2018
“So this happened today in class, a girl had her feet up and the professor called the police after calling our class uncivil,” Apurva Rawal, the student who shared video of the incident, tweeted on November 12.
“This professor stopped class entirely and stepped out to call the police just because one student had her feet up on a seat in front of her. Mind you she wasn’t talking or interrupting lecture,” he added.
In an email sent to students on Tuesday, university president Taylor Eighmy said that the university has launched two investigations into the incident, and that the faculty member has been removed from the class for the rest of the semester.
On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times reported that the university’s investigations found that the incident was not motivated by racial bias. In an email sent to students that day, Eighmy wrote that the student involved in the incident declined to file a discrimination report, and that other students in the class did not believe the lecturer’s call for police was racially motivated.
The school concluded that “the faculty member failed to manage her classroom and displayed poor judgment in her handling of Monday’s situation, but that her actions do not warrant termination.”
Other students told the Times that the Monday incident stemmed from an interaction between the student and lecturer last week that revolved around the student putting her feet on a chair. While she put her feet down at her teacher’s request, Moss emailed the student on Sunday saying that they needed to discuss matters further before the student could return to class. However, the university’s report notes that this email was sent to the wrong student. When the girl arrived in class on Monday, Moss asked the student to leave and called the police when the student insisted that the class was “very important” and that she needed to stay.
While students defended the faculty member, saying that her actions were not rooted in racism, they expressed concern that she called campus police over the disagreement. Eighmy told students Wednesday that “the results of these investigations in no way diminish my firm commitment to the work we must do to create a more inclusive campus environment.”
The Monday incident thrust the university into an ongoing conversation about “Living While Black”: high-profile incidents where black people are treated with suspicion by those who may also call the police on them, for a range of innocuous things like babysitting white children, mowing lawns, selling water, eating at Subway, and entering their own apartment buildings. The topic was first thrust into the national spotlight after two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, had 911 called on them as they sat inside a Philadelphia Starbucks in April.
These types of incidents are not new. But the attention these incidents have attracted in the past few months has provided additional evidence of the ways people of color are subjected to arbitrary social expectations and treated with suspicion if they don’t live up to those expectations, and how violating those expectations is punishable.
Living While Black, then, is about the management of spaces and what happens when people of color are seen as needing to be removed by police. And when these incidents play out on college campuses, the calls also highlight ongoing issues with racism and marginalization faced by students of color.
Students of color are having their presence on college campuses challenged
Prior to the viral video of the biology classroom in San Antonio, there were already several examples of 911 calls on minority college students. In May, a white Yale graduate student named Sarah Braasch called the police on fellow student Lolade Siyonbola after seeing Siyonbola napping in a common room.
That same month, two Native American teenagers on a campus tour at Colorado State University were approached by police officers after a white woman called 911 and told police that the teens were “odd” and accused them of lying when they did not answer her questions.
Over the summer, police were called on Oumou Kanoute, a black rising sophomore at Smith College, as she ate lunch. A university employee said Kanoute seemed “to be out of place” as she ate in a common room. In October, Juán-Pabló Gonźalez, a black student at the Catholic University of America, was approached by police officers after a campus librarian called 911, saying that Gonźalez was “argumentative,” after she declined to explain why she initially denied him entry into a campus library.
In many of these incidents, universities have been quick to apologize to the students, offering “listening sessions” and increased diversity awareness training in an effort to tamp down criticism of their campuses.
But the incidents, students say, call attention to longstanding issues faced by students of color. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone,” Kanoute noted in a Facebook video as she documented the July incident. “All I did was be black.”
The wave of Living While Black incidents on college campuses comes after years of heightened attention to race and racism in higher education. Three years ago, students at the University of Missouri launched a series of protests over racism and discrimination on campus; the university’s poor response to the protests culminated in the resignation of Mizzou’s president and chancellor.
And this year, a trial over alleged racial discrimination at Harvard has called new attention to the ways black and brown students’ presence at elite universities is questioned by those eager to get rid of race-conscious college admissions. Meanwhile, black enrollment at elite universities has stagnated, even as black enrollment at other colleges increases, according to data from the University of Indiana and the Department of Education.
At schools across the country, black students have raised concerns about a range of issues, from a lack of student and faculty diversity, to blatant acts of racism on campus, and the ways that black students in particular face potential violence from campus police. As Mizzou law professor Ben Trachtenberg wrote in the Washington Post this summer, the increased criticism of racism on campus shows that “minority students have again awakened to their power, and the very education that universities provides helps them to understand just how much injustice there is to protest.”
The issues these 911 calls on black students highlight, then, aren’t new. But the incidents do show that for colleges, addressing racism can’t just be about increasing the diversity of a student body. It must address what happens to students of color once they are on campus as well.