Dillard Should’ve Been The Last Place For Black Students to Get Pepper Sprayed

Now comes the difficult work of rebuilding trust in HBCU safe space.

Now comes the difficult work of rebuilding trust in HBCU safe space.

There are certain images we come to accept with the notion of the Black American struggle. Violence is paramount among those that have tattered the black experience, particularly when it comes to engagement with police.

And this is why last night’s fracas at Dillard University cannot be described as less than horrifying. Because the last place that black people should expect to witness the trump card of white supremacy, violence against bystanding, freedom-seeking black students, is on our own campuses.

There is no part of our legacy as lunch counter sitting, Freedom riding, bridge crossing, boulevard marching, water hose bracing, mug shot taking students and graduates that leads an easy path to last night’s uneasiness on the beautiful Avenue of the Oaks; at least, not a path that allows for an admitted white supremacist to be granted more protection from physical harm in an HBCU lecture hall than the students who outside, escalated protest to demands to enter the building which their tuition and fees help to keep open and staffed.

With the perfect benefit of retrospect, and introspection from Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, we can see how things can go wrong very quickly, even with the best of intentions, and particularly with the influence of students who may not have been DU made, but are now chronicled for the ages as black people being pepper sprayed by black police officers for what should have been typical access to an atypical political event.

For everything that fell apart, from the lack of communication from state election officials and the campus, to a rigged process that led to David Duke going bananas during a legitimate debate, from the potential of 50 black students making a largely black campus police force appear to be a non-white extension of white mind and body control tactics against black communities, there has to be an appropriate account.

Some of it should be reserved for students and protestors who didn’t follow police directives, but our history says they shouldn’t get too much blame because they were looking for access to a building on a campus at which they pay to attend, and should be able to do so without police macing them — just like protesting white students are able to do on their campuses.

A smaller part of it falls to the media, which sensationalized from the beginning the prospect of a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon taking advantage of an opportunity to spew the rhetoric of division in the most unlikely of settings. Dillard was the perfect backdrop for a hyper conservative state with a robust record of poor race relations and inequity, to give a wink to its traditionalists, all too hopeful to see a scene play out exactly as it did last night, and to blame it on how liberals have denied minorities and now our demand for change has reached a fever pitch — even on our own campuses.

But the biggest part of the responsibility falls to the administration, and to his credit, Dr. Kimbrough has begun the deliberate process of atonement and reconciliation. Dillard’s strategy has long been to earn media through extending the campus for cultural, political and social discourse; sometimes of the controversial variety. That strategy helped to make Dr. Kimbrough and Philander Smith College a recognizable brand, and following his arrival at Dillard, a rising star in higher education — black and white schools all included.

But this is the moment when the strategy broke down, when politics, tensions and timing broke the delicate bonds upon which DU has forged its brand as one of New Orleans’ cultural centers. Just in the way he earns the credit for its success, Dr. Kimbrough now must shoulder the responsibility for its failure, and admittedly, the images that could allow the wrong kind of people to forge the wrong kind of idea about how now, just months after he told the world that black students were returning to black colleges to find the real meaning of safe space, his own campus is being criticized for anti-black rhetoric and danger to black bodies therein.

Enrollments surge at historically black colleges amid rise in racial tensions
Racial tension rose on many colleges and university campuses last year, with protests erupting on dozens of campuses…www.washingtonpost.com

Dr. Kimbrough fully expected protests and welcomed them — he embraced the idea of students taking advantage of the space and media coverage to share their disenchantment with a political process playing well outside of their approval on their campus. What he didn’t expect was for things to fall apart and for a broken narrative to dominate the news cycle in a negative way. Perhaps no one could have.

He was right in saying the buck stops with him on a scenario that thankfully, did not turn tragic. But that’s about the only thing that has gone right for Dillard in an entire saga of wrong place, wrong time, and wrong doing by the wrong people with the wrong plans for one of our most precious schools.