The University of Wisconsin-Madison has gained unwanted national attention this week for a costume that depicted a noose around the neck of President Barack Obama at a UW football game that has been prevalent on social media.
At a press conference in front of Camp Randall Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, local African-American leaders said that it goes far beyond the latest incident with the noose at the UW football game and that the university really needs to step up its game. “We have [Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI)] First Wave students getting spit upon, we have spray paintings in bathrooms with ‘ni**er’ and other racial slurs. We have some of our students being beaten on campus. So, we don’t want to just limit this in a narrow scope,” said Caliph Muab-El, executive director of Breaking Barriers Mentoring Inc. and a leader of the Focused Interruption Coalition. “This is an issue that is all over campus. It’s not just about Camp Randall [Stadium]. We want to make sure that when UW does reshape its policies that it has African Americans and people of color at the table.”
Muab-El and Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad called together the press conference next to statues of current and former athletic directors Barry Alvarez and Pat Richter just outside the football stadium to stand in solidarity against the frequent troublesome racially motivated incidents and transgressions that have happened on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Their message: “We’ve had enough!”
“We are concerned about incidents we are seeing at the university. We’ve just spent about 30 minutes meeting with Coach Barry Alvarez and looking at the policies that they have in the books regarding how they deal with these kinds of incidents,” said Mike Johnson, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “We are going to meet again with him at 2:30 p.m.”
As a result of that second meeting, the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department will enact a new policy regarding racially offensive costumes or signs at games. Johnson said that they will finalize a new policy draft before the next Badger home football game which will be effective immediately.
Up to that point, African-American community leaders felt that the UW response to the noose incident was too tame including UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s statement after the Oct. 30 incident: “As offensive as this costume was, I believe our university must resist the desire to outlaw forms of speech and political dissent with which we disagree.”
Assad, founder of the Mellowhood Foundation, said that what moves cultures forward is the ability to be educated. “The most intelligent of us and the most diligent of us who have worked hard to prepare themselves to access the fruits of this beautiful university should be allowed to do so without being targeted, marginalized, demeaned and degraded,” Assad said. “We, as grown men, can no longer accept the fact that some of our young citizens are battling school and also battling their ability to be unchallenged as they continue their education. We’re saying that we will not accept this anymore.
“The national slur of a noose around someone’s neck is something that none of us will accept moving forward,” he added.
Muab-El said that they were outraged as a community of color and really troubled by the recent events that are taking place on campus.
“We’re calling on the university to check its policies,” Muab-El said. “We’re also calling on the university to create a policy where there is zero tolerance for racism or any racial gestures, slurs, practices or anything perpetrated against people of color whether that be by staff, whether that be by teacher or whether that be by student.
“We will no longer step back and do nothing. Today, we are saying that it needs to stop and that this racism in this community – whether it be micro or whether it be implicit – we need to come together and figure out solutions to the various issues we are facing,” he added. “We cannot continue to carry the title of ‘progressive’ if we are not willing to step up to the plate and have these uncomfortable conversations where these kind of things won’t happen in the first place.”
UW student Devon Hamilton said that as a student of color, this incident is not too surprising, especially around this time of year. “I spend a lot of time inside around Halloween because I don’t want to go out and see those kind of things going on around campus,” Hamilton said. “I think that when we talk about some of the things that we need to do at this university to address issues like this – many instances don’t even get reported – the conversation starts where we need to call these things out for what they are. If we can’t recognize this as hate speech and not free speech, we can’t really even start a conversation.”
Kaleem Carie, CEO of One Early Learning Centers, is a distinguished alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “My family are fifth-generation Madisonians. We’ve been here a long time. I’m also on the university’s community advisory board. My wife and I have a deep relationship with this university,” he said. “We love the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’ve benefitted from having gone here, but we also recognize the fact that we have a number of challenges and those challenges are growing in our university.”
Caire said that people are getting bolder with their acts of hatred not only at the university but throughout the nation. “But there are people stepping up in this community more than ever before so the university has to take notice that it’s not just this group that’s with me here today, there are a whole lot of other people out there who are leading in many ways in their families, their businesses, and their neighborhoods. And they want to see more out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”
Caire said that the university can’t tolerate racism like they saw at the last UW football game. “They celebrate the football players on the field and then they hold a noose around one of their greatest leaders in the stands,” Caire says. “That person, in my opinion, should not be allowed back in the stadium until they make a public apology to everyone they offended.”
“We need to expect more out of our university. It’s time to put up or shut up. We have to decide who we want to be and we have to actively and radically move in that direction.”
Dr. Jasmine Zapata said that racism in Madison “is a public health crisis” and it’s something that cannot be ignored. “I’m here to tell you that the things that are happening like this are affecting our youth and our young people in ways that we cannot ignore and it’s time to take this very seriously,” she said.
Zapata said that she’s tired of getting texts from young people who are so stressed out from life who want to kill themselves. “This is affecting our people, our psyche, and our emotional status in a way that can’t be ignored,” she said. “Even beyond that, the stress of racism over a course of a lifetime is affecting our bodies and are related to some of the disparities we see in health outcomes. Let’s come together to make a change because this is something that can no longer be ignored.”