The day after Taylor Dumpson was elected student government president at American University, the college awoke to what is currently being investigated by the FBI as a hate crime. Early in the morning on May 1, students discovered bananas hung by nooses around the campus, covered in phrases reading “harambe bait” and “AKA free.” AKA is the abbreviation of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically black sorority that Dumpson belongs to. Dumpson is the first Black woman to hold the position of student government president in the school’s 124 years as an institution in the Tenleytown area.
This isn’t the first time AU has dealt with a racist incident. Earlier this school year, two Black students had bananas thrown at them, prompting an investigation by school officials, however the boys were not expelled. In 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked racist messages on the app Yik-Yak. The app, which allows students to anonymously post messages, was used for up to two months following the shooting as a means of posting slurs and offensive comments. “First you bring Ebola here, then you start riots and destroy our cities… Go back to Africa,” “Black people are so weird. So sensitive. Isn’t there some cotton that needs to be picked,” and “We, the white people oppose the protests because you all are attacking us. KKK should be here to defend us,” were among some of the messages posted. Students took to Twitter using the hashtag #TheRealAU to post screenshots of the messages and voice their concerns for the safety of Black students on campus.
Unlike the past incidents which were investigated solely by campus officials, the decision by the FBI to examine the latest incident as a hate crime that brought more attention to the school and has increased the pressure on the faculty to resolve the issue. Dumpson hosted a student-led town hall three days after the incident in which students generated ideas to combat racism on campus. “In the past it has been the same faculty members sitting in the townhalls and nothing ever gets accomplished,” Dumpson said in an interview. “We came up with action steps, and then we typed them up and sent them to the student body.”
Dumpson had considered leaving the school during the Yik-Yak attacks but stayed. It was her first year at the college. She says she now considers staying at AU to be one of the best decisions she ever made. “I don’t think I would have been who I am now without staying through the adversity,” Dumpson said.
AU is 55 percent white and 6.2 percent Black, with a faculty that is 64 percent white and 13.9 percent Black. Dumpson described attending a predominately white institution as “challenging,” but added: “I think AU as a university is doing a lot better at trying to change the experience for students of color to make it more inclusive and more positive.”
In the 10 days following the election of Donald Trump, The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 900 hate crimes, many on college campuses. By comparison in 2013 there was a total of 781 hate crimes on college campuses alone according to the journal of Blacks in Higher Education. In the months of November and December, posters created by the white-supremacist group American Vanguard were discovered at the University of Maryland, University of Central Florida, Purdue, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and Emerson College. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that works to protect Jewish Americans against hate crimes, there has been an increase in the recruitment efforts of white supremacists on college campuses following the election.
Dumpson herself was a target of a neo-nazi website called the Daily Stormer, which in the past published mass murderer Dylann Roof’s manifesto, a post was made on the website telling readers to troll Dumpson. The FBI is currently investigating.
When asked if the latest incident at AU is reflective of a so called “Donald Trump’s America,” Dumpson responded by saying, “I think AU is a microcosm of the country. So what AU feels the country feels. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s because of Trump because we had issues before Trump and we are going to have issues after Trump.”
Along with the incidents over the past three years at AU, there have also been reports of the n- word being written on whiteboards, Trump stickers being put on doors of Hispanic students, swastikas being drawn and anti-woman posters being put up on international women’s day.
Neil M. Kerwin, the current president of AU who has been involved in various roles in the university for 42 years, stepped down on June 1, and is being replaced by Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Kerwin has received criticism in the past regarding administrative handling of these incidents. Ma’at Sargeant head of the Black Student Alliance at AU expressed her frustration with Kerwin and the administration, citing a lack of transparency regarding the handling of these incidents as well as a pattern of only contacting university leaders instead of the student body as a whole. Sargeant expressed that “the whole community should be aware of resources such as retaking exams” and added that the messages that were sent out to the school community after each incident were in the style of “copy and paste cookie cutter letters.”
When asked about her hopes for the incoming president Sargeant said, “I hope she does a better job of being present and known… and that students feel comfortable coming to her with concerns.” However, Sargeant described herself as a “realist” adding that although many see Burwell as a “saving grace” there are “strings and interests attached to her position.”
Burwell, who had worked in the Obama administration as secretary of Health and Human Services, will be the first female president of AU. Dumpson expressed excitement for Burwell, “I think she is going to bring a unique perspective to the University. I am looking forward to the innovation and a more hands on approach.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF DEFENDER NETWORK