What NYU Gets Wrong About Confronting Racism

The viral tweet on a racist incident at Silver highlights the importance of being proactive about racism on campus — not just reactive.


WSN Editorial Board

Last week, graduate student Shahem Mclaurin posted a tweet — which has since gone viral — about racial discrimination he experienced in one of his classes at the Silver School of Social Work. In the tweet, Mclaurin said that he attempted to coordinate with his peers to Facetime into one of his classes’ lectures due to him being in Paris during the first week of the semester. One of his classmates responded that the class felt more comfortable without a “black presence” in the room.

Perhaps one of the most jarring, ironic facts about this situation is its timing. This incident comes during this year’s MLK Week, the theme of which was “What’s Left Of The Dream?” It’s a question NYU has posed to students, but now it is also one the university needs to ask itself.

Silver’s response to Tuesday’s incident was thorough and thoughtful — it recognized the ongoing problem of racism at Silver and took some ownership over the incident. Their message indicates their intention to “push harder,” and states that the school has begun engagement with an external consultant to help them find a more proactive approach to combating this epidemic.

It also acknowledges the letter and call to action that student leaders wrote Silver last year in regard to their initial complaint in 2010. In the letter, students appealed regarding a “lack of focus on diversity and social justice issues,” and course content that focused solely on educating the white majority of students and on working with white populations. But even as Silver acknowledged these issues in their address on Thursday, it began to feel as if they were ensnared in a somewhat circuitous pattern. For Silver to concede to a letter written in 2018 — which was referencing a letter in 2010 — is a perfect indication of this lack of resolution. If they truly want to enact progress, Silver and all similar academic institutions must prioritize improvement and the institutional growth they vow to work toward.

Time and time again, students have attempted to hold NYU accountable for incidents of racism — even though they continue to occur. One would think it would be the other way around — NYU working to hold itself accountable for these actions instead of students having to do so. If NYU wants to continue proclaiming itself as a powerhouse for diversity, then it needs to acknowledge the underlying problems of racism as an institution and offer realistic solutions.

It is worth noting that this is far from the first instance of racial discrimination at NYU — last year, Tisch School of the Arts students reported encountering racial insensitivity in the drama program. After a series of complaints, an investigation into the school’s departments took place. Yet it was Tisch students who had to call for more resources for students of color as a result of these incidents rather than being offered a solution to the problem from the administration. Around the same time, instances of Islamophobia and racism at the Stern School of Business came to light. Although Stern’s administration outlined a plan of action to help resolve the issue of racial discrimination, it was only after several student groups came together to directly ask Stern to take action. This eerie pattern seems to be speaking volumes about an issue at NYU that has long been shrouded in silence.

Racism is prevalent in both our classrooms and our societies. Although NYU has responded to some racial discrimination on campus, more can be done to adopt the proactive stance necessary for cultural change.

It would be unrealistic to expect a complete end to instances of racism; microaggressions and discriminatory comments are a sad part of today’s reality. But the university can strengthen its responses by seeking out the experiences of minority students, effectively train staff and take other preventative measures. NYU’s goal should not just be to effectively respond after racism happens, but to actively work to root out racism before it becomes an epidemic.

We can acknowledge that NYU has made genuine efforts to be more inclusive. There are, undeniably, countless clubs and programs for people of color at our university. But no number of clubs will remedy the deep-seated issues of discrimination that come with running a private university. Similarly, no matter how many resources exist for people of color to report discrimination, none of these will fix the underlying issues that stem from factors like a lack of diversity in professors. For example, an anonymous non-white Tisch professor said that they often find themselves trying to encourage colleagues to be more open-minded. Another student was nearly driven to tears by a classmate putting their hand in her hair. The aforementioned 2010 letter noted that white students complained that the course curricula within Silver did not properly prepare them for careers in social work due to a lack of course focus on diversity, social justice issues and minority populations.

Changes like these start from the ground up, and must be continuously developed. We should not only be reminded of the necessity for reform when situations like these arise — we should instead treat progress as ongoing.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]