March 4, 2022
Dear President Nemec,
The Black Studies program wholly supports and applauds the Fairfield University’s students’ Silent Blackout Protest. We are humbled by the dignity and humility they demonstrated in the face of righteous discontent and heartfelt disappointment with the administration’s response to the removal of the Black Lives Matter flag from Counseling and Psychological Services on February 28.
The silent protest is part of a long tradition of student protests, especially Black student protest, at Fairfield University. On November 12, 1969, Black students gave a list of demands to the administration, one of which included the increase of Black student enrollment to 240 by September 1970. On November 21st, the Black students occupied Xavier Hall. In Spring of 1992, Black students and allies mobilized after multiple cases of racism on campus, including a Black student finding the words “F U n-word” on his dormitory door in Dolan. Two years later, a multicultural group of students organized panel discussions and wrote letters to the editor of the Fairfield Mirror, regarding racist graffiti they found in Regis Hall. One student wrote, “students, make your feelings known, because silence and indifference are affirmations of racism and bigotry.” Then as now, faculty and staff backed the students and this coalition helped to set the stage for the creation of the Black Studies program in fall 1995.
On December 5, 2014, a group of students in Professor Kris Sealey’s course organized a demonstration at the Stag Statue. Like the Silent Blackout Protest on the 28th, this demonstration responded to the developing Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, only weeks before, the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer that fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Over the next year and a half, student activism with the support of faculty and staff led to the formation of Racial Justice is Social Justice. This advocacy group for social change assisted in the creation of the Black Lives Matter course, offered for the first time in Spring 2016.
Thus, the [Black Studies] program is deeply invested in and responsible for social and racial justice on this campus. The combined activism of students, faculty, and staff is responsible for the creation of our program and our only required course, Black Lives Matter 1101. Significantly, Fairfield University has been grappling with the idea of “Black Lives Matter” since 2014.
This history clearly demonstrates that it is not Fairfield University’s tradition to define itself as “neutral.” In 2022, on the last day of Black History Month, the administration departed from precedent.
The BLST program is dismayed by the administration’s response to the removal of the Black Lives Matter flag. We believe this was a missed opportunity to support a movement for social and racial justice. In 2020, thousands of people across the racial, ethnic, and religious spectrum in the United States and abroad mobilized in protest not only against the police murder of George Floyd but also similar occurrences across the Americas and Europe. The administration, in contrast, described the murder of Floyd and others as “unfortunate deaths.” In the context of the removal of the Black Lives Matter flag, the administration could have revisited its muted description of the aforementioned, in view of the conviction of Derek Chauvin and others, and connected this new information to the BLM flag.
Instead, the administration has effectively blamed the low number of Black student enrollment on the pool of Black men applying to college. According to the administration, as the Mirror reports, Fairfield University’s numbers are low because “students of color, specifically Black males, dropped by 15% in terms of those who are applying to college in 2021.” While we do not question the statistics, we do question the use of them to explain Black enrollment at Fairfield University. Other colleges and universities across the country and nearby have managed to enroll a greater percentage of Black students than Fairfield University, despite the statistics the administration cites above:
According to College Factual’s 2021 diversity report, at Fairfield University of 4,160 undergraduates there are 78 (1.87 %) categorized as “Black or African American.” At Fordham University, a nearby Jesuit institution, that number is 3.8% and at Boston College, 4%; and its peer institutions, such as Providence College, 3.9% and Manhattanville College, 8.3%. In Connecticut, at Trinity College, 6.5% are Black students; Quinnipiac University, 3.5%; and nearby Sacred Heart University, 3.6%.
Along with providing suspicious reasons for low Black enrollment, the administration has transformed a social justice issue into a discussion of free speech and intellectual debate that might be held in a classroom, a conference, or a public forum. Students go to Counseling and Psychological Services to find support and to feel safe; the removal of the BLM flag sends the opposite message.
As reported in the Fairfield Mirror, the administration’s lackluster response to confederate flags found across campus has not helped. As we all know, the confederate flag signals not only anti Black attitudes but also anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiments. The university’s acceptance of what it calls an “anti-anti-racist” perspective is deeply troubling.
In that vein, we are disturbed by the administration’s effort to frame this dialogue/response as singularly an exchange about a slogan. We know that these flags represent not only perspectives but sometimes actions. In our recent past, these actions came in the form of Dylan Roof killing 9 Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during bible study in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015; James Fields, Jr, a white nationalist, intentionally driving his car into a crowd that protested white nationalism, killing Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017; and the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Considering the small number of Black students on campus, a number that reflects the university’s lack of institutional commitment to make transformative change around equity and inclusion, we would expect the administration to be as concerned about their comfort and the safety that they might seek at C&PS.
We are deeply encouraged by the support for Black students from across the campus. Our letter echoes the students’ silent protest, as well as the multiple letters from faculty and staff. We hope that the administration will not only listen to members of our community who are disappointed with the administration’s silence regarding the safety of Black students on campus, but also learn from and follow this groundswell as we move in the direction of transformative social change and racial justice. The spirit of inclusive excellence and radical hospitality requires no less.
The Black Studies Steering Committee