Racist messages prompt outcry, investigation at UW-Eau Claire

Campus responds with condemnation, demands that bias be taken seriously

UW-Eau Claire-Schofield Hall
The exterior of Schofield Hall, the administration building at the UW-Eau Claire. Photo courtesy of UW-Eau Claire.

This article includes reporting by staff of the UW-Eau Claire student newspaper The Spectator, including Managing Editor Rebecca Mennecke, Lea Kopke, and Ta’Leah Van Sistine.

 

A series of racist social media messages, accompanied by images of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, has sparked a week of discussion and protest at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, including a unanimous Student Senate resolution Monday night condemning the original incident.

Five members have been suspended from the western Wisconsin university’s football team following the public disclosure of the messages, and an investigation by the university’s dean of students is underway.

Monday night’s Student Senate resolution followed an hour-long walkout and silent protest earlier in the day by students who presented a list of demands to the university’s chancellor, James C. Schmidt.

In addition to condemning the original incident, the Student Senate resolution called on the university’s administration to “not follow the trends of other universities who have failed to hold students accountable for bias incidents.” It urged a penalty for the students involved in the original incident that “accurately and proportionally reflects the infraction committed” against codes of conduct for the university and for student athletes.

Faculty, meanwhile, were to meet the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 26, to confront their own shock over the episode. 

“We don’t want to stand in the way of student response,” professor Kate Hinnant, who collected signatures calling for the faculty meeting, told the student newspaper, The Spectator. “But these incidents create a difficult environment for students of color.”

Hinnant is head of instruction on communication for the university’s McIntyre Library and associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the university.

Snapchat thread

Schmidt announced on Twitter last Tuesday, Nov. 19, that “a thread of racist messages that included a photograph of a burning cross was used to target members of the @BMEEMPOWERMENT group. Our campus will not tolerate this racist action. I have asked the Dean of Students Office to investigate and take appropriate action.”

On Thursday, Nov. 21, Schmidt posted an update on the university’s website in which he stated that five football players had been suspended from the team earlier in the week after “a string of racist social media posts from a private Snapchat discussion became public and exposed hateful comments directed at UW-Eau Claire’s Black Male Empowerment group.”

The messages, which Schmidt called “despicable and disgusting,” included an image of a Ku Klux Klan rally cross-burning that he called “especially disturbing.”

“It is an image that conjures memories of some of the worst atrocities committed against people of color, especially African Americans, in our recent national history,” the chancellor stated. “Some of our students, faculty and staff of color likely have had family members who were targeted by such Klan actions. For them, this is personal and visceral.”

The images and the Snapchat posts aimed at “a specific group of UW-Eau Claire students” and were “counter to all our values,” Schmidt stated.

The chancellor said he had directed the university’s dean of students to investigate the incident. In the interim, he said, the athletic director suspended five students from the football team immediately. “Additional, appropriate sanctions may result, pending the outcomes of the investigation,” he said.

Responses to incident

Team social media groups were also suspended, to be restarted only when they were monitored by coaches or other members of the athletic department staff.

Schmidt stated that he had met with members of the Black Male Empowerment organization to discuss the incident, while the athletic director and the football coach met with the football team “to discuss the incident, and to make clear this kind of racist behavior is not acceptable” for students representing the university in uniform.

The statement encouraged “all faculty, staff and students to continue to report racist or hate incidents” to the university’s Bias/Hate Incident Response Team and included a weblink to the university’s bias/hate incident response page where reports can be filed.

A story in the Spectator reported that the Snapchat incident had been the subject of such a report.

Also on Thursday, the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) organized a gathering “for students of color to deconstruct racism” at the university and invited students of color “to organize and voice topics and concerns they want higher education to be aware of.”

“This is really part of a healing process,” Dang Yang, the director of the OMA, told the student newspaper. “Just simply to allow them to discuss ideas and thoughts that either they’ve had pent up or to articulate things and find language and put language to feelings that they’ve had throughout this process.”

Student demands

The list of demands presented at the student walkout and silent protest on Monday included a call for educational sanctions against the students involved in circulating the racist messages. It also included a demand for “greater transparency” on the university’s part in its handling of allegations of bias and hate; greater efforts to prevent racist and discriminatory incidents; a variety of steps to promote greater interaction among and support for students of marginalized identities; and hiring and supporting more staff and faculty of color.

After students taking part in the protest, led by members of the Black Male Empowerment organization, presented Schmidt with the demands in his office, he followed them out of the building and back out onto a sidewalk outside where the protest had begun. 

In a short speech to the group, Schmidt thanked the BME group, condemned racism and praised the protesters.

“You give me hope as a campus [that] we can make good on our diversity statements that we’ve had for decades,” Schmidt said. “You should expect transparency from us. You should expect action from us.”

Reaction to the events were shared on social media and displayed a polarization among those commenting.

Twitter accounts replying to the chancellor’s initial tweet on Nov. 19 included some who questioned whether the university administration would respond forcefully enough to the incident, with some calling the team suspension of players inadequate.

On Nov. 20, students organized a closed Facebook group declaring “Solidarity with People Of Color on Campus.”

At the same time, a few others who responded to both the Nov. 19 tweet and a Nov. 21 tweet that linked to the chancellor’s statement of that date claimed that reactions to the incident had been exaggerated, denied that the Snapchat messages were threatening or racist — despite the cross-burning images and a veiled reference to gasoline — and declared that the Black Male Empowerment group itself was “racist.”

It was not possible to tell for certain who among those responding were students at UW-Eau Claire. Most of them had little posted profile information. 

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. At the Examiner office first thing in the morning, he's the one with YoutTube on streaming Springsteen concerts, 1970s Americana rock and the occasional British Progressive music cuts in between model railroad how-to clips. So far his campaign to build an HO layout in the our office conference space has produced only pats on the head and eyerolls from his colleagues, but he loves them anyway.