College faces criticism for response to national BLM movement as Amherst establishes matching campaign

Nigel Jaffe and Jeongyoon Han

At a time when predominantly white institutions across the nation are responding to widespread protests denouncing police brutality and anti-Black racism, members of the Williams community — particularly students and alums — are placing increased pressure on the College administration to hold itself accountable for what they see as its delayed and limited support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. 

This demand comes as members of the Williams community have drawn comparisons between the College’s response to the national BLM movement and the response from Amherst, which has launched a donation-matching campaign in partnership with the Amherst Black Student Union (BSU). Amherst has been reckoning with incidents of anti-Black racism in the past semester that sparked a student-led movement, #IntegrateAmherst, to combat systemic racism on its campus. 

Upon meeting with various community members and receiving written statements critiquing the College’s response, President of the College Maud S. Mandel and Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leticia S.E. Haynes ’99 will make an announcement this week about new commitments from the College aimed at supporting those fighting racial inequity. Previously, Mandel released a statement on May 31 condemning anti-Black racism in the U.S., but drew criticism from many students and alums over her assertion in that message that “the most effective and long-lasting manner in which Williams can work toward this goal [of fighting inequality and injustice] is by providing students with ways to hone their analytical and argumentative skills, which they can channel toward such ends.” 

In response, students and alums took to social media to create and promote templates for emails that community members have sent to Mandel, senior staff and trustees. Those emails urge administrators to take action in a number of ways, including investing the College’s financial resources in bail funds and organizations that support Black communities, defunding Campus Safety and Security and cutting off support for the Williamstown Police Department, which built a new station last year after a $400,000 donation and an easement of land from the College.

Some alums and students, including Taylor Braswell ’23, have decried the time it took the College to stand in solidarity with the BLM movement and the administration’s hesitancy to provide material support for activist organizations. 

“The College’s response is definitely delayed,” Braswell wrote in a statement to the Record. “That’s a bit unsettling. And it makes me wonder if they’re treating this situation with the utmost priority, as if it’s life and death. I pray that they are. Because that’s what it is. If I have to live and breathe anti-Blackness, then I demand that Williams College and its students live and breathe anti-racism.”

Last week, Braswell and Melissa Leon Pons ’23 met with Mandel to propose ways the College could make its support more tangible in engaging with racial justice. One idea involved making custom BLM shirts, with proceeds going to racial justice organizations through the apparel company Greek House and the cost of shirts for students on financial aid being subsidized by the College. 

“While I know the school cares, anti-racism has been too easily separated from non-Black [students’] realities,” Braswell said. “And that’s what I fear from our school, and honestly from my peers. I know that the Williams senior staff is working very hard right now. I talked to President Maud [Mandel] myself and that was abundantly clear. I’m sure they will come up with something great — hopefully utilizing student input and addressing students’ needs. But I’m still scared.”

Braswell said she trusts that the College supports “Black Lives Matter,” and she expects that students will see their input reflected in the institution’s response. But nevertheless, she said she fears that the College will fail to sustain its commitments in the long term, falling into a “forgetfulness” about the impact of systemic racism in the campus community and the country. 

“I’m scared that any institutional action done now will be looked back on as a thing that happened, rather than a thing that’s constantly and forever happening,” she wrote. “While getting people to admit that Black life matters is becoming less controversial, there is still a tolerance for racism so deeply embedded in what it means for us to exist that racial equity (not equality) still feels radical for a lot of people.”

Braswell said she looks forward to the ideas and action items that the College will present tomorrow, and urged Williams families with financial privilege and an “undeniable legacy of whiteness” to stand in solidarity with the BLM movement.

“Obviously I’m excited to see how big of a check they write,” she said. “I especially hope they call on Williams families to partake in their plan, especially through donation matching… But still I think I’ll be deeply disappointed if Williams writes a check without pursuing a more rigorous plan for institutional reform after all of this. I just want Williams to acknowledge its complicity in anti-Blackness and I want the College to despise it as much as I do.”

As of today, the College’s official response to the recent protests has been limited to community conversations about race and racism, in addition to Mandel’s statement. Several open Zoom discussions on racism and racial violence, hosted by Haynes and featuring guest speakers, were advertised last week in Daily Messages. 

Meanwhile, the Davis Center has released a statement addressing ongoing protests across the country as well as the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others. A new page on the Davis Center website was posted along with the statement, listing resources on activism, information on legal rights, law enforcement and protests, literature and media related to the history of race and racism, and a page on self-care and mental health resources.

Response to BLM at Amherst

Following conversations initiated by Amherst junior Jeremy Thomas, former chair and current campus and alumni liaison for the college’s BSU, Amherst President Biddy Martin announced last Wednesday that her office, in partnership with the BSU, would match individual donations of up to $250 to three organizations: the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Negro College Fund and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center. The campaign, known as Amherst Acts, will continue through June 9, and is accepting donations from students, faculty and staff at the college.

Thomas noted that Martin initially expressed reservations about some of the organizations he proposed as recipients for donations, but said Martin was “otherwise nothing but supportive of the idea,” especially regarding organizations related to education.

“Our source of disagreement centered around the [idea] that some of the organizations we initially proposed were ‘too political,’” Thomas said in an email to the Record. “I voiced the fact that there is a difference between the political and the politicized. If someone deems my life (as a Black man, if that wasn’t already clear) to be a political matter, we have a much larger problem at hand.”

In addition to the Amherst Acts campaign, Martin announced plans for various student-facing initiatives and events, including support sessions and anti-racism workshops, which will take place in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, Amherst Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein has committed to supporting new interdisciplinary courses at Amherst on race and racism in the U.S., as well as compiling a catalog of current offerings on those topics and launching a speaker series next year featuring prominent historians of race and racism in America.

Thomas said he views the college’s response as a step in the right direction, but said he regrets that it took nationwide protests against racism and police brutality before the college, and the country more broadly, began to commit to taking actionable steps to fight white supremacy. “The problem, as I have said many times before, is that the college operates on a reactionary basis—much in the same way the country does,” he said. “They are both institutions. They wait for a crisis to occur and try to triage it.”

Such an approach, Thomas said, is better than nothing, but has come far too late. “These moments prove nothing other than that the changes Amherst has chosen to make now could have been taken at any time,” he said. “It is disappointing that in order to see necessary change, institutions like Amherst require someone to be harmed first. It is violent, and doubly so because it is unnecessary. More change remains necessary.”

In recent months, Amherst has seen the emergence of the #IntegrateAmherst movement following a racist incident on March 7 in which three members of the men’s lacrosse team chanted the N-word outside their Black teammate’s suite. In the wake of the incident, the BSU demanded that Amherst “revise, amend, and reimagine the Statement of Freedom of Expression and Dissent to improve upon its address of hate speech and speech that incites violence”; create “a Bias/Discrimination-Related Reporting and Response Protocol”; implement “anti-racism training” for faculty, staff and students and “redress the harm caused by the three seniors of the Amherst Men’s Lacrosse Team to the wider community of students of color.” 

According to an update from the BSU on April 20, Martin agreed to most of their demands, but persisted in enforcing disciplinary consequences for the victim of the racist incident, who punched one of the teammates chanting the N-word.

Martin’s statement on Wednesday noted several steps currently being taken as part of the ongoing response to the BSU’s demands: Amherst is “accelerating work on the creation of a bias reporting protocol”; making “changes in the Code of Conduct that will spell out policy and forms of accountability for race-based harassment and the use of racial epithets against students of color” and “Epstein and the Committee of Six are organizing discussions between students and faculty about the relationship between ‘respect for persons’ and ‘freedom of expression.’”

Thomas emphasized that actions from the administration that have a direct impact on Black students’ experiences are necessary in addition to steps the College is taking to fight racism in the U.S. “As it relates to Amherst Acts, while such donations are important for the organizations they are going toward and symbolically to Black students at Amherst, they also don’t do anything to improve the quotidian for Black students at Amherst,” he said. “They are necessary commitments, but not sufficient.”

We are committed to reporting more on the College’s response to the BLM movement with equity, justice and fairness. If you have further information or thoughts on the coverage, or would like to publish your own viewpoints, please contact [email protected]

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more accurately state when Mandel and Haynes will make an announcement. A previous version incorrectly stated that they would release a statement on Monday, June 8.