Black While at Liberty University

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from Slate, June 16, 2020.

By Ruth Graham

A member of the administrative staff thought it would be “the simplest of actions” for his department at Liberty University, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, to post on social media in response to the ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality. But in this case, the staffer encountered nothing but delays and confusion from colleagues when he tried to get approval for a post. According to him, his boss—the office’s director, who is also black—said a post was unnecessary. The topic arose at a larger meeting, still with no action. On June 1, the staffer finally went ahead and posted to the office’s account: a simple image reading “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and a caption citing six Bible verses related to the slogan. Within an hour, another administrator had removed the post.

The staffer had worked at Liberty since graduation in 2015, resigning in early June, an act described as the culmination of accumulated years of frustration at a school he loved. He recalled feeling sick acting as a chaperone to a mostly white student group at a “Blexit” event that a black conservative activist held in Richmond last year—a rally intended to convince black voters to leave the Democratic Party.

Liberty had promoted the outing as a “cultural excursion.” Backstage after the event, watching the conservative activist surrounded by adoring white people, “it felt like I was in a horror movie. I cannot encourage students of color to go to that university the way that it is,” the staffer commented. “Our students deserve better. Our faculty deserve better. Our staff deserves better.” 

The resignation by the staffer came just days after Liberty University president Jerry Falwell ignited widespread outrage by tweeting an image of a face mask decorated with the infamous racist photo from the 1984 medical school yearbook of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. (The photo depicts one white student in blackface and another in a KKK robe at a costume party; Northam initially confessed he was one of the men in the photo, and later recanted.) Falwell  has clashed frequently with Northam, a Democrat, over issues including a recent statewide mask mandate. “If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it!” Falwell Jr. wrote in his tweet.

An associate director in the Office of Spiritual Development announced his resignation “with a heavy, frustrated, yet peaceful heart” on June 5…. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “I cannot submit myself under [Falwell Jr.’s] leadership at this current time as a black employee of the university…. I suppressed so much of my humanity as a black and queer man in being here,” he wrote to me. He remembered being called an “Oreo” to his face, being introduced as “the black friend,” and being asked during Black History Month why there’s no White History Month.” He concluded, “until the university recognizes their past history with racism, apologizes for it, and enacts significant policy implementation from the board level, I do not foresee any changes for students or staff.”

But Falwell’s apology has not quieted the growing chorus of black employees and alumni calling for deeper changes at one of the country’s largest evangelical colleges. An associate director in the Office of Spiritual Development announced his resignation “with a heavy, frustrated, yet peaceful heart” on June 5. His responsibilities included greeting guests at the Montview Mansion, a guesthouse on campus. He said he had an “internal crisis” after Falwell’s mask tweet that came to a head when he was instructed to meet Falwell  himself along with some visitors at the mansion. “I couldn’t go to the house,” he told a Slate reporter by email. “It was at that moment that I went to my office, and realized that it was time for me to step down.” He graduated from Liberty in 2010 and had worked there full time since 2012.

An online admissions counselor resigned June 8. “I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture,” he tweeted. “It is a poor reflection of what Jesus Christ requires of us.”
At least two other black employees at Liberty have resigned publicly since Falwell tweeted the racist image. An online admissions counselor, resigned June 8, tweeting “I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture. It is a poor reflection of what Jesus Christ requires of us.” 

There are indications that the turmoil may affect Liberty’s ability to recruit and retain minority students, too. A star basketball player, a sophomore, announced on Thursday that she is planning to transfer out of the school. “Due to the racial insensitivities shown within the leadership and culture, it simply does not align with my moral compass or personal convictions,” she said in a video posted to Twitter. “Therefore, I had to do what I felt was best within my heart and stand up for what is right.” A source with connections to the Liberty athletic community told Slate that several high school football players in Georgia declined scholarships to Liberty in early June because of Falwell’s racial insensitivity.

Liberty’s black residential student population dropped from 10 percent in 2007 to just 4 percent in 2018.

Brown-skinned people abound in Liberty’s marketing materials. But the student body, not to mention the population of professors and senior leadership, is overwhelmingly white. Of the 29 people listed on Liberty’s website as executive or senior leaders, only one is black. The school’s internal count recorded a drop in the black residential student population from 10 percent in 2007 to just 4 percent in 2018. Falwell prefers to emphasize the demographics of the school’s larger online program, where 27 percent of students are black.

There have been other signs of outspoken dissent in recent weeks. A group of 35 black alumni, including pastors and former student athletes, issued an open letter on June 1 calling for Falwell to resign. A professor of strategic and personal communication, who is black, wrote a public blog post the next day lamenting what she described as Liberty “condoning racism, fear, and hate-mongering coming with biblical justification”:

It was naive of me to think that my presence in an institution that historically contested my mere existence would ever change. Why did I take this job in the first place? Listening for and answering to a God of liberation and social justice sent me on a mission in a war zone. How can I continue to work at such an institution where the leader thinks it is OK to promote racism, hate, and fear? How can I continue to lend my expertise, credibility, and professional reputation to a university that will never see me—I am invisible, I am a commodity, I am expendable.

Open racial dissent—or dissent of any kind—has been rare over the course of Liberty’s 49-year history. In the fall of 2018, some students protested what was described as a racist school culture, after twin students dressed up for Halloween as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer and a man in a sombrero.

 

VoxFairfax Commentary: We hope for a breath of light at Liberty but fully appreciate the hold exercised by the Falwells. We are surprised that a university devoted to religion and educating religious graduates cultivates a racially demeaning environment. The racial gap at Liberty University is reflected in a recent Pew Research report showing that 59% of white evangelicals strongly support the incumbent president. Only 7% of  black Protestants support him.

UPDATE, Lynchburg News & Advance, June 25, 2020:

Former Liberty University Official Raises More Than $18,500 to Help Black Employees Leave the School

The former director of diversity retention at Liberty University has raised more than $18,500 to help black employees leave their jobs at the religious institution now embroiled in controversy. He hopes to use the funds to help at least 15 former employees stay afloat as they search for new work. His ultimate goal is to raise $30,000.

[Full article: https://godanriver.com/news/state-and-regional/former-liberty-university-official-raises-more-than-17-000-to-help-black-employees-leave-the/article_387c4988-c094-514b-9604-cad341b5f9a2.html.%5D

 

 



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