Race, Privilege, and Furman

By: Sean Butler, CLASS OF 2015

This academic year, my last at Furman, has seen our country, our generation, and our campus touched by the questions and issues of race. Nationally, we have seen the juxtaposition of Ferguson, Eric Garner, “Hands up” and “I can’t breathe” with the images of George W Bush, Barack Obama, and John Lewis – Civil Rights leader turned Atlanta congressman – walking hand and hand across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the violent voting rights turning point 50 years hence.

At Furman, we have seen the tendrils of a new wave of activism and engagement reach our campus, with students organizing in response to national events and the dismissal of several professors of multicultural backgrounds. We have also seen a year-long discussion surrounding our own half-century milestone: the integration of our campus.

We should be grateful to attend Furman at a time when the opportunity to enroll is available to all. We should also, however, have the understanding that all is not well on this campus. Furman is blighted by an abject lack of diversity, both amongst our faculty and our student body.

And yet, what am I to do? I am, after all, the epitome of “white privilege,” a term that I understand has become weaponized on leftist campuses writ at large. However, white privilege is very real, and I can attest to its existence in my personal experience. I attended an overwhelmingly white, top-tier public school in Connecticut, a state with diversity issues of its own. I had a safe, comfortable, middle class upbringing. My parents were around, and were able to nurture me and facilitate an education the benefits of which I continue to reap. At Furman, this is a fairly normal story – save perhaps, for the Connecticut bit. That said, to suggest that this story is devoid of examples of a certain type of exclusionary privilege overwhelmingly offered to white, middle and upper class men, is to deny reality outside of our gates.

Today at Furman, 50 years removed from the blight of segregation, we suffer a debilitating lack of diversity. And, when I say diversity, I am not only referring to a black-white binary. Diversity of economic status, geography, religious belief, race, country of origin – Furman suffers chronic deficiencies in all these areas. A new course is needed, for if Furman is to continue under “business as usual,” it risks the future health of the institution and the liberal arts principles it proclaims to be governed by. Change is required; we must adapt to our ever-changing social and educational surroundings or risk falling into the maw of obscurity.

The problems of race and privilege in our nation and our campus are evident. The tenable solutions, however, are unclear. That said, it is not the spirit of the liberal arts of liberal democracy to shrink in the face of adversity. On our campus, a radical rethinking of admissions and financial aid policy is required. There is no way around addressing the vicious circle of exclusion faced by economically disadvantaged and minority college applicants – especially at Furman, a campus that received overwhelmingly poor marks in our diversity. Financial aid should be a redistributive tool, aimed at providing opportunity to those who would not have it otherwise. Recruitment and admissions should intentionally seek out students of backgrounds not otherwise represented on campus, and intentionally provide a welcoming and tolerant atmosphere for such students in the application process and on campus. Nationally, the same voting rights battle fought in Selma is being fought again, with restrictive voting laws passed in dozens of states, including South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. As we have seen in Ferguson, Staten Island, and now North Charleston, our policing system needs a renewed focus on equal protection and accountability. And, as the United States continues to jail more citizens than any other developed nation on the planet, a majority of whom are African American, criminal justice reform and the war on drugs need to be overhauled to end mass-incarceration. In both cases, such changes could facilitate a society that is more equitable and inclusive.

But, how can we achieve change? At Furman, we, the student body, are culpable, not for the situation we find ourselves in, but for the way we approach this broken system of admissions and recruitment that has persisted at Furman for decades. At the same time, we must approach our national and global community with a newfound empathy and an understanding that though battles have been won, much is still demanded of us to fix the systemic inequalities that divide our country along racial lines today, fifty years beyond the great triumph of King and others.

A new wave of activism and engagement is needed at all levels of the social order. Politicians and college presidents alike need to understand that the status quo, as it stands, is immoral and unsustainable. We are the change we need, and the only way that we will ever ameliorate the abject inequalities in our country and our campus is to say truth to power and come to terms with the privilege that most of us have benefited from disproportionately our entire lives.

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