Ole Miss does symbolism well

Statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Photo by Adam Jones.

On Tuesday, October 20, Ole Miss student senators voted to ask the campus administration to remove the current Mississippi state flag, which features the Confederate battle flag, from campus. While the vote may seem shocking, in the current climate at the university, it should have been expected. This type of symbolic progress has become almost routine as the University of Mississippi attempts to shed its national reputation as a bastion of racial hatred and intolerance.

In the decade since I set foot on the campus as a freshman in 2006, the university has erected a James Meredith statue, banned the school band from playing “From Dixie With Love” at football games, replaced the on-field mascot Colonel Reb, and elected its first Black homecoming queen. Since the Mother Emanuel shooting in June sparked fervor for removing the Confederate flag in other states, removing the Mississippi state flag from campus was simply the logical next step. Even so, it has been almost universally praised as a sign of racial progress for the institution. We’ve learned to do symbolism very well at Ole Miss.

Ole Miss is fighting a constant war against the image of its own history. It will always be the place that rioted to prevent its first Black student from enrolling in 1962 and the place where the head football coach in the late 1990s publicly admitted that the university’s reputation was hurting his ability to recruit Black players. Fighting this war requires combatting those overwhelmingly negative racial images with splashily positive images that make the national news—Meredith statues, Black homecoming queens, and resolutions about the state flag.

Alan Coon, one of the students who spearheaded the initiative against the state flag, told CNN, “We are forever tied to the horrors of our past.” Coon is right. But the horrors of our past are more than just embedded in symbols like the flag or Dixie or Colonel Reb. This shiny veneer of supposed racial progress hides a pernicious racial inequality working just out of view of most onlookers.

Despite eliminating a few of the prominent symbols linking the university to its Old South history, Ole Miss still fails to provide opportunities to Black people. In a state that is almost 40 percent Black—the largest proportion in the country—only about 15 percent of the student body is Black and only about 49 percent of Black students graduate from Ole Miss. Not only has the school been unable or at least lacked the desire to recruit Black students, but it has failed to see them through their time on campus.

The plight of Black faculty members is even worse. Only 46 of the 823 full-time faculty are Black—six percent. There are no Black faculty in the accountancy school, only one in the business school, only one in the school of engineering, and only 4 of 140—a miserable, pitiful three percent—Black faculty in STEM fields in total. Moreover, there are no Black deans anywhere in the university.

If achieving equality is the goal, then Ole Miss must go much farther than its previous efforts. It is not just about opening the doors to Black students. It is recognizing that many Black students, particularly those from the state’s inadequate school system, face unique challenges in college. It is not simply accepting faculty applications from people of color. It is actively recruiting them and creating a hospitable environment for them that allows them to do their jobs well and earn tenure.

Progress is not a word to throw around lightly to deflect accusations of ongoing racism. Progress is difficult. Symbolism is easy. It only requires a small amount of emotional labor and weathering a short storm of backlash. No one really loses when the university erects a statue or bans a song or even removes the state flag.

It is easy for a White student to give an impassioned speech about the importance of not flying the Confederate flag on campus—regardless of whether that Old South symbol marks the university, the status quo remains the same. After the votes have been cast and the administration has been notified and the flag poles have been left bare, Black students are still struggling in classrooms devoid of Black professors; White deans still retreat to their homes secure in their high paying, high status jobs. That is the real horror of our past, an institution where White people all but monopolize positions of power while making periodic symbolic concessions to a starved Black population.

If the university is to ever see any real change, White students and employees must be willing to give that same impassioned speech about the redistribution of power—about hiring more Black faculty and administrators and recruiting more Black students—that they gave about the flag, knowing that that means White students and faculty will lose out on the privileges that afforded them a disproportionate number of opportunities.

Replacing opportunities for White people with opportunities for Black people is the dirty underside of “progress” that institutions like the University of Mississippi desperately, and often successfully, try to ignore by boiling the legacies of a violent history down to easily removable symbols. That’s why it has worked so hard to become so good at big, symbolic gestures.

Good symbolism means that the university doesn’t really have to grapple with the idea that its horrible history is still remembered in its choices for Chancellor, its faculty promotion process, and its Black graduation rate. But the fact is that the campus will be little more hospitable for Black faculty and students the day after all of the flags are taken down than the day before the vote. We must stop confusing what Ole Miss does very well—symbolism—with what it is actively trying to avoid—progress.

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Robert L. Reece

Robert L. Reece is a sociology PhD candidate at Duke University where he studies how slavery shapes contemporary racial inequality in the American South. He puts his sociological training to use with Scalawag on the editorial team and the business team.