University of Texas’ campus carry law presents unique threat to black students
Critics say allowing weapons in classrooms can have dangerous effects — particularly for student-athletes
The fall semester is in full swing, with students descending upon their campuses for yet another year of parties, football, parties, and an occasional class. As many in the nation increasingly turn their attention to college football, rankings, and the annual debate as to whether student-athletes will ever be rightly compensated for their labor, all as break from the presidential election, Texas students have returned to their campuses with a new culture war on their home front.
Last year, Texas joined seven other states that allow students who are over the age of 21 and in possession of a concealed handgun permit to bring their guns into the classroom along with the pee chee folder. Backpacks are no longer filled with books, pens, and cellphones but potentially guns.
In a society where mass shootings have become the norm, where accidental shootings and suicides are significant problems, where college students are paying to party, where partisanship, nationalism, xenophobia, and racism are bubbling to the surface in our Trumpian moment, many feared that adding guns into the collegiate mix had the potential for catastrophic consequences.
No matter the side one stands, it is safe to say we all agree that the presence of guns changes the culture, communities, and those holding these deadly weapons. Speaking about how being in possession of a gun changed him, Marcellus Wiley spoke not only about the dangers of guns but also how it affected his psyche. “Now I’m looking at things with a negative lens and the outcome could be violence,” noted the former NFL player turned commentator during The Undefeated’s Conversation on Athletes, Responsibility, and Violence. “Whereas the outcome before could have been peacefully trying to find these resolutions. That gun invited me to that disaster, that drama.”
It is no wonder that several University of Texas faculty members sued in effort to overturn the law. While unsuccessful, the lawsuit alleged that the new law was a threat to free exchange – academic freedom – which is essential to both the classroom learning and academic research: “Compelling professors at a public university to allow, without any limitation or restriction, students to carry concealed guns in their classrooms chills their First Amendment rights to academic freedom.” It is hard to have productive conversations when everyone doesn’t feel safe and empowered. Being strapped with a gun rather than knowledge challenges efforts to create a dynamic learning environment.
Students have also expressed their opposition, organizing a sex toys protest. Responding to “absurdity with absurdity,” participants chanted, held signs, marched, and carried sex toys (which were illegal as of 2008) as protest against the intrusion of dangerous weapons.
Last week, as students, faculty and staff took to streets in protest, Harry Edwards, scholar, writer and organizer, announced that he was severing ties with the University of Texas because of the statewide law (you can read the letter here). In 2014, Edwards, who has been the foremost expert on the study of sports for over five decades, partnered with the University of Texas-Austin to create “The Dr. Harry Edwards Lectures on Sport and Society … with the promise of illuminating the role and impact of developments at the interface of sport and society in modern life.” In a month that saw the 2016 Summer Olympics, rightful critiques of media’s overage of women athletes at the games in Rio de Janeiro, swimmer Ryan Lochte, Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racism, and so much more, the importance of empowering the next generation to discuss sports and society should be clear.
Concerned about the implications and the consequences of arming those on campus, Edwards announced, “I must rescind all association and affiliation with the lecture forum named in my honor.” Noting the difficulty of his decision, his action was compelled by the potential catastrophes. “Silence is evil’s greatest and most consistently dependable ally.”
For Edwards, while certainly undermining the core educational value and threatening the principal purpose of the lecture series, the acceptance of guns on campus and in the classrooms was particularly threatening to certain conversations, types of research, classes, and members of the community.
Faculty members at University of Houston were advised to “be careful discussing sensitive topics” and “drop certain topics from your curriculum.” Those addressing key issues of the moment – racism, immigration, sexism, choice, rape culture, and climate change – are particularly challenged by this legislative change.
“Concealed weapons in the classroom have the potential for curtailing conversations about what many deem controversial topics such as race, sexuality, gender,” noted Lisa Thompson, professor at the University of Texas. “Examining racism, sexism and homophobia often makes for heated discussions. Adding firearms to that mix has the potential to turn such conversations deadly.”
Thompson is not alone with these concerns. Letisha Brown, a graduate student, fears how the law will impact her ability to teach, already challenging given the themes in her courses, and the ways that race and gender shape student reactions.
“I already feel impacted as a black female TA who in the past has been accused of ‘pushing an agenda’ any time I talk about race and/or gender before the campus carry policy was in place. Will I be safe in my classroom? Will I be safe during office hours? I am frightened to speak my mind, to talk about my research in this environment and campus climate.” Along with the backlash directed at “trigger warnings,” safe spaces, efforts to address microaggressions, and the field of ethnic studies, this law is yet another assault on the already precarious educational environment for students of color.
Edwards, while lamenting the law’s “chilling effect upon both scholarship and activism,” concludes that law is particularly threatening to African-American students.
“Of course campus carry laws constitute a particularly grievous threat to black athletes – if for no other reason than lessons from both the Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin cases. One, Mike Brown, was described as a ‘hulking black man and a threat to my life’ by Officer Wilson as justification to his use of lethal force. The other, Trayvon Martin, posed a palpable threat and first fell under suspicion, according to Zimmerman, because he was a black man in a hoodie,” noted Edwards.
In a society where the sight of a black man, much less one carrying a weapon, strikes fear, where stop-and-frisk and racial profiling anchor modern policing, where blacks are suspects first, problems second, and statistics last (all issues which were addressed at The Undefeated’s town hall meeting), the new law must be understood within the racial landscape that defines American life on and off campus.
For Simone Browne, the realities of racism make such laws particularly threatening to African-American students.“I asked my students about this last year. Two men, both black, were licensed carries, and their concern was if something were to go down, like an active shooter situation, given the way that black people are handled by the police, that they would be in danger of being shot and killed, rather that being thought of as ‘good guys with guns.’ ”
Given that a sizable percentage of the tiny University of Texas black student population is student-athletes, it is crucial to think about how this law will directly impact black student-athletes. Already seen as “suspects,” already burdened with stereotypes of criminality as well as hypervisibility that come with being high-profile members of overwhelmingly white campuses, do black students in general and black student-athletes even have the ability to exercise this new right? Or will it merely produce a climate of increased fear and racial profiling? And what does it mean that black athletes, who in exchange for their athletic labor are compensated with an education and a college experience, now face a very different landscape?
“Black male athletes, in particular, have long been rendered suspect, associated with immorality and crime, on their campuses,” noted Theresa Runstedtler, a professor at American University. “A campus carry law could make them into targets.”
For Runstedtler and Edwards, the law continues a long-standing tradition of policing black athletic bodies on college campuses. “What is more common among young black men on Division I conferences such as University of Texas than ‘hulking’ black football and basketball players wearing athletic department gear – including hoodies and sweatpants.”
Given entrenched stereotypes, implicit bias, and the role the sports media plays in perpetuating these belief systems, the prospect of guns on campus represents a unique threat to the black athlete.
“And to this mix of ‘superpredator stereotype,’ you now add the utterly plausible claim under campus concealed carry, ‘I thought he was reaching for a gun,’ where, at least in some cases, the black athlete victim of such a shooting would indeed be found to be carrying a gun,” argued Edwards. “This is a deadly concoction of stereotypes, issues, and circumstances that almost certainly end in tragedy – this time not in the community but on the campus. I am not sure that any football and basketball recruiting programs can survive a black athlete shot to death on campus.”
In a nation that continues to be plagued by shootings and racism, these haunting predictions from Edwards should give us pause. It is not just collegiate programs that cannot survive a shooting; the entire nation cannot handle any more shootings, much more violence. Universities should be leading, creating solutions to lessen violence. They have a responsibility to create an empowering and safe experience for all students, not training the next generation to conceal and carry in their holstered backpack, furthering the arms race and our collective race to the bottom.