The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday October 15th

Editorial: UNC is not as progressive as it prides itself on being

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated when Charlie Scott played basketball at UNC. Scott graduated in 1970 and did not play for UNC in 1979. The story has been updated with the correct information. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

Last week, after the controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ignited conversations about blackface, a photo emerged from a 1979 UNC yearbook of members of Chi Phi fraternity in blackface. Two members of the fraternity were dressed in KKK robes and held a noose around another in blackface. 

This was not an isolated incident. The spread of fraternity members at this party shows even more donning blackface. This wasn’t an isolated incident for the year 1979, either. Reporters from The Daily Tar Heel have looked through the archives of yearbooks, and blackface makes its unfortunate appearance many, many times throughout the 20th century. (You can look for it yourself here).

Responding to a tweet sharing the photo, UNC’s official Twitter account condemned the actions and stated “racism has no place on our campus.”

That tweet is, for lack of a better word, B.S. Nine years before this picture was taken, a Black man named James Lewis Cates was stabbed to death by white supremacists in the middle of the Pit. Thirty-six years after the picture, three Muslim students were shot execution-style in their apartment by a man who professed he held anti-Muslim views. Prejudice has been, and continues to be, a part of this campus. 

A statue dedicated to white supremacy stood at the forefront of our campus until this year, and only came down because student activists forcibly pulled it. About 30 buildings on UNC’s campus are named after racists. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that racism has no place on UNC’s campus when the administration has made and protected public monuments to its staunchest defenders. 

Both UNC’s administration and students should take off the rose-colored glasses with which we view ourselves and work on coming to honest terms with who we are and who we have been. UNC is not a progressive paradise, and pretending it is doesn’t undo decades of racism or change the ongoing experiences of discrimination that minority groups continue to have on our campus. We have become fixated on an idealized perception of ourselves while neglecting to make the difficult decisions that would actually help us realize our ideals. 

So instead of reconciling with our flaws and finding a path forward, we are continuously blindsided by explosions of suppressed discontents or dredged up remnants of racism. Every time the administration is “shocked” or “saddened” and condemns the incident, continuing the farce that it was an incident and not the symptom of a heavily institutionalized disease.  

We shouldn’t lay the emotional labor on students of color to remind us that UNC is, in fact, racist. We all need to address this, and analyze the school’s tainted past ourselves. The administration certainly needs to. 

1979 was not a long time ago. It was only 40 years ago, to be exact. We cannot write these images off as a relic of the past, or pretend as if they don’t exist. UNC cannot call itself a forward-thinking, progressive University when these overt signs of white supremacy and celebrations of slavery were considered memorable enough to be in the yearbook.

Dean Smith was UNC’s basketball coach in 1979. Just three years later, the basketball team under his leadership won the National Championship, with Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins on the squad.

UNC commemorates this part of its history. It needs to remember that darker part of it, too.

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